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.

The Legacy of Railroad Land Grants

“The Railroad Land Grant Legend in American History Texts” Robert S. Henry, 1945

In a 1945 attempt to stem the tide of liberalism in American History textbooks, Robert S. Henry says the public (especially students reading high school and college texts) has been misled by accounts of “huge,” “breath-taking” tracts of land given to railroad companies out of the public domain.  The truth, he says, is that much less land was actually given: only about 9.5% of the continental U.S.. Henry claims the government ultimately got a good return on its land grants in the form of increased value of the rest of the land due to railroads going through them, and also in special government freight rates. And in any case, he says, the social, political, and military benefits of national unity outweigh any costs incurred or opportunity costs.  The old maps, he says, mislead the public by drawing broad swaths across the west, when actually the railroads were only granted half the area drawn, in alternate sections, like a checkerboard, and some of the grants were forfeited because no one built railroads to qualify for them.  In all, only about 131 million acres were ultimately gifted to the railroads, according to Henry.  After the 1884 presidential election, he said, “when the Democratic party issued a campaign poster featuring what purported to be a map of lands granted to railroads,” the issue became a political football and the facts gave way to legend.

Henry’s article appeared in the 1945 Mississippi Valley Historical Review and set off a storm of protests, many of them carried by the same journal, and reprinted in Carstensen,
The Public Lands. David Maldwin Ellis suggested that 49 million acres of land grants by the states were also relevant in the discussion. (145)  And, even if granted lands had been forfeited or released, they still counted as grants and they had still made those lands unavailable to settlers for many years -- in some cases well into the 20th century.  The real extent of the land ultimately granted, according to dissenting historians, was slightly over 223 million acres or nearly 17% of America (146).  Ellis pointed out that “The General Land Office withdrew from public appropriation not only the primary limits [of the land grants] as required by law, but also the lands within the indemnity limits...The railroads sometimes tried to oust genuine homesteaders who had made their selections before the location of the railway route.” (146-7) In other words, the broad swaths drawn across the West were pretty accurate.

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Fred A. Shannon called Henry’s article “a piece of special pleading for the current lobby of railroad interests to secure the repeal of clauses in the land-grant acts...for rate concessions on carrying government traffic.” (157) Henry was assistant to the president of the Association of American Railroads when he wrote his article. The big black swaths across the map, Shannon said, should be widened “by 50 per cent so as to show the indemnity zones,” rather than shrunk in the public imagination. “It must not be forgotten,” Shannon said, “that until 1887 settlement was excluded from government sections...and from 50 per cent of their width clear beyond the zones proper.” And what about Henry's claim that ten percent of the nation handed over to corporations wasn't so much? “The railroads got just about one-tenth of the United States and for years restricted settlement in three-tenths of the United States,” Shannon concluded.  “This ratio is much higher in the West, where most of the grants lay.” (158)

I think this series of articles says some interesting things about how history (especially popular history, but really all history) has often been done, and about what we need to be wary of when reading.  In the first place, even taking Henry’s numbers, railroad land grants were breath-taking.  Nearly ten percent of the land area of the nation?  Proportionally more, in unsettled areas, where pioneers were competing for farmlands.  And an area at least double that (or nearly 1/3 of the land in the United States) held back from sale?  That’s pretty extreme.  Second, whether the government got it’s money back is not the question.  Everyone seems to have lost sight of the fact that private, corporate, for-profit railroad development with government handouts wasn’t the only way transportation, or the American West, could have been developed.  And it’s not like there weren’t people saying this at the time (one of the "Peppermint Kings" of my dissertation, A.M. Todd, for example).  We just don’t remember them.  What does that say about the textbooks that are being read by high-schoolers now?

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John Sanderson's Farm

There are two very influential articles Environmental Historians usually read together although they’re separated by forty years; both about “The View from John Sanderson’s Farm.” The first was written in 1966 by Hugh M. Raup, who was the director of the Harvard Forest in Petersham Massachusetts on the site of Sanderson’s farm. Raup described the growth and decline of New England agriculture and its impact on the forest, attributing change to economic forces outside the area and beyond local residents’ knowledge or control. Although this isn’t the main point of Raup’s essay (his main point is that conservation planning doesn’t work), Raup paints a vivid picture of the inevitable decline of New England farming, with the farmers as first the beneficiaries and then the victims of market forces they can neither anticipate nor influence.

An important element of Raup’s article is the fact that it was originally a public lecture that Raup frequently gave to diverse popular audiences. The story he presented has over the years become the widely-accepted, seldom-questioned history of Eastern agriculture. Raup’s description of farming popularized the work of Harvard and Yale professors
Percy Wells Bidwell, Harold Fisher Wilson, and John Donald Black, whose books are still required historiographical reading for Agricultural Historians despite the fact that many of their conclusions have been contested. Raup popularized their ideas very successfully: in addition to the many lectures where Raup presented his case, the article has become possibly the most widely read and cited article in the long history of the Journal of Forest History (now Environmental History).

According to Raup’s story, early New England communities were based on subsistence farming because the roads were so poor. Farm products couldn't easily be brought to seaport markets, so rural life reflected the “simplicity and self-contained quality of the farm economy” (Raup, 3). Between 1791 and 1830, better roads and the growth of local industrial centers caused a farm boom, and New England's ratio of cleared land increased to 60 percent (4). But although New Englanders like John Sanderson planned for the future and invested in their farms, “a different kind of people,” financial investors, built the Erie Canal which spurred “expansion of agriculture in the Middle West.” New England farmers were caught by surprise, Raup says, because “the conceptual frame they had for their lives didn’t allow for such unknowns.” Their farm “economy collapsed…rather suddenly and on a large scale,” and the abandoned farms of the region were quickly overrun with second growth forests (6).

