Skip to main content

The Plow And The Fence

July 2024
1min read

Meanwhile the “little two-by-four farmers,” encouraged by the Homestead Act of 1862 and its later liberalizations, were crowding into the Great Plains, plowing up the grass and fencing in the pasturelands. “Now there is so much land taken up and fenced in that the trail for most of the way is little better than a crooked lane,” a trail driver lamented, “and we have hard lines to find enough range to feed on. These fellows from Ohio, Indiana, and other northern and western states—the ‘bone and sinew of the country’ as politicians call them—have made farms, enclosed pastures, and fenced in water holes until you can’t rest; and I say, D—n such bone and sinew! They are the ruin of the country, and have everlastingly, eternally, now and forever, destroyed the best grazing-land in the world.” Grasslands that should never have been plowed dried up when cycles of drought rolled around; in 1874, to add to the farmer’s woes, came a plague of grasshoppers (“Thirty acres of wheat which looked beautiful and green in the morning is eaten up,” said a Kansas homesteader sorrowfully). The final reckoning was delayed, but eventually it would come.

In the early 1930’s, unusually severe droughts occurred, followed by dust storms such as the Plains had never experienced. “Little by little,” wrote John Steinbeck in The Crapes of Wrath , “the sky was darkened by the mixing dust, and the wind felt over the earth, loosened the dust, and carried it away. … The dawn came, but no day.” When at length the day did come, its light revealed a terrible desolation (overleaf) that is still visible in parts of the Plains.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.