- Sod Busting: How Families Made Farms on the 19th-Century Plains by David Danbom
Americans have always been a how-to-do-it people. This book is a how-it-was-done history of farm making in the Great Plains. It is conceptually well framed, with chapters about land acquisition, establishing farms, acquiring credit, and creating communities, among other topics. Historians of the Great Plains know about these general subjects, but this study provides a solidly researched, clearly written survey of how people made farms in the region, one that goes beyond well-known generalities. The area of the Great Plains under study here primarily emphasizes developments in present-day Kansas, Nebraska, and North and South Dakota.
David Danbom is a leading historian of rural America, and his knowledge of the region helps us better understand the role of the environment, government, and economic institutions that influenced the success or failure of settlement in the Great Plains. Danbom first discusses the multiplicity of ways that settlers acquired land, such as by homesteading, preemption, and purchase from state governments, railroads, and speculators. This discussion helps the reader learn how buyers located land, paid fees, acquired “first papers,” and proved up, as well as about matters of commutation, relinquishments, and deficiency judgments. Danbom notes that settlers purchased as much as 80 percent of the land acquired rather than obtaining it free under the terms of the Homestead Act, and that they did so for good reasons. This discussion should end all romantic thoughts about westward expansion and homesteading.
Readers will learn how settlers built a sod house and confronted grasshoppers, cinch bugs, and prairie fires. Danbom notes that settlers broke only about 30 percent of the Great Plains for crops and that farm families needed about $1,000 in hand to support their first year on the land. The need for cash and credit to purchase land, equipment, seed, livestock, and home-building supplies proved a significant challenge for early settlers. Women helped pay the bills with egg and butter money or by exchange for needed goods at country stores. Danbom makes a particularly significant contribution by helping us understand how credit worked for farmers, both in getting loans and repaying them. He clarifies the nuances of short- and long-term credit and mortgages. Borrowers might receive only 80 percent or less on a loan after various fees were deducted, but they still had a high interest rate on the full principal, an issue that helped fuel the Populist revolt. Banks, insurance companies, and moneylenders—that is, investors and speculators—aided and sometimes proved detrimental to farm making.
Settlers brought their culture and institutions with them. Community building reflected ethnicity, religion, and custom. Churches gave settlers a [End Page 982] sense of social and cultural security. The establishment of public schools indicated a commitment to education and provided gathering places that, in turn, helped foster new local institutions.
Danbom’s discussion of town site selection shows that railroads could make or break town development, and here we learn why. He cogently notes that “settlement of the Great Plains was not an event but a process” (p. 95). Settlers came and went, some got richer, some were disillusioned. Immigrants were more likely to stay, but persistence remained uncertain. Communities changed over time, but the settlement of the Great Plains, Danbom contends, is an “American success story” (p. 107). It epitomizes how hard work, commitment, and institutional, corporate, and government support enabled men and women to adapt and prosper within the parameters of a harsh environment.
This book is noteworthy for several reasons. First, it provides a succinct overview of settlement and community building in the Great Plains. Second, it is a synthesis that includes little-known aspects of the farm-making process. Third, it is well conceived and insightfully written. In sum, it is an excellent study that should be widely adopted for courses on the Great Plains and American West.
R. Douglas Hurt is professor and...