Problems and solutions for homesteaders

Background

In 1862 the US government introduced a Homestead Act. The aim of this was to encourage people to move west. They were offered 160 acres of land for free, as long as they lived on it and farmed it for five years. However, life on the Plains was tough, and the homesteaders faced many challenges.

The problems facing homesteaders and how they solved them

Early settlers and homesteader on the Plains faced huge problems. The burden of many of these fell on the women, whose lives were burdensome and unpleasant:

ProblemsSolutions
1. Building a house There was little wood to build log cabins.Settlers built 'sod houses', while they lived out of doors - people did their cooking on an open fire.
2. Dirt and disease Outdoor toilets and open wells. The sod houses leaked, and fleas and bedbugs lived in them 'by the million'. It was impossible to disinfect the floor. As a result the death rate, especially from diphtheria, was high.A 'good thick coat of whitewash' killed bedbugs. 'A layer of clay' stopped leaks. Homesteaders eventually built more modern houses.
3. Housework There was no wood for fuel, and no shops to buy items such as candles and soap. A typical household had only two buckets, some crockery and one cracked cup. There was no water and little food.A travelling shoe-maker or tinker might pass through who would provide or mend household items, but usually families just had to make do. The women collected 'buffalo chips' for fuel, stoked the stove, and made their own candles and soap. 'I have often wondered how my mother stood it', wrote an early settler.
4. Isolation No doctors or midwives. No social life 'because of the distances between farmhouses'. In the winter families were shut in 'and longed for spring'.People had to make the most of any trip to their nearest town, where the women talked of the harvest and the men smoked corncob pipes and talked politics.
5. Law and order Local government was non-existent, and some early lawmen (such as Henry Plummer) were worse than the bandits.Law courts and sheriffs such as Wyatt Earp slowly established law and order.

Problems faced by farmers

The first farmers on the Plains faced huge problems - this table shows some of them, and some of the solutions the farmers found.

ProblemSolution
1. Farming - A hard crust on the soil made it hard to start farming. Farmers could not afford a plough or machines. There were not enough workers.Teams of 'sodbusters' using steel ploughs did the first ploughing. After 1880, thresher teams travelled around following the harvest. Farmers could hire them for just a few days.
2. Drought - There was only 38 cm of rainfall in a year, and the hot summers evaporated dampness from the land. In the 1860s there were terrible droughts, followed by fires.The well driller and windpump allowed deep wells to be dug, which gave water. New methods of dry farming were invented (the 'Turkey Red' variety of wheat was imported from Russia, and farmers put a layer of dust on the soil after rain, which stopped evaporation).
3. Food - Farmers could not grow enough on their farms to feed a family.The government realised that 160 acres was not enough to sustain people. The Timber Culture Act of 1873 gave farmers another 160 free acres if they grew some trees.
4. Fences - Lack of wood for fencing meant farmers could not keep cattle off their crops. This led to trouble with the cattlemen.Barbed wire (patented by Joseph Glidden in 1874) solved the problem of fencing.
5. Insect pests - In the 1870s, grasshopper plagues stripped the cornstalks 'naked as beanpoles' and sent pregnant women insane. Colorado beetle destroyed potato crops.Settlers tried to harvest the crops before the grasshoppers came. They tried to kill them, but gave up, 'weary and dispirited'. The government raised relief funds. Modern insecticides solved this problem.
6. Law and Order - Rival settlers, Bandits, Renegade Native Americans and Vigilante cattlemen.Law courts and sheriffs such as Wyatt Earp slowly established law and order.