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The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Lesson Plans > History of the American West, 1860-1920
[Detail] Where gold was firs [sic] discovered [between 1890 and 1910].

[Detail] Where gold was firs [sic] discovered [between 1890 and 1910].

History of the American West provides users with an opportunity to study western agriculture, mining, and the railroad, as well as their impact on the settlement of the West and the development of U.S. culture. The collection also contains numerous photographs pertaining to Native Americans of the West, and to the wars fought between Native Americans and the U.S. military. Labor unions of the early twentieth century as well as the two World Wars are also represented.


In 1790, the total population of the United States was nearly four million people and farmers made up about 90% of the labor force. A belief in the inherent virtue of rural life and farm labor was a prevalent concept in the new nation. Thomas Jefferson championed the agrarian ideal, stating in his Notes on Virginia in the 1780s that “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God... Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example.”

  • What do you think of Jefferson’s notion of the agrarian ideal? Do you find it realistic? Why or why not?
  • Why do you think so many early Americans worked as farmers?

By 1850, the total population of the U.S. had grown to more than 23 million people, and farmers made up about 64% of the labor force. The farming culture of the original colonies had pushed its way westward to the Great Plains, while Spanish colonists had introduced agriculture into the Southwest as early as the sixteenth century.

The American West provided ample land for raising crops and livestock, but settlers found that the arid climate of this region required new, large-scale farming methods. Subject Index headings beginning with the words Agricultural and Agriculture provide images that show the diversity of crops and livestock raised in the West, including vegetables, wheat, fruits, cattle, and ostriches.

The demands of western farming fueled the swift growth of the farm equipment industry, which, in turn, brought more land under cultivation. Between 1870 and 1900, more land came under cultivation than in the previous 250 years, and the era of the American frontier came to a close. Search on farm, ranch, and irrigation for examples of farming techniques and technology.

  • Why was irrigation vital for agricultural production throughout much of the West?
  • What is meant by “dry farming”?
  • Why did the Navajo use “dry farming” techniques rather than irrigation?
  • What impact does agriculture have on the land?
  • How do farmers and ranchers make sure that they don’t overuse their land?
  • What was the relationship between agriculture and settlement in the United States?


The late 1870s and 80s also saw a boom in the cattle industry, as the gold rush, the railroad, military forts, and Native American reservations all created a demand for beef. Ranchers grazed their cattle on western prairies and hired cowboys to help manage and drive their herds. As the cattle industry grew, many farmers put up fences to keep cattle out of their fields, sometimes resulting in "range wars" over land use.

  • Why would some westerners have resented farmers putting up fences?
  • In what ways did the gold rush and the railroad affect western agriculture?
  • Did western agriculture affect mining and the railroad? If so, how?
  • How would you expect western agriculture to have affected the eastern United States?

The Subject Index headings beginning with Cowboys and a search on cowboys yield numerous photographs, including images of cowboys performing in rodeos and in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Search on cattle for pictures of branding, herding, round-ups, and grazing on the range.

  • What do you think it would have been like to be a cowboy? What was the work like? What was a cowboy’s life like?
  • How are cowboys portrayed in movies? Are these portrayals realistic?
  • Why do you think people went to see cowboys in rodeos and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show? Why do people go today?
  • Why do you think the cowboy became such a popular symbol of the West? What else do you think cowboys might symbolize and why?

Because of the dry climate, western farmers needed to work a great deal of land to make a profit. In 1909, the United States Congress passed the Enlarged Homestead Act, which allowed settlers in the most arid states to claim larger amounts of land. The first two decades of the twentieth century became a golden age of agriculture in which the average gross income of U.S. farms more than doubled and the value of these farms more than tripled.

  • How did western agriculture change over time?
  • How did the growth of western agriculture impact U.S. culture?
  • In 1990, the total U.S. population was more than 246 million and only 2.6% of the labor force were farmers. What factors caused this dramatic change at the end of the twentieth century?
  • What attitudes towards agriculture are reflected in the presence of farms and agricultural schools in prisons?
  • How do contemporary attitudes towards agriculture compare to those of Jefferson and other early Americans? How are these attitudes manifested?