Homesteaders Settle the Plains
(Be sure to look up any words you do not know.)

During the Civil War, Congress passed a law which, in time, encouraged the rapid development of crop farming on the Great Plains. This law, the Homestead Act of 1862, helped to settle the West, but it was a serious blow to the Cattle Kingdom. From Kansas to Montana, a wave of new settlers arrived from the 1860s to 1900. Many moved west because the railroads made travel easier. Others had been encouraged by government policies.

The End of the Open Range


By the end of the 1880s the days of the open range were coming to an end. Ranchers had overstocked the range. As a result, there was a shortage of good grazing land and a surplus of beef, which drove down prices.


Farmers were glad to see the end of the open range. Cattle herds often trampled farmers’ crops. The farmers also feared that the free-roaming herds would infect their dairy cows with a disease called “Texas fever.”


The invention of barbed wire, a relatively cheap method of fencing, allowed farmers and ranchers to close off their land, thus shrinking the amount of open land for cattle grazing.


An advertisement for barbed wire

An illustration showing different types of barbed wire

In the foothills of the Rockies, sheepherders squared off against local cattle ranchers because sheep cropped the grass so close to the roots that cattle could no longer graze. Many range wars broke out between cattle ranchers and sheep ranchers for control of the grasslands.

Two terrible winters in a row added to the decline of the open range. In 1885—86 and in 1886—87 blizzards howled across the Plains.


When spring came in 1887, ranchers discovered that the storms had wiped out a large percentage of their herds. The boom times were over. Cattle ranchers had to fence in their herds and feed them hay in the winter. Thus cattle ranchers became cattle feeders, and the days of the long cattle drives came to an end.


As for the cowboys, many took jobs on the new ranches, accepting the passing of their old way of life. Said one veteran cowboy in 1905, “I tell you, times have changed.”

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Even though the Homestead Act was passed when the nation was at war, people were quick to respond to it. Many people had waited so long for this law that when it was passed some moved west immediately.

The passage of the Homestead Act of 1862 was, in many ways, like going back to the old colonial frontier days. Then the tradition was that any unclaimed public land would go free, or nearly free, to those who settled it. All the settlers would have to do would be to clear and cultivate the land and help to keep down the Indians. Yet, as time went on, Congress needed more and more money to carry on the government, and one way of raising money was through the sale of public land. This, of course, did not stop people from wanting and demanding free land.

For years many people had hoped for the passage of a homestead act, and for years they had tried to convince Congress that the government should dispose of its lands to settlers at little or no cost. However, to secure the passage of such a law there had to be enough representatives in Congress who would vote in favor of it. The Western representatives could not secure a majority because of the sectional differences which divided the nation. No one section could hope to gain enough votes in Congress to pass a law that the people in other sections did not want. As a result, the representatives of the West, who wanted free land, had to find support from representatives of another section of the country if the land legislation they wanted was to be passed by Congress and become law.

Westerners hoped that Southerners would help them, and at first it seemed that they would. However, the South wanted help from the West in return. The South wanted and needed Western support to secure the expansion of slavery into the territories. Because Westerners were not willing to support this move, no settlement was reached. The South, instead of helping the West, did its best to stop the passage of any homestead act.

By 1862 the states in the South had seceded from the Union, and once the South was not represented in Congress it was not difficult for the West to secure enough votes to pass the land law it wanted. The Homestead Act was passed, and President Lincoln signed it on May 20, 1862.

The Homestead Act gave 160 acres of land free to any citizen, or to any person intending to become one. In return, the settler had to live on the land for five years and improve it. 

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A Variety of Settlers


The western settlers were a cross-section of the American people. They included Civil War veterans and their families, as well as the sons and daughters of eastern farmers. There were honest business people and swindlers. Along with them came teachers, merchants, and others who hoped to fill the new settlers’ needs.


Among the settlers were many African Americans, freed from slavery but disappointed with progress in the South. Benamin “Pap” Singleton, from Tennessee, led a migration of African Americans out of the South in the “Exodus of 1879.” They compared themselves to the Jews led out of slavery in Egypt by Moses and called themselves Exodusters.


