1840-1890 Agrarian Expansion

Homesteaders crossing Indian lands, painted by Oscar Edmund Berninghaus

         In the second half of the 19th century, agrarian expansion went forward on the Great Plains amidst high hopes and expectations.  Railroads wanted settlers, both as purchasers of land and as future freight customers.  As competition between railroads headed up, the fervor of the promotions increased proportionately, supplemented by the state boards of emigration.  Business and politics merged.  Recruitment of settlers was the fulltime occupation of some government agencies.

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Homesteading -family

Homesteaders on the plains.


         Set against this background of frenetic promises and publicity, the reality on the ground was disillusioning.  Much of the best land was already in the possession of railroads and states, and outright purchase of land was the most unusual means of obtaining a family farm or homestead.  Thousands of homesteaders were deceived into thinking that securing a piece of land was all that was necessary to 'proof up' a land claim, in the same way descriptions of the gold fields had assured wild-eyes forty-niners that success was guaranteed for anyone who showed up in California.   Until the water problems could be sorted out by government agencies in the 20th century, the dream of homesteading on the High Plains more often than not ended in ruin, just as John Wesley Powell predicted in his reports to Congress twenty years before.