These four words the “rain follows the plow” were used to encourage people to move west and to dispel the rumor that the middle of America was not good for farming. In the early 1800s the area west of the 100th meridian was labeled “the Great American Desert” by Stephen H. Long, an explorer and map-maker.
Because of this desert label there was very sparse settlement in the area beyond the Mississippi River in the 1840s and the 1850s. There were isolated homesteads here and there, but not settlers in vast numbers until the late 1850s and the early years of the 1860s. After the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862 and the end of the Civil War in 1865 people moving into the trans-Mississippi West increased. First by the hundreds, then by the thousands, then by the hundreds of thousands. As the population increased in the Great Plains people came to recognize that the old myth of the Great American Desert was no longer true.
And those eager to boost settlement and attract business and get railroad connections wanted the rest of the country to believe that the so-called Great American Desert was not a desert after all. And this belief was widely promoted in the 1870s as a justification for the settlement of the Great Plains.
In the 1880s some areas of Nebraska and Kansas were unusually rainy. As humans had recently pushed into the area, many human-centered theories sprung up about what could be causing the increased rainfall. Some people suggested that the “iron on the lines” or the “wires of the telegraph lines” were responsible. Others thought it “the disturbance of the atmospheric circulation through the concussions of locomotives and moving trains. Much more widespread was the idea, created by conservationists, that “forests produce rains.”
Samuel Aughey, a prominent Nebraska natural scientist, looked at the tree planting data and noted that the rains began before the trees. His conclusion was that it must be settlement. “There is, however, another cause most potently acting to produce all the changes in rainfall that the facts indicate have taken place. What then is that cause?’ Aughey wrote, “It is the great increase in the absorptive power of the soil, wrought by cultivation, that has caused, and continues to cause an increasing rainfall in the State.”
During the 1870s and early 1880s unusually heavy rainfall made these claims sound plausible, and within ten years nearly 2 million people had sunk their roots into the prairie soil.
Climatologists now understand that increased vegetation and settlement can result in increased precipitation. The effect, however, is local in scope, with increased rainfall typically coming at the expense of rainfall in nearby areas. It cannot result in climatologically change for an entire region. They also understand that the Great Plains had had a wetter than usual few seasons as this theory and settlement were both taking place. When normal arid conditions returned, homesteaders were damaged.
Libecap, Gary D. "Rain Follows the Plow:" The Climate Information Problem and Homestead Failure in the Upper Great Plains, 1890-1925." (2000): 1. Web. 11 Sep 2009.
Letheby, Pete. "Water-a Historical perspective we should remember today." Grand Island Independent n. pag. Web. 11 Sep 2009.
Schultz, Stanley K. "Which Old West and Whose?." American History 102. 2004. Web.
Editor's note: article is from the HNM archives.