Rural Life in the Late 19th Century
The United States began as a largely rural nation, with most people living on farms or in small towns and villages. While the rural population continued to grow in the late 1800s, the urban population was growing much more rapidly. Still, a majority of Americans lived in rural areas in 1900.
Many of those Americans had settled on the plains in the 1880s. Abundant rainfall in the 1880s and the promise of free land under the Homestead Act drew easterners to the plain. When dry weather returned, the homesteaders' crops failed, sending many of them into debt, farther west, or back to the east or south. Farmers began to organize into groups called Granges and Farmers' Alliances to address the problems faced by farmers. Some farmers tried to launch a new political party, the People's Party (or Populists), running a candidate for president in 1892. Unfortunately, their candidate did not do well, drawing only about 8 percent of the vote.
New machines for use in farming were invented in this period, but horses, oxen, and people still provided most of the power that operated the machinery. While farmers now produced cash crops (crops grown for sale), they were still remarkably self-sufficient, often making or trading for nearly everything required by their own families.
Perhaps it is that self-sufficiency that gives rural life a special place, even today, in the minds of Americans. As you read the documents in this section, try to infer what makes rural and small town life special. Do those qualities still exist in rural and small town America today?
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