To encourage the settling and farming of the West, the government has the greatest land giveaway in history, The 1862 Homestead Act. Anyone with a $10 filing fee can claim free land. A quarter are single women and ex slaves.
The promise of America was land. These are people who never in a million years would have ever owned land in Europe. Henry Louis Gates, Jr, Harvard University
Eventually, 10% of America will be given away under the Homestead Act. Unfortunately, land speculators simply pay agents to pose as farmers, land grab, and then sell on to genuine farmers at inflated prices. Some farmers are so poor, that in an area without trees, they can't afford timber and they live in self made mud homes or sod houses.
The 1860 census classifies five out of every six Americans as rural dwellers. By the First World War, this changes dramatically. In the fields, machines are reducing the need for labour. Before the Civil War, it takes 61 hours of labour to produce an acre of wheat. By 1900, it takes just three. A bushel of wheat that took three hours to produce, by 1900, takes ten minutes. But machines cost money and after the railroad is paid for transportation and the merchant middleman for distribution, many farmers can't afford the land they work, and become tenants, or worse, labourers. And if the money men don't take you, it seems the wilderness would. Baking summer heat creates prairie fires. And with no mountains to stop the winds, the great plains generate massive thunderstorms and 320km winds that can rip a man up and dump him a kilometre away. Then in 1874, a plague of three trillion locusts devours half the crops in the West.
When farmers finally catch a break in 1886 with laws passed to stop their exploitation by the rail-roads (it costs more to transport West to East than vice versa) the Supreme Court rules against them. 1887 sees the start ten years of droughts and then President Cleveland vetoes giving $100,000 to help affected farmers saying;
Federal aid in such cases...weakens the sturdiness of our national character.
The Farmers Alliance attempts to represent a group that every other political and economic interest exploits. It does everything from lobby Congress to teaching better husbandry and demanding the injection of more dollars or 'greenbacks' into the economy (See DID YOU KNOW). And it forms the centre of the Populist Movement, or People's Party.
The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few...From the same prolific womb of government injustice we breed the two great classes-tramps and millionaires. Ignatius Donnelly, Populist Party, 1892
The natural party of the South, the Democrats, soon amalgamate this movement. So it's this period of reconstruction, and robber barons, where Southern farmers go poor and Northern industrialists become rich which explains how the political parties we know today appear to have no connection to their own histories. The Democrats change from a party representing the rich slave-owning Southern plantation into one that champions the ordinary American, be they farmer or worker. The Republicans, the party that freed the slaves, now represents the business interests of those who want to be free of government regulation.
The Democrats lose the 1896 election. And as America enters the twentieth century, the big pull is no longer to the land, but to the cities. But the Great Plains does go onto become the bread basket of America and today 50 million tonnes of wheat is farmed there each year.