Digital History

Closing the Western Frontier

The Farming Frontier Previous Next
Digital History ID 3151



Farming on the Great Plains depended on a series of technological innovations. Lacking much rainfall, farmers had to drill wells several hundred feet into the ground to tap into underground aquifers. Windmill-powered pumps were necessary to bring the water to the surface and irrigate fields. Steel tipped plows were necessary to cut through the plains' grasses dense roots. To make up for a scarcity of farm labor, farmers relied heavily on mechanical threshing machinery.

The Homestead Act

To encourage farmers to settle on the Great Plains, Congress passed the Homestead Act in 1862. This act allowed any citizen or any immigrant intending to become a citizen to get title to 160 acres of land by paying a small fee, living on the tract for five years, and making a few improvements. It also allowed settlers to pay $1.25 an acre and own the land immediately.

Homestead Patent No. 1 was granted to a Daniel Freeman in 1862 for a tract in Nebraska. Between 1862 and 1900, the Homestead Act provided farms to more than 400,000 families.

Homesteading proved to be very difficult. About a third of those who tried to develop homesteads eventually failed. On the Great Plains, rain was scarce and a farm or ranch of 160 acres was too small to be economical.

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