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Farming, Ranching, and Mining During the Westward Movement

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012

Farming

So many farmers moving to the same geographical area in such a short time brought its own problems. The Great Plains had abundant grassy land, perfect for cattle to graze on or for the cultivation of grain, but lacking in water and timber. Without a reliable water supply, farmers could not irrigate their crops; without timber, they could not build houses or barns. In 1862, the government created the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help settlers address these problems.

Two notable American writers captured the westward migration and farming on the Great Plains in great detail: Willa Cather and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Cather traveled from Virginia to Nebraska with her family in 1873. She wrote several classic novels of immigrant pioneers on the Great Plains. Her best- known novel, My Ántonia (1927), tells the story of a Bohemian (Czech) family adjusting to life on the Great Plains. Wilder was born in Wisconsin. As a child, she traveled in a covered wagon to Indian Territory in Oklahoma, to Minnesota, and finally to the Dakota Territory, where her family settled for good. She recounted the story of her childhood and girlhood in a famous series of books called the “Little House” stories. By the Shores of Silver Lake, Little Town on the Prairie, and the rest of the series constitute a valuable history of the migrant pioneer experience in the 1870s and 1880s.

Ranching

The cowboy is a popular figure of American myth, but he is not fictional: he really existed. His most important job was to herd ranch cattle to the railroads.

The first Spaniards who came to the New World saw immediately that the Southwest was an ideal place to raise the cattle that they had brought with them. Three hundred years later, Texans were still raising cattle. The industry spread across the Great Plains as the buffalo population dwindled and died out. Ranchers also raised sheep, but this brought on fierce clashes between sheep ranchers and cattle ranchers; each believed that the other’s livestock was taking more than its fair share of the available grass. As ranching spread westward and northward, the government determined that ranchers could allow their cattle to graze freely on the open range. Water was scarce in the Southwest, and every successful rancher owned property near a water source.

During the years of the great cattle boom after the Civil War, cowboys were a mixed group of freedmen, Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and Civil War veterans—black as well as white. These men led harsh outdoor lives and earned little money. The first step in herding the cattle to the railroad was the roundup; the cattle had to be gathered from the open range and identified as a particular rancher’s property by the brand (an initial or symbol burned into the animal’s flesh). The cowboys then drove thousands of cattle over hundreds of miles, usually to railroad depots in Kansas. Besides being outdoors in all types of weather throughout the long drive, cowboys had to watch for stampedes and prevent the animals from straying from the herd. They had to cope with obstacles like unexpected storms and flooded rivers. Once they got the cattle to the depot, the cowboys would be paid for their hard work—and would usually spend their wages immediately, drinking and gambling in the towns.

All cowboys were male, but women worked as hard on the ranch as men did. They had to take care of their own families and also all hands on the ranch. Women made and mended all the clothing, cooked the food, raised the children, and doctored the sick. A woman rancher could also fire a gun, fix anything that got broken, use a branding iron, and herd cattle or sheep to pasture.

A combination of factors ended the cattle boom around 1890. First, ranchers had been so successful that the supply of cattle was starting to exceed the demand, which meant that prices for beef were falling. Second, the invention of barbed wire allowed ranchers to fence off their lands so that others could not have access to the water or grass on their property. This drove many small ranchers and farmers out of business. Third, seven straight months of extremely severe blizzards in 1886–1887 (described by Laura Ingalls Wilder in The Long Winter) killed up to 90 percent of the herds. Many ranchers survived by expanding their sheep herds. The era of the cowboy was effectively over.

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