The Exodusters started farming in Kansas and Nebraska. Some made a success of farming on the Plains. Others settled in growing towns such as Topeka and Kansas City. Unfortunately, African Americans still faced discrimination in their new homes in the West.


Settlers were also lured to the West by American railroad companies. The companies had received land to build railroads. Now they wanted to resell the land at a profit.


To find customers, the railroad companies sent agents to Europe. They advertised for people willing to leave home and cross the ocean to start a new life. Company agents also greeted immigrants arriving at eastern ports with promises of cheap land. Among these immigrants were Germans, Czechs, Ukrainians, Scandinavians, and Russians, eager for the chance to own good land.


Life on the Farming Frontier


The basics of food, fuel, and shelter did not come easily on the Plains. Because lumber was scarce, farmers often built houses with blocks of sod. (Sod is a section of earth held together by grass roots.) Sod houses were warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Yet sod roofs leaked both rain and melting snow. In dry weather, dust or grit coated the furniture, food, and dishes.




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The lack of trees made fuel a problem. Farmers burned corn cobs and hay instead. They often collected and burned “cow chips” (the dried droppings of cows and buffalo). For water, the settlers dug deep wells. When they could afford it, they built windmills to pump the water to the surface.


Collecting "Buffalo Chips" for fuel

A Homesteader family poses by their windmill.


Pioneer families fought a year-round battle against the weather. Blizzards, extreme heat, hailstorms, tornadoes, and drought (a long dry spell) were all part of the harsh Plains climate. At times of drought, people also had to be on guard for fires. Locusts and other grasshoppers destroyed crops. Fleas and bedbugs tormented the settlers. Rattlesnakes sometimes crept into cracks in the sod houses.


The farmers grew mainly cash crops of wheat and corn. New inventions helped them farm more efficiently. The steel plow, invented by John Deere in the 1830s, could cut through the tough Plains sod. Other new farm machines were reapers, threshers, hay mowers, and seed drillers.



Not all the Plains farmers could afford the new machinery. Those who could buy it grew more than they ever had before. From 1860 to 1890 wheat production went from 173 million bushels to 449 million.


Though the population of the Plains grew fast in the late 1800s, farmers and their families led lonely lives. Often the nearest neighbors were miles away.


Women in the West


Life on homesteads was especially hard for women. While men sometimes worked in groups, women rarely saw their neighbors. Settlers were far from good medical care, and childbirth was dangerous. Social gatherings became special occasions. Quilting bees, barn raisings, even livestock butchering brought neighbors together.


Women bore their hardships bravely—and won a great deal of respect. They had more rights than their sisters to the east. Women had equal rights with men in receiving land grants. This was done to encourage as many families as possible to go west, since a husband and wife together could receive 320 acres. According to the Home stead Act, the wife’s half of the property belonged to her, not to her husband. By 1890, a quarter of a million western women ran farms and ranches.


Women could also vote in many areas of the West. Wyoming Territory gave women the vote in 1869, and they served on juries there as well. Esther Morris of South Pass City, Wyoming, became a justice of the peace in 1870.


When Wyoming applied for statehood in 1890, members of Congress objected to Wyoming’s guarantee of women’s suffrage. Yet Wyoming stood firm. “We will remain out of the Union for 100 years rather than come in without the women,” its leaders declared. Congress backed down, and Wyoming—with its women voters— became a state. Just a few months later, the women of Utah Territory gained the vote.


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Closing the Frontier


By 1890 the stream of miners, ranchers, and farmers onto the Plains had greatly swelled the population of the West. Indians had been pushed off their land and onto the very edges of society.


Perhaps the closing of the frontier was best symbolized by the settlement of Oklahoma Territory in 1889. On April 22, at a given signal, thousands rushed into the area to stake out homesteads. By the end of the day, Oklahoma City had been laid out. By the end of the year, Oklahoma had a population of 60,000 people.


In 1890 the Census Bureau said that there was no longer a frontier line. In other words, for the first time since Europeans settlers had come to North America, there was no clear dividing line between the settled and unsettled territories.


The frontier was a promise to all Americans, no matter how poor, that they could advance as far as their abilities allowed. In other words, the frontier meant opportunity. The ideal of the self-reliant westerner remains a powerful part of the American identity.


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