RETURN Agriculture and the West 

The American agricultural sector resumed its expansion after the Civil War with the frontier moving rapidly westward. Over the next three decades the total amount of new land settled was greater than had been occupied in the country’s preceding history. Yet this period of expansion was a time of difficulty for most farmers. Real farm income increased little from 1869 to 1896 and in many years actually declined. World food prices were depressed by the large increases in output from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Argentina, as well as in the US. This was consequently a period of intense agricultural discontent during which farmers became active politically, demanding social and political reform, curtailment of monopoly and big business, easier credit, and more government regulation of transportation and other public utilities. 

Conditions did not improve until the late 1890s when the growth of output slowed, prices rose and farm incomes increased dramatically. But by then the agricultural sector was in relative decline. Industrial output over the period leading up to World War I increased at a rate 3 times that of agricultural production. 

During the three decades after 1860 the western frontier of the US disintegrated as miners, cattlemen and farmers spread out through the great western interior. Although much land remained undeveloped, by 1890 settlement had become a matter of filling in the remaining gaps. By 1914 all the good land was claimed. The vast public domain of some 1.5 billion acres had for the most part been transferred to private hands. 

An important, but transitory, stage in the opening of the western interior involved the development of a flourishing beef cattle industry well in advance of agricultural settlement. Stimulated by high beef prices in the years following the Civil War, the range cattle business survived for twenty years after the War, bringing into existence the wealthy cattle barons who were to found a new regional oligarchy in the American west. In a manner familiar to everyone who has seen American movies, cattle from remote grazing lands as far south as Texas were driven overland to the nearest railway centers, initially Cedilla, Missouri, and later Abalone and Dodge City in Kansas, from whence they were shipped to markets in Kansas City, Omaha, Chicago. Paradoxically this business was destroyed as the same railroads brought in settlers, many of whom were experienced farmers moving west in search of greater opportunities. These newcomers, with the help of a new product, barbed wire, proceeded to fence off their land and put an end to the open range. 

In this way permanent agricultural settlement was established throughout the new territories of Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, the Dakotas, and thereafter Montana, Colorado and the far western states. To the south, Texas emerged as a major new cotton growing area which eclipsed the old pre-Civil War south in the production of this crop. In the north, in the states around the Great Lakes, milk and other dairy products became an important new farm industry. There, and further east in New England and New York farmers shifted from grains, which could be produced more cheaply on the new lands further west, to dairying, shipping their products to nearby centers of population. Michigan, Wisconsin, northeastern Iowa, and much of Minnesota proved to be particularly well suited to the production of hay and other feed crops needed to support dairying. This region attracted large numbers of immigrant Scandinavians, Germans and eastern Europeans who were familiar with this kind of farming. In the far west, completion of the transcontinental railways in the 1860s made it possible for growers in California to begin producing fruits and vegetables for northern markets. Refrigerated rail cars became available in the late 1880s. Florida and the southern states followed around the turn of the century. 

Socially and culturally the maturing regions of the western US came to exert a powerful influence on the American mind. The ideals of Jeffersonian democracy with its emphasis on individual freedom and independence were if anything pushed to extremes in the new west where the rights of natives were blatantly ignored, land was recklessly developed and the natural environment plundered in the name of progress. While much of the harm done may be laid at the feet of large corporate enterprises such as the big mining companies, the small independent homesteader, the cowboy, and the lumberjack came to be seen as romantic figures carving out of the wilderness a new life by relying on their own physical strength and moral courage. 

Politically the post-Civil War years saw many of the conflicts associated with rapid industrial expansion and the filling out of the western frontier reflected in the contest between Republicans who favored strong government support of business interests, a position defended on the grounds that what benefited business eventually benefited everyone, and the Democrats who drew support largely from those who were fearful of big business and other concentrations of power in the hands of the few. Throughout the 1870s and ‘80s control of the Congress and the Presidency alternated back and forth between the two parties whose popularity appeared to be roughly balanced. As the great period of expansion drew to a close in the early 1890s, however, a new element in the political spectrum gained prominence. 

In the western states and the south, farmers hit by falling world prices for their products began looking for politicians who would defend their interests. In particular they wanted measures which would raise prices and to this end they sought an increase in the money supply. The US, like the rest of the developed world was, however, on the gold standard, a system which in principle linked the money supply of a country to its holdings of gold. Especially in the silver- producing states of the American west, a popular plan for increasing the money supply was to base it not just on gold, but on holdings of silver as well. Thus, those who favored higher prices wanted an increase in the money supply and adoption of a gold and silver standard to achieve it. The new Populist Party was formed to advance this cause. The Democratic president at the time, Grover Cleveland (who held office from 1885 to 89 and 1893 to ‘97) was opposed on the grounds that inflation would be harmful to urban workers and would weaken confidence in the system. By 1896 the Democrats however had swung over to the inflationist position and ran a powerfully-eloquent supporter of the free silver movement, William Jennings Bryan as their candidate in the presidential election of that year. The Republican candidate was William McKinley. Their contest pitted the interests of largely eastern, urban groups, including not only businesses people but large numbers of new immigrant industrial workers, against those of the western and southern cotton and grain farmers and others who expected to benefit from higher prices. Popular concern over such economic issues ran high, for the great period of economic expansion had ground to a halt with the onset of depression in 1892. The victory of McKinley marked the beginning of a long period of Republican domination of American federal politics, the subduing of the populist movement in the south and west, and the securing of power to the urban, industrial interests of the north-east.