Settling the Great Plains: Inventions and Adaptations
Frameworks for America's Past
Return to Originating Page

The changing perception (view) of the Great Plains

   In the decades after the Civil War, from 1865 until the early 1900s, hundreds of thousands of Americans moved into the area of the West called the Great Plains. 

   Before the Civil War, most people going to the West passed right over the Great Plains.  They considered the area a vast treeless wasteland.  Their goal was to get to the far West - usually California or Oregon.

   After the Civil War, the perception of the Great Plains changed.  There were many new inventions, adaptations, and technological advances that made it possible to farm the land in that area.  Some examples are shown in the photographs below.

The Great Plains

Inventions and adaptations that made it
possible to settle and farm the Great Plains:

1.  Sod houses

The two pictures below show settlers on the Great Plains.  Wood for building houses was hard to get, because there are not many trees in that area.  So the early settlers made their houses from sod - the top layer of soil and grass - cut and stacked to make the walls.  Even the roof was often made of sod placed over wood beams. 

   If the farm was successful, the owners would later build a new house using wood boards shipped in by railroad.

2.  Steel plows

    As settlers began moving onto the Great Plains, they discovered that cast iron plow blades commonly used in eastern states would often clog up.  The soil of the Great Plains is thick and rich, and would often stick to the cast iron blade. 

   Fortunately, a blacksmith named John Deere invented a way to make plow blades out of steel.  Steel is harder than cast iron, and can be made so smooth that it cuts through soil without clogging up.

   The photo below of a plow made with a steel blade is from a demonstration of old-time farming techniques.  The plow cuts through the soil without any problem.


John Deere's great invention

   The drawing below shows John Deere's steel plow blade and the wood handles of a "walk behind" plow.  As a horse pulls the plow, the farmer uses the handles to keep the blade of the plow moving just at the right depth in the soil.  The blade cuts and turns over the soil, which is then ready for planting.

3.  Water-pumping windmills

   There is not much rainfall on the Great Plains, especially in the summer.  The invention of an inexpensive water pumping windmill helped solve that problem.

   As the wind turns the blades of the windmill, a long rod that runs down the tower moves the handle of a water pump up and down.  The pump pulls water up from a well, and sends it into a storage tank or other container.  That way there is always water available for people and animals.

   Windmills like this are still used in many farming areas in the West, because they pump water without using electricity.

A farm boy keeps the pump working

   The photo below shows a farm boy adjusting the pump mechanism at the base of a windmill.  The pump is on top of a metal pipe drilled down to the level of groundwater.  That may be anywhere from about 20 to more than 100 feet deep.  If there is no wind, the pump can also work by moving the long handle up and down by hand.

4.  Barbed Wire

   Barbed wire, invented in 1874, solved the problem of building fences on the Great Plains.  Wood for fences wasn't easily available, since there were not many trees in the region.  Barbed wire was affordable and easy to put up. 

5.  Railroads to the West

    Railroads were an important technological advance that made it possible to settle the West.  They could bring in supplies at an affordable price.  They also made it possible for farmers to ship out their crops and ranchers to ship out their cattle. 

   The double photo below is an old stereoscope card.  It shows a train on the famous Transcontinental Railroad line that was completed to California in 1869. 

   When looked at in a hand-held viewer like the one on the right, stereoscope cards gave a 3-D image of the scene.  These cards and viewers were very popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Spreading railroad lines to the West

   The heavy red lines on the map below show some of the railroads built into the West during the 1860s and 1870s.  The line connecting Omaha, Nebraska, to Sacramento, California, is the first Transcontinental Railroad.  Many more lines were built later.

6.  Wheat farming

   Farmers needed a crop that would grow well in the dry, hot summers of the Great Plains.  Wheat was the crop that best fit the climate conditions.  The wheat grains at the top of the plant are ground into flour that is used to make bread, cereal, and many other foods.

A mechanical reaper for wheat

   Wheat was also a good match for the farms of the Great Plains because the flat land is ideal for using the mechanical reaper to harvest the crop.  The reaper came into wide use after about 1850, and made it possible to harvest large plots of wheat quickly.  The photo below shows an old-style reaper in action in a wheat field.

Food for America's growing cities

   Farmers saved some of the wheat crop for themselves, but most was bagged and sold to wheat buyers in big cities.  The photo below shows a farmer ready to load his crop on a railroad freight car for shipment.

7.  Dry farming techniques

   Farmers of the Great Plains developed dry farming techniques to adapt to the low rainfall and conserve as much moisture in the soil as possible.  These techniques included: 

   1.  Choice of a crop (wheat) that did not require much rainfall to grow.

   2.  Plowing the land deeply to allow moisture to get deep into the soil more easily when it did rain.

.  Planting seeds in the ground deeper than normal, perhaps two inches down instead of one inch down.  That put the seeds in contact with more moisture than the very top layer of soil.

   The drawing below shows a old-fashioned seed drill.  It is a device farmers use to plant seeds in their fields after the land has been plowed.  The wheat seeds go in the box at the top.  As the device is pulled through the fields by a horse, the seeds drop a few at a time through the tubes and into soil at a depth set by the farmer.

8.  Beef cattle raising

   Some parts of the Great Plains were ideal for raising beef cattle.  So that choice, too, was an adaptation to the conditions of that area.  Texas was the most famous state for cattle ranching.

Hand colored images of sod houses are from the Fred Hultstrand History
in Pictures Collection at the Library of Congress.  Black and white photos
are from the Library of Congress.  The drawing of the John Deere steel plow
courtesy of the Augustana College Special Collections.  Color wheat field
photo courtesy of the University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension, used
by permission. 
The farm museum photo of a horse-drawn plow is
courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society.
   Seed drill image
is a public domain image used courtesy of
The map and color photos of barbed wire are by David Burns.

Some images have been edited or resized for this page.

Copyright Notice

   Copyright 2009, 2016 by David Burns.  All rights reserved.  As a guide to the Virginia Standards of Learning, some pages necessarily include phrases or sentences from that document, which is available online from the Virginia Department of Education.  The author's copyright extends to the original text and graphics, unique design and layout, and related material.