Pioneers on the Plains
The History Cat Classroom
The Frontier Farmers
The year is 1870; it has only been forty years since white settlers began crossing “The Great American Desert” on their way to greener pastures in Oregon. At that time most people believed that if trees couldn’t grow where the land wasn’t much good for agriculture. When the first white settlers set eyes on the Great Plains they saw vast oceans of tall, yellow grass, swarms of buffalo, and a scattering of nomadic Indian tribes. They kept on moving.
After the Civil War people began to change their tune about the Great Plains. Especially when the economy tanked after the war. In 1869, an economic depression set in that wouldn’t ease up until 1879. A decade of hardship when farmers and business owners back east were seeing their homes and land repossessed by the banks. Many banks themselves had to close their doors. Times were tough. The toughest moved west in search of cheap land.
In 1862, Abraham Lincoln signs the Homestead Act. This law is meant to help poor farmers get ahead while at the same time bring under control the Indian people who live in the west. The Homestead Act basically gave away 160 acres of free land to anyone who was willing to uproot their lives and move to the Great Plains. Thousands of whites and many black families took up the call, loaded up the wagons or boarded a train, and moved to places like Oklahoma, Colorado, and Nebraska. Anyone hoping to bring the creature comforts of life back east with them to the Great Plains must have been sorely disappointed. The Great Plains was no place for sissies. In the summers you baked in 120°F and in the winter the -30°F temperatures turned your eyelashes into popsicles.
With few trees, settlers had to find a new way to construct their homes. The government said that if you wanted to keep your free land you had to build a home at least 12X10. Some dishonest individuals tried to cheat the government to buy as much land as possible, hold onto it, and resell it at a higher price. One enterprising crook got around the law by building houses on wheels that were moved from one plot of land to the next. Others built homes 12 X 10 inches- big enough for gophers maybe but not humans.
But, most folks came to stay and raise a family. The first thing on their minds once they saw the vast empty plains was creating a place to stay. This was a new experience for them as it would be for us. Since trees were scarce that meant building with wood was out of the question. The other option often came in the most abundant natural resource available– sod. Sod is a clumpy mixture of vegetation and dirt that makes the land so difficult for wimpy plows to break through. However, it makes an excellent building material that keeps the house cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Relatively speaking that is.
Plains farmers–known as sodbusters- got to work carving bricks and stacking them on top one another. A door and a window might give some light but not much. A fireplace was built along the back wall that served as a kitchen and heating unit for the family. In your comfy new soddy, your family of 5-6 people would eat, sleep, cook, sew, entertain, and relax after a hard day of farming. Keeping a soddy clean was impossible. After all, your house was made of dirt. Housewives tried their best but from their diaries, you can tell it was a never-ending battle. Inside was smoky from wood fires or more commonly burning buffalo chips (ahem dung). Insects and mice burrowed through the dirt. Rattlesnakes were everywhere. People often slept with a hoe or a stick nearby to kill any venomous intruders.
If you thought living in a soddy was bad, then wait until you hear about the rest of how Plains farmers spent their days. Farming took up the majority of the family’s time. The sod had to be broken in the spring using a team of six oxen and a heavy plow. The fields had to be weeded. Men and women both worked the field. But women had even more responsibilities. From sun up to sun down there was a long list of chores that kept these people busy. Cows needed milking, wood chopped, water collected, butter churned, clothes washed and sewn, meals prepared, fences mended, tools needed repairing, the list goes on and on. Even drawing water for most folks meant a walk of a few miles to the nearest creek. When you weren’t working on your own farm you were expected to help out at your neighbor's place. After all, they did the same for you. Now you get an idea of why farmers had such big families back in those days.
The worst part about being a farmer on the Great Plains was the intense loneliness. Many pioneers describe in their diary feelings of intense isolation and sadness. Their nearest neighbors often lived a mile or more away. Life could be pretty dull. Children’s toys were often sticks or logs that they gave names to. Often times the biggest social event was helping your neighbor build a barn or women might sew together in something called a quilting bee. Neighbors might get together to play cards or board games but not often enough to keep people from feeling small and alone. Some people couldn’t handle it and headed back east. Others went insane. Most just made the best out of a really tough situation.