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The cultivation of the West

The Homestead Act (1862) allowed half a million settlers to buy 160 acres of land from the federal government for the bargain price of $30 (about $900 in modern money). Around two out of three of these families couldn't make a go of farming marginal Western land. Another 2.5 million settlers bought land from the railroads, land speculators, or state governments.

Farming increased everywhere. As with any real estate, location was everything. Land west of the 100th meridian, the imaginary dividing line that runs north from the Texas Panhandle, was just too dry for regular farming without irrigation. Ranchers held on by planting tough strains of wheat and fencing their land with the new barbed wire invented in 1874.

Cattle drives moved beef to the nearest railroad terminals all over the West. The spectacular Long Drive covered 500 miles from Texas to Kansas, with crews of black, white, and Mexican cowboys moving herds as big as 10,000 head to market. The Long Drive was just one of thousands of trails that connected cattle range in the farthest corners of the West to railroad lines and finally dinner plates. These cattle drives built the real-life legend of the cowboys. The cattle drives died out in the 1880s as the open range was broken up by homesteaders, but by that time, more than 4 million steers had made the big roundup.


Historian Frederick Turner, who specialized in the American West, thought that the constant push against the Western frontier defined America. Although Turner's specific conclusions are no longer current, his overall approach to looking at how social and economic issues influence history is very important.

The frontier spirit of tough self-sufficiency and belief in the power of new directions wasn't limited to the West. As the 1800s drew to a close, the formerly rural United States moved closer to world leadership in social and industrial development (see Chapter 14). By the end of the 19th century, the once-little republic on the edge of the New World forest began to move toward center stage in world affairs.


Question: What was the biggest change in the agricultural landscape in the post-Civil War era?

Answer: Settlers cultivated more and more land to grow crops.


Question: What was the role of the federal government after the Civil War with regard to race relations, economic development, and Western expansion?

Answer: The Homestead Act and quick admission of new states supported Western expansion; a strong dollar, railroads, and high tariffs boosted economic development; Reconstruction and the Freedmen's Bureau were federal efforts in race relations.

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