Friday, October 22, 2010

The Importance of Water in the Homestead Experience

I read a quote by Bernard Frank, deceased journalist and writer, in which he claimed, “You could write the story of man’s growth in terms of his epic concerns with water”. Initially, I passed this off as an oversimplification of human history; however, I began to contemplate man’s “epic concerns” with water, and consider the implications this had on past events. The ability to obtain and control fresh water sources has been one of the key features of civilization from antiquity through the present. This was especially true to homesteaders who decided to stake their claim in the semi-arid regions of the Great Plains.

Humans have a few basic needs in order to survive; food, air, shelter, and water. Histories of homesteading often focus on food production and the primitive shelters that settlers were living in; while water, and its acquisition, often remains a tertiary focal point unless it was lacking as it was in the 1930’s. I can only assume the former are more appealing because sod houses and tar-paper shacks are more visually engaging or crops are the measurable products of a farmer’s painstaking efforts.

The link between crops and rain is so intertwined that the two seemed to have reached a causal relationship, thus we overlook the importance of water for human and animal consumption.
Homesteaders ideally sought land that was situated near a water source. Quarter sections that had a stream or pond on them were ideal because the worry for water was immediately nullified. As lands began to be distributed and homesteaders moved farther west, water sources became less abundant.

This caused two problems. One, the homesteader had to expend a great amount of time and energy traveling to and from a water source. Once they arrived they were limited only to amounts they could efficiently carry back with them. Secondly, they were limited to only a certain number of animals they could supply adequate amounts of water for. Combining wasted energy and limited animal stock; homesteaders could be crippled by efforts to maintain fresh water supplies.

This problem was alleviated for many homesteaders when they discovered the abundant ground water that existed under the majority of the Great Plains. The aquifer, named the Ogallala Aquifer, provided the much needed fresh water homesteaders were seeking. Initially the aquifer served two purposes.

First, and most importantly, homesteaders now had access to fresh water without having to waste the time and energy seeking out fresh water supplies. This provided for more time that could be spent trying to improve their claims. Increased time in the fields allowed for expanding farms; expanding farms provided for larger production; more production increased the chances of a homesteader being successful.

Secondly, homesteaders were able to provide fresh water to livestock. Increased amounts of livestock provided an abundant, renewable food supply. Byproducts from livestock were important to the success of homesteaders as well. Hides provided for clothing and blankets and waste made excellent fertilizer.

It would be difficult to overstate the important role water played in the success, or failure, of homesteaders. A homesteader’s ability to prove up their claim, and really, life and death, hinged on their ability to maintain a fresh water supply. I do not know if Bernard Frank’s quote is applicable to all of human history, but there certainly appears to be a bit of truth with respect to the history of homesteading in the United States.

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