The number of humans on Earth has septupled in the last 130 years, and the population continues to increase exponentially. It won’t be long before there are more people than the planet can handle. Back in the mid-1800s, however, this wasn’t so much of an issue. The number of people in the New World was increasing but there was space for them to spread out and explore. The government, railroad tycoons, and mass real estate influencers were more than happy to encourage as many people as possible to move out West into the Great American Desert.
“Spokesmen for the American West read an inspiriting message in the world of Nature. Their imaginations were filled with symbols of fertility, of waxing vigor, of abundant harvests, of endlessly increasing wealth and happiness.” –Henry Nash Smith
The allegedly marvelous opportunity for agriculture was a treat used to entice settlers. Despite surveys returning results of arid or even desert conditions in the Plains region, infinite wealth and happiness could be found if only one was determined to succeed. The biggest issue, according to some, was the lack of rainfall. The solution was found in a claim that ‘rain follows the plow’. By plowing and cultivating the dry expanses of the Great Plains, more water would evaporate and in turn, more water would be available to precipitate back down as rain.
There were a few big names in this game. Ferdinand V. Hayden was an instrumental surveyor of the region up until the founding of the U.S. Geological survey who believed that planting trees could bring more rain. Richard Smith Elliot assisted Hayden for a few years, included cereal grains in his list of crops that could thrive on the plains and suggested that building railroads could also contribute to rainfall. Samuel Aughey and Charles Dana Wilber wrote pages upon pages about how rainfall was already increasing and the land to the west was characterized by unmatched fertility.
On the other hand, John Wesley Powell argued that this was all bologna. There may have been some cyclical changes going on, but there was no big increase in rainfall and any increase had nothing to do with human activity. Powell had the right idea, but the power of those in favor of rain follows the plow did a number on his reputation. But until dry-farming techniques could be perfected, the rise of civilization in the wild west would eventually lead the way into the Dust Bowl.
Featured photo courtesy of U.S. National Archive:
See the following sources for more info:
Smith, Henry. “Rain Follows the Plow: The Notion of Increased Rainfall for the Great Plains, 1844-1880.” Huntington Library Quarterly 10, no. 1 (1946): 169.