Western Farms and the Safety-Valve

Clarence H. Danhof, "Farm-Making Costs and The "Safety Valve": 1850-60."
The Journal of Political Economy 49, no. 3 (1941): 317-359.


This old article by Clarence Danhof helped change the
Turner-inspired idea that the West functioned as a “safety-valve” for American society in the 19th century. Danhof finds the claim that western migration acted as a safety-valve for eastern wage-based industry, keeping wages high with the threat of massive migration, is complicated by the expense of actually starting a farm on the frontier. Using contemporary accounts and estimates provided in guidebooks, Danhof argues it was not only true that a settler needed a minimum of $1,000 “to equip and 80-acre farm, exclusive of land,” (325) but also that this fact was well-known. A wage worker in industry or agriculture was doing well in 1850 if he managed to save a dollar a week. There were very few people who could hope to save a thousand dollars, even in ten years.

Danhof quotes many interesting contemporary sources, including an 1852 address by Horatio Seymour to the New York Agricultural Society that “distinguished between the ‘old’ self-sufficient type of agriculture and the ‘new’ agriculture of the 1850s, focused on profits and markets” (318). Mid-19th century authorities knew “No error is more common that to suppose that the farmer does not require Capital,” according to the
Working Farmer magazine in 1859 (319). Even so, according to the Western Farm Journal there were “three hundred thousand men who, it was estimated, would emigrate in 1857 [and] would take $20,000,000 with them” (322). So the question is, where did these emigrants get the money. My own primary research suggests that for many, close family ties and serial family migration were the key.

Contrary to some accounts that complain about the “wage-slavery,” practiced by Western agriculturalists, Danhof says “Wage employment in the rapidly growing western towns and cities was frequently pictured to eastern mechanics as providing excellent opportunities to share in the growth of the West, since labor was in demand and wages were high” (323-4). Perhaps this Western labor demand, more than farm-making itself, was the safety valve and the force that helped keep eastern wages high. As
Thernstrom and Knights found, it’s particularly difficult keeping tabs on people who moved around often and didn’t own land. But that’s no reason to conclude the West didn’t have as many transient workers as the East.

Government land sales to individuals totaled nearly fifty million acres from 1850-60, Danhof says (329). And “Under the military land-grant acts of 1847 and subsequent years, the government presented, to more than half a million individuals, tracts of land varying from 40 to 160 acres each and totaling more than 57,000,000 acres. These lands came on the [secondary] market after the warrants granting them were made assignable in 1852, and an active market was conducted in them with prices substantially below the [$1.25 per acre] federal minimum” (330). The federal government assigned to individuals by...sale and grant--about 57 per cent of its total land transfers made during the decade. The remaining [43% of] land conveyances were made as grants to the states...and to canal and railroad companies” (But remember that until the Transcontinental Railroad project began, the federal government granted land to states rather than directly to railroads, 331). Many of these lands came back on the market in the 1850s; most notably those owned by the Illinois Central Railroad, of which by 1860 “1,279,382 acres had been sold at an average price of $11.50 per acre on terms of up to six years’ credit.” Land office officials downplayed the role of speculators, but President Buchanan warned that “large portions of 'the public lands' have become the property of individuals and companies, and thus the price is greatly enhanced to those who desire to purchase for actual settlement” (quoting 1857
Annual Message, 332). This certainly seems to be the case for the Illinois Central. If they got government land free, then bought more at $1.25 or below per acre and sold it for $11.50, they made at least a thousand percent profit on the land alone, not to mention their railroad revenue.

Danhof mentions that many farmers were able to raise “farm-making” money by selling existing farms in the east, where population growth had dramatically pushed up values. He suggests on this basis that the majority of new Western farmers were old Eastern farmers. This could be verified demographically using census data, and I suspect we’d find a lot of Eastern farmers like the Ranneys retiring onto their sons’ new farms in the West. Danhof notes in passing in his conclusion that there were a lot of other things you could do beside farming, if you ran away to the West. These other activities might have been tried by adventurous or desperate single people he says; families would usually have made more solid preparations and thought things through.

Based on my primary reading, I’d suggest that the BIG issue Danhof doesn’t directly address is extended family. Serial migration, I think, was often financed by extended families. People who had gone before and those who (temporarily or permanently) stayed behind contributed to the migrating family’s expenses; with the expectation that when the time came, the previous migrants would contribute to the next. Brothers or cousins in the East helped the new Western farmers find markets for their produce. And people seem to have lived with relatives for what we would consider ridiculously extended periods. I think next time I teach the “moving West” unit of my EnvHist survey, I’ll spend a few more minutes comparing the cowboy image of the West with a more complicated picture of western expansion.