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4 Vexatious and Hard Labors Those who came to antebellum Missouri found a farmer’s paradise, its riches limited by the hard work and many challenges required by family farming. The land was extraordinarily fertile, the alluvial floodplain soil nearly black. The banks of the Missouri River usually sloped gently away from the waterway, making the level countryside easier to work than the mountains of Appalachia from which many came. Plentiful natural resources were available. Streams and creeks crisscrossed the region, and fresh water was found on most farm sites. Settlers could easily find large quantities of wood in the thick forests near waterways; bottomlands with nutritious forage for livestock sat near rivers. The Boonslick was the far western extension of the continuous forest that most Americans knew east of the Mississippi River. So, it was familiar to newcomers. About 100 miles east of Kansas City, however, prairie grasses began to dominate the landscape.1 Missouri offered opportunities and challenges, both economic and environmental . The land provided almost everything a farm family could need, from animals for hunting and fishing to berries, beehives, and maple trees for foodstuffs and sweeteners. It was a fine place to grow corn, vegetables, or other crops, even if clearing land was an exhausting, frustrating task. But building a new farm took enormous effort, as well as some money. Many never had the chance to buy their own land or enjoy the security of a competency. Life was also often a struggle against a variety of opponents. The land hosted a number of life-threatening, or life-sapping, diseases that often made a tough life even more difficult. Cholera killed some shockingly quickly, while malaria 56 chapter four usually took a less final, but more regular, toll on rural families. Insects, such as mosquitoes, bedbugs, lice, and ticks, lived everywhere and spread disease and misery as well. Migrants to Missouri came in search of economic independence. Such autonomy required family agriculture and the ownership of property, as well as some market participation. In the early nineteenth century, most began their lives in Missouri by clearing a few acres of land for crops and housing, unless they could afford improved land. While families were forced into a primitive existence when they first arrived, few remained outside the market economy for any length of time. Many had no choice, as new migrants often had to purchase some food for themselves in their first year. Morris Birkbeck wrote that farmers in southern Indiana found a market for all their surplus production because of the influx of newcomers and the local growth of population. Even the most isolated people desired items that they did not produce, such as coffee or sugar. Pioneer farming was a difficult period of adjustment that rural families endured until they could make the transition to the production of some of their farm goods for market. Nearly everyone in rural areas consumed a large part of what they grew. However, until transportation and trade developed enough to encourage more market production, settlers had to establish a family farm, an arduous and labor-intensive task. Families anticipated a more comfortable life after a few years of hardship.2 New families usually purchased land from the federal government or from private owners, such as speculators. The government sold public land at auction to the highest bidder; private owners sold to those who paid the most. Men could also use land warrants, a promise of free land gained from military service in conflicts such as the War of 1812, to obtain public land. Not everyone could afford to purchase property, though. Often families simply lived on a plot of land without buying it; they were known as squatters and moved onto land years before government surveyors appeared. (The word “squatter” began as a negative description for those who claimed land they did not own.) Thousands of squatters had migrated across the Appalachian Mountains in the 1770s and had kept moving west after the American Revolution. Such families received title to their land—if they could afford to buy it—based on the right of preemption, a policy that originated in the early 1800s. Preemption gave families the opportunity to purchase a limited amount of public land that they had improved and inhabited at the minimum Vexatious and Hard Labors 57 government price. If they could not purchase property, they often kept moving to the next frontier.3 This policy, as the Interior Department stated in 1860, rewarded “the...


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