Gilbert C. Fite, “The Farmers’ Frontier, 1865-1900” (1966)

In the final pages of Gilbert C. Fite, The Farmers’ Frontier, 1865-1900 (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966), Fite used Walter Prescott Webb’s environmental determinism from The Great Plains (1931) as a point of departure. While Webb said a cultural breakdown came from the flat, treeless and semiarid Great Plains, Fite countered this and said it “was a symptom of the basic problem and not the problem itself.” (Fite, 1966: 222-223) With the absence of wood, settlers to the Great Plains used sod, traded the hand pump for a windmill, and used barbwire instead of wood picket and stone fences. According to Fite, any study of the Great Plains ought to oblige environment but amplify culture and the individuals as the key determinants who acted and reacted to one situation after another. Individual farmers managed labor and resources on farmsteads and “fit conditions on the Great Plains.” (Fite, 1966: 223)

From 1865 to 1900, the Great Plains underwent several Euro-American changes. The frontiersman eventually gave way to the miner, and mining communities created demands for beef that cattlemen and cowboys could supply. Before the arrival of the farmers, though, the Euro-American miner brought this singular industry to the American West. For example, in 1860, the United States Census reported that Colorado had a miner population of 22,086, a saloonkeeper demographic of 175, and a total of 195 farmers. (Fite, 1966: 11) This did not result from a culture of ideology, though. Rather, it resulted from the chaotic settlement and mechanization of the Great Plains, and a change of the Great Plains as the “Great American Desert” to a great American farming oasis. Following the American Civil War, farmers increasingly established themselves in the mining areas of Fort Benton and Bozeman, and in the Bitterroot, Beaverhead, Prickley Pear and Gallatan valleys of Montana, in Walla Walla, Washington, the Snake River, Idaho, the Rio Grande, New Mexico, and the Salt Lake Basin in Utah. (Fite, 1966: 11-12)

Amenia, North Dakota in the 1880s. (Fite, 1966: 77)

Amenia, North Dakota in the 1880s. (Fite, 1966: 77)

Individual farmers and corporate managers also took up small and large-scale farming operations on the northern Great Plains. In Dakota Territory in 1860, 123 farms were recorded. Ten years later, Dakota Territory had a total of 1,720 farms. (Fite, 1966: 11 & 36) By the 1870s, railroads had allowed for the advanced Euro-American colonization and settlement of the Great Plains, and this caught the attention of bonanza financiers and corporate managers. Agrarian mechanization took off in the Red River Valley in this period, and in 1875, Oliver Dalrymple purchased several thousand acres just west of Fargo. He eventually formed the Cass-Cheney-Dalrymple bonanza farms, “a compact body about 6 miles long and 4 miles wide, extending on both sides of the railroad,” or a total of 24 square miles. (Fite, 1966: 80)

By 1879, the Dalrymple family had swallowed up more than 10,000 acres in northern Dakota Territory, and Fite explains how this was managed. The land was divided into 1,280, 1,600, 2,000 and 5,000 -acre subdivisions. A foreman’s house was built on each subdivision, as were lodging quarters for the seasonal migrant laborers. Fite said bonanza farming was large-scale, corporate, had absentee ownership, a professional management staff, was highly mechanized, and they dealt in specialized production. To a degree this crowded out smaller-scale farmers, but they also learned about the effectiveness of mechanization, and how to apply it to their own farmsteads.

Threshing on the Dalrymple mechanized bonanza farm, Cass County, Dakota Territory, 1877. Photo with the ND Institute for Regional Studies, 2029.11.1.

Threshing on the Dalrymple mechanized bonanza farm, Cass County, Dakota Territory, 1877. Photo with the ND Institute for Regional Studies, 2029.11.1.

News of the Dalrymple bonanza farm would reach the media, and eventually generate a moneymaking perception for one and all. This perception increased settlement to these areas, and northern Dakota Territory experienced a “boom” up through 1883. To a large degree, it did matter that reporters got the news correct. What mattered even more, though, was that “reports of quick and large profits, even if exaggerated… excited the imagination of thousands of restless settlers and stimulated the rapid westward movement of the 1880s.” (Fite, 1966: 93) Corporate bonanza farms created the perception that any small-scale farmer could make a living and even get rich in northern Dakota Territory. In some cases that perception was realized, and in other cases it was not.

In 1917, a year before Willa Cather published My Ántonia, Fite’s mother filed a homestead claim in northwestern South Dakota, in what Fite referred to as “the very end of the farmers’ frontier in the United States.” (Fite, 1966: ix) By 1966, Fite had five decades from when his mother filed a homestead claim to consider what this localized story meant in the broader, national context. In his piece of scholarship, Fite is not so much concerned with socio-political problems, but rather with what contributed to the rapid farm settlement, processes of labor, and how dirt farmers responded to the particulars of the Great Plains environment. (Fite, 1966: x) The processes were complex, and through this Fite explained how perceptions of the American West shifted, and individuals and corporate managers brought about the beginning and the end of the farmers’ frontier from 1865 to 1900.

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