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Collection Meeting of Frontiers

Agriculture in the West

This essay was published in 2000 as part of the original Meeting of Frontiers website.

The treeless, semiarid lands that travelers encountered as they ventured west from the Mississippi River did not, at first, seem particularly inviting. Grasslands, semiarid mountains, and desert did not seem the stuff of bountiful farms and bustling settlements. Indeed, the trans-Mississippi West was called the "great American desert" and many envisioned it as a barren land fit only for wandering buffalo and Indians.

For Texas Longhorn cattle, though, the lands were ideal, and as the railroads penetrated west, the enormous midwestern and eastern markets for beef became accessible. Ranchers drove the cattle north to the incipient cattle towns such as Abilene, Kansas, where, beginning in 1867, they were loaded onto railroad cars and shipped east. By the 1880s, the free grass of the open range, improved breeds of cattle, refrigerated railroad cars, and modernized slaughterhouses helped create a vast cattle industry that dotted the Great Plains with ranches and towns.

Raising crops on these lands, however, proved to be much more difficult. Thanks to the Homestead Act of 1862, vast lands of the semiarid Great Plains and arid Southwest had been made available by the government, but the rains were scanty and unpredictable. Settlement pushed on and farmers learned to use more drought-resistant crops, irrigation, and water-conservation techniques. During the 1870s and 1880s farmers occupied large areas of the West in the Great Plains, Oregon, Washington, California, and the Rocky Mountain region. A succession of droughts could devastate farms--as the Dust Bowl years would make painfully clear--but the farmers had staked their claim. They, more than anyone else, closed the frontiers of the West.