Chapter 19: Section 4 (Farming and Populism)

  • Learning Goal:

    The student will learn…
    1. …why farmers who moved to the West faced many problems, and how they handled their probems.

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    Section 4: Farming and Populism

    THE MAIN IDEA: A wave of farmers moved to the plains in the 1800s and faced many economic problems.

    U.S. Government Encourages Settlement
    The Homestead Act of 1862 offered 160 acres of free land to anyone who would live on the land and work it for five years. May people responded by heading west, including thousands of African-Americans and European immigrants.

    Life on the Farming Frontier
    Frontier life was a challenge, but new inventions helped settlers to farm the land. The steel plow sliced through tough soil improved windmills pumped water from deep wells to the surface, barbed wire allowed farmers to fence in livestock.

    The Problems of Farmers
    Improved machinery helped farmers to grow more food, but farmers faced problems in the 1870s when the prices of crops fell, because farmers were producing so much food. At the same time, railroads charged high fees to carry crops to market. Farmers grew angry because it was harder and harder to make a living. In 1867 they joined forces to form the Grange, soon the Grange formed co-operatives, businesses owned and operated by their members. Grangers asked states to regulate railroad rates. In 1877 the Supreme Court ruled that states could regulate railroads and other businesses that served the public interest.

    The Rise of Populism
    In 1890, several farm groups formed the Populist Party, or People’s Party. This party wanted to government to adopt  a “free silver” policy, the unlimited coining of silver. Farmers hoped that increasing the money supply would cause inflation, or higher prices for all goods, including crops. Opponents of free silver wanted to keep the gold standard. The Populist party also called for government ownership of railroads and shorter working hours. The Populist candidate for the 1892 election lost the election but won more than 1 million votes. In 1896, the Populist candidate was Williams Jenning Bryant. Most farmers voted for Bryant, but the Republican candidate, William McKinley, won the election.

    The Closing of the Frontier
    In 1889, the last major piece of open land was settled, during the Oklahoma land rush. Thousands of white settlers rushed to claim two million acres of land that had once belonged to Native Americans. In 1890, the Census Bureau declared that the frontier no longer existed.

    Click below to see an online illustration of where people settled: