Suppose (an army of frontier farmers) 50 miles, in width, from Manitoba to Texas, could acting in concert, turn over the prairie sod, and after deep plowing and receiving the rain and moisture, present a new surface of green growing crops instead of dry, hard baked earth covered with sparse buffalo grass. No one can question or doubt the inevitable effect of this cooling condensing surface upon the moisture in the atmosphere as it moves over by the Western winds (sic). A reduction of temperature must at once occur, accompanied by the usual phenomena of showers. The chief agency in this transformation is agriculture. To be more concise. Rain follows the plow.
--Charles Dana Wilber, 1881, in
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.”
But it was Charles Dana Wilber, an author, educator, geologist and entrepreneur, who said that he could prove scientifically that rainfall was bound to increase as the farming frontier moved westward. In his influential book, The Great Valleys and Prairies of Nebraska and the Northwest, published in 1881, Wilbur wrote that the ages old symbol of the farmer, the plow was the instrument of cooperation between God, nature and man. He said, “In this miracle of progress, the plow was the unerring prophet, the procuring cause, not by any magic or enchantment, not by incantations or offerings, but instead by the sweat of his face toiling with his hands, man can persuade the heavens to yield their treasure of dew and rain upon the land he has chosen for his dwelling.” He concluded, “The raindrop never fails to fall and answer to the imploring power of prayer of labor.”
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.
This is a great article. One of the best every written for this blog. What other recommendations, good and bad, has the scientific community made for Great Plains agriculture? What role did the Land Grant Colleges play in the dispensing of scientific knowledge?
This comes from a former historian with the BLM named James Muhn - He
For further reading...Note none were written by “scientists” but are by historians. There could be a rather lengthy list, but am sending you a few the better ones I think might prove of some interest to readers – I have
included one dissertation. Each will provide readers with more sources.
Also, note that some refer to the concept of growing trees on the Great Plains to bring the rain, but the two theories were closely tied to each other.
Emmons, David M. “American Myth, Desert to Eden: Theories of Increased Rainfall and the Timber Culture Act of 1873.” Forest History 15 (October 1971), pp. 6-1.
Fite, Gilbert C. The Farmer’s Frontier, 1865-1900. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1968. Reprint Albuquerque: University of New Mexico
Hargreaves, Mary Wilma M. Dry Farming in the Northern Great Plains, 1900-1925. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957. (I love this book!)
Kutzleb, Charles R. “American Myth: Can Forests Bring Rain to the Plains?” Forest History 15 (October 1971), pp. 14-21.
Kutzleb, Charles R. “Rain Follows the Plow: The History of an Idea.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Colorado at Boulder, 1968.
Shannon, Fred A. The Farmer’s Last Frontier: Agriculture, 1860-1897. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1945. Reprint White Plains, NY: M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 1973.
Smith, Henry Nash. “Rain Follows the Plow: The Notion of Increased Rainfall for the Great Plains, 1844-1880.” Huntington Library Quarterly 10 (1947), pp. 169-193. Nash further discusses this concept in a portion of his
classic study Virgin Land (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1950).
Lastly, I suggest the writings of James C. Malin. He was an ecologist and agronomist who studied the environment and agricultural development of the
southern Great Plains, and I think he had some interesting observations.
A place to start with Malin’s writings is a collection of his works: James C. Malin, History and Ecology: Studies of the Grasslands, edited by Robert
P. Swierenga (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984).
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