I have several issues with this story. First, neither Raup nor the sources he cites actually demonstrate the supposed cultural simplicity of rural New Englanders. And Raup’s description of the building of the Erie Canal puts the cart before the horse. Transportation did not produce products. On the contrary, a growing volume of expensive overland freight justified the canal project. This is shown by the immediate use of portions of the Canal as they were gradually opened before the completion of the entire line. Raup not only fails to mention this, he gets the Canal’s opening wrong by five years. But perhaps the biggest flaw with the story is Raup’s continuing use of the idea of “another kind of people” (8). “The people who visualized and built the canal,” he says, were only interested in the flow of products, and “where they came from or went, at either end, was of secondary importance as long as the flow continued” (10). This claim is not only extremely presentist, it’s inaccurate. The promoters of the Erie Canal were mainly western New Yorkers like William H. Seward or agriculturalists like Elkanah Watson -- who incidentally was born in Plymouth Massachusetts and lived in Pittsfield, which by Raup’s logic should have made him either oblivious to or opposed to the project. And perhaps most anachronistic and damaging element of Raup’s story is the assumption that capital is always external and (so obviously in Raup’s mind that he doesn’t even need to say it) urban. To be fair, this is a misconception that's at the heart of a lot of Banking History (more on that some other time). Economic development  projects from this perspective were always investments that “had to be made attractive to [outside] investors so that capital would flow into them” (8). Raup’s assumption of rural people’s passivity and ignorance as capitalists is especially difficult to swallow, because a few paragraphs earlier he had complained that the Sanderson heirs had liquidated their father’s farm at a profit, “took their capital and started a bank” (8).

One final note, based on my own research: Raup seems to conclude that although Sanderson’s “heirs did well by themselves when they sold their property while land prices were still high,” their profit was basically accidental (10). The story Raup tells hinges on “comfortable old New England farmers…actors in each segment [who were] essentially uninformed about what those in other segments had in mind” (10). I don’t think this was the case. My own primary reading suggests that most New England farmers by the 1830s and 1840s had friends and relatives in the newer western farming regions. My research suggests that these family connections were extremely active in passing information, money, and people along the new east-west land, water, and rail connections. Some farmers even had relatives that had gone into commerce and even banking in eastern cities. So I suspect that the farmers of New England towns like Petersham were not only aware of the economic changes going on around them, but that many of them welcomed these changes.

In “Another Look from Sanderson’s Farm,” Environmental Historian Brian Donahue challenges Raup on several of the points I’ve mentioned. The thrust of Donahue’s article (published in
Environmental History, January 2007) is that the economic growth that Raup believed would always provide better solutions than "planning" actually depends on unsustainable and environmentally destructive practices that generally happen far away, where we don’t see them. Donahue concludes that conservation provides a “moral brake on economic drives [that] is necessary to ensure greater ecological and social well-being,” but that “conservation cannot succeed if it is subjected to short-term economic tests” (Donahue, 31). Donahue's conclusion implies that there's a mismatch of both physical and temporal scale in the ways these practices are judged. Externalities of distance (out of sight, out of mind), time, and distribution (short term benefits to the few, long term costs to the many) are hidden in Raup's conclusions. And along the way, Donahue challenges many of Raup’s facts as well.

In Donahue’s story of the early New England farm economy, Petersham grew naturally and forests were cleared steadily. Population grew and farmers’ sons became farmers in their turn. Returning agency to people like the Sandersons, Donahue says population and farm growth would have happened, “increased outside stimulation or not” (18). Looking more closely at the structure of these farms than Raup had, Donahue points out that “the idea that Midwestern grain could have caused the collapse of New England farming is an odd one, considering how little of New England farmland was committed to tillage to begin with” (20). Contrary to Raup’s story, Donahue says “the number of acres in tillage scarcely grew at all and never rose above 4 percent of all the land in town” (18). Instead, pastureland was added; partly for wool but mostly for dairy production. Western grain actually took the pressure off New England farms. Corn and wheatfields were turned over to hay and pasture, and marginal pastures were allowed to grow up to pines. As a result, “Between 1880 and 1910, the acreage in agricultural production in Massachusetts fell in half…[while] During the same thirty years, the value of agricultural production doubled” (20). Massachusetts agriculture actually peaked not “around the time of the Civil War, as standard accounts like Raup’s would have it, but about 1910,” 85 years after the opening of the Erie Canal and 41 years after the completion of the transcontinental railroad.

Donahue admits the farm economy of New England did ultimately decline. “Population in hill towns like Petersham fell in half between 1860 and 1910,” Donahue says (20). But then he turns aside from the agricultural story, to return to his main theme about conservation (I would have preferred sticking with the farmers a little longer, to find out what happened to them). Population decline could have been the result of children moving away, old people dying, or simply of no one moving into a town like Petersham for a couple of generations. Who died, who moved away, and who decided not to come seem to be the crucial questions at this point in the story. If most Petersham families had sent sons and daughters into the West, then the deaths of the old folk back home or their retirement to the homes of their children in New York or Michigan takes on a much different emotional tone than the standard tale of a region crushed and impoverished by the wheels of progress. But we won’t know, until someone looks for the actual people, examines their records, and tells their story. Somebody needs to take yet another look from Sanderson’s farm, and this time follow the people rather than the trees.