Homesteading Western America Part 2: Settling of the West
Americans, unable to resist Horace Greeley’s late 19th century call to “go west, young man,” settled the West in increments of half-mile squares of 160 acres. The configuration was the result of the 1862 Homestead Act that estimated a family could subsist on 160 acres. That assumption, as John Wesley Powell tirelessly pointed out, was flawed. Interspersed among the mountain ranges and river corridors were giant semi-arid basins. Those basins were vastly different than the plains of the midwest and east coast; they were devoid of humidity and predictable rainfall. While Powell was one of the few who realized that 160 acres of non-irrigated land was profoundly short of what one family needed to survive, his warnings were ignored and even ridiculed as pioneers of every type headed west.
By coincidence an unusually wet period in the cycles of the climate followed the passage of the Act. Many early settlers, possibly believing they were picked by God to lead the way, reported that the prairies were emerald green; they were convinced that the rains came because human activity produced moisture in the air. Americans wanted so badly to believe in the promise of the west, that a myth, almost a mantra, developed: “the rain follows the plow.” The late 1800’s were a perfect storm of above average rainfall, good old American independence, and an irresistible summons to reap the promise offered by the West.
Despite Powell’s firsthand knowledge of the critical differences between land east of the 100th meridian and the new, arid frontier, settlement clipped along at a rapid pace and our country’s population grew westward. The lure of free (or almost free) land in 160-acre parcels gave rise to a new breed of American. Fearless, hopeful, tough and stubborn they persevered — and won. Their tenacity, their willingness to plant new roots—literally and figuratively, and their will to survive in a foreign landscape are evident today. When I read through the patents associated with properties being bought and sold, I am reminded of how this land was settled and of the rugged individualism that still defines the West.