Changes in Technology that Helped the Homesteader
(Be sure to look up any words you do not know.)


Read the following excerpts adapted from four United States history textbooks:

The soil of the Plains was rich and fertile. However, early settlers had a hard time breaking through the thick layer of matted sod that covered the soil. The sod would break their wooden or iron plows.

James Oliver of Indiana designed a special "sodbusting" plow that reached the market by 1877. The lightweight plow was made of strong steel. It helped "sodbusters" - as Plains farmers were called - to cut through the sod to the soil below.

Another help was the seed drill, which planted seeds deep in the earth. There, the seeds got the moisture they needed to grow. Farmers used new reapers, threshing machines, and binders to harvest their crops.

On the Plains, water often lay hundreds of feet below the surface. To tap a deep water source, farmers built windmills. Windmills used the strong winds that whipped across the open Plains to pump water to the surface.

-adapted from The American Nation (Prentice Hall: 1995)

New inventions helped farmers meet some of the challenges of living on the treeless plains. A steel plow invented by John Deere in 1838 and improved upon by James Oliver in 1868 sliced through the tough sod of the prairie. Windmills adapted to the plains pumped water from deep wells to the surface. Barbed wire allowed farmers to fence in land and livestock. Reapers made the harvesting of crops much easier, and threshers helped farmers separate grain or seed from straw. These inventions also made farm work more efficient. From 1860 to 1900, farmers doubled their production of wheat.

-adapted from Creating America (McDougal Littell: 2001)

The iron and steel industries gave rise to other inventions that would help settle the west. These inventions helped settlers adapt to an environment that was quite different from what they had known in the East or in Europe. The semiarid (somewhat dry) Great Plains lie west of the ninety-eighth meridian, the line of longitude that runs through the center of the United States. On the Great Plains rainfall averages between 10 and 20 inches a year. For many years, the main vegetation on the Great Plains was buffalo grass, which was short and tough but highly nutritious. Early pioneers did not settle the area. Their plows could not cut through the tough sod, water was scarce, and there was not enough timber for fences.

In the 1860's and 1870's, however, a series of inventions made farming possible in the Great Plains. James Oliver of Indiana invented a steel plow that could slice through and easily turn prairie sod. Joseph Glidden invented barbed wire which could be used to fence cattle in pastures or out of crops. The invention of the water-pumping windmill made if possible to bring water to the surface.

-adapted from America's Story (Houghton Mifflin Company: 1990)

Over much of the Great Plains, less than 20 inches of rain falls each year, usually not enough for wheat and other grains. Farmers put the wind to work by using windmills to pump water from underground streams.

Plains farmers also benefited from other new inventions. In 1838 John Deere of Illinois had developed the steel plow. In 1868 James Oliver patented a plow modified to cut through plans sod. Oliver's plow made it easier for "sodbusters", as plains farmers were called, to plow the plains.

In 1874 Joseph Glidden patented barbed wire. It was advertised as "light as air, stronger than whiskey, and cheaper than dirt." Farmers across the plains fenced off their land to protect it from grazing cattle.

In 1879 John Appleby introduced the twine binder, a reaper that gathered and tied bundles of wheat automatically. An acre of wheat that took 60 hours to reap by hand could be harvested and bundled in 3 hours by machine.

-adapted from Why We Remember (Addison-Wesley Publishing: 1998)



READ More About It!

THE TASK: Use your historical imagination to...

Use information from the reading and videos above to create a page for your journal about the technological developments that made if possible for Americans to farm on the Great Plains.

Your page must include...