Part 2. Now beginning in the 1780s and continuing into the next century, the rich soil of the prairie was neatly divided and sold to farmers. They planted grain and then marketed it throughout North America and Europe. In effect, spreading the West’s soil wealth throughout the nation and beyond. More than anyone else, Thomas Jefferson initiated the makeover of the West into a checkerboard. Jefferson believed that small, free-holding farmers- these were yeoman, men, who could care for their families on their own without hired hands- formed the basis of a democratic society. Just the right amount of land was needed to ensure the yeoman’s independence and virtue. Too much land would create a nation of tyrants. Too little land would create a nation of poor people. Striking the perfect balance between Western soil and the people who would farm it became one of his major preoccupations. To create this plan for agrarian democratic republic, Jefferson proposed something called “the U.S. Rectangular Land Survey”, commonly known as “The Grid”. Under the plan, surveyors were first sent to Eastern Ohio, with instructions to divide the land into boxes that would measure six square miles. Then they were instructed to divide these larger boxes into smaller ones–one square mile. With each divided again into quarter sections measuring 160 acres each. This was considered the approximate size for a single farm. Congress passed the grid into law as a Land Ordinance of 1785. And from that point forward, the same checkerboard pattern was etched out across the West, where the most far-reaching attempts at rationalizing a landscape in world history. And here is a map of the old Northwest. And this became part of the Northwest Ordinance. And this was the survey, the land survey, in which they broke it down into its component parts of 6 miles, then one square mile, and then from one mile to half section, quarter section, and later in time they divided it into half quarter sections. Now the grid itself was the outward expression of a culture wedded to an agrarian economic democracy. But also had a commitment to markets in exchange, too. The aid in the rapid settlement of the country turning millions of Americans into independent land owners, while at the same time transforming the land itself. Despite its varied topography, soil, and water conditions into a commodity, it was a uniform set of boxes of land that could be easily bought and sold. Once farmers purchased land, they needed to plow the existing vegetation. The prairie grasses that thrived on the organically rich deep soil laid down by glaciers thousands of year earlier were first a challenge to cut. And, of course in the Old Northwest, we’re seeing the aspects of the prairie, treeless expanse that settlers were confronted with for the first time in the late 18th century and beginning of the 19th century. Now one of the problems that early settlers had on the prairies was that they used wooden plows with edges that were made of iron. And these plows did not work very well. They basically broke in the sod of the prairie. Only with the development and spread of the steel plow invented by John Deere in 1837, and who eventually set up shop in Moline, Illinois, did the stem sod give way to plowing. And here’s a shot of an early John Deere plow. Now, in place of the native vegetation, farmers planted primarily corn and wheat, which was basically a domesticated species of grasses. Wheat especially grows best in a mono-cultural environment. These crops tend to grow quickly, stowing away carbohydrates in their seeds. By combining Cyrus McCormick’s reaper- Cyrus McCormick invented the reaper in 1834, but it went into mass production in the 1840s and 1850s- gave prairie farmers the ability to harvest a much larger acreage of wheat than what could be done by hand. McCormick eventually set up shop in Chicago. Bread, which was essentially wheat bread, constituted a major component of the American diet. Therefore, wheat cultivation emerged as the nation’s major cash crop. Millions of acres of land in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Kansas, were plowed up and given over to wheat cultivation. Now in the early years of settlement, farmers grew a variety of crops other than wheat and corn: oats, rye, barley, etc. Increasingly, farmers became more specialized as commercial agriculture became more common and transportation systems improved. Taking ones surplus produce to market by horse and wagon made little sense if one was going over 50 miles. You would essentially lose money. However, with the construction of canals, and later railroads, transportation costs decreased, making commercial agriculture more feasible. Much of the grain ended up in the Northwest. Whereby the 1840s , the population had outstripped the local farms’ economy’s ability to provide for it. In the fact the west’s surplus of soil wealth, underwrote industrial development and urbanization further east. The railroads also changed the meanings of the crops themselves. With waterborne transportation, farmers put their grains into sacks so they could easily load it into irregularly shaped holds in steamships. So that way farmers and purchasers knew whose grain was whose. The advent of the railroads and steam powered grain elevators first developed in 1842, spurred farmers to eliminate the sacking of grain. Now grain would move like a stream of water, making its journey to market with the aid of a mechanical device that loaded all wheat to a particular area in one large grain car. Sacks had preserved the identity of each load of grain. With the new technology, grain from different farmers was mixed together and stored by grade. The Chicago Board of Trade, established in 1848, divided wheat into three categories: spring, white winter, and red winter. Each type was then assigned a grade. Wheat was turned into an abstract commodity, with ownership over the grain diverging from the physical product itself. By the 1860s, a futures market in grain had emerged in Chicago. Traders could still buy and sell grain in the city as they had done for a long time. However, it was now possible to enter into a contract to produce or sell grain at a particular price. What was being marketed was not the physical grain itself, but an abstraction. People were trading in something that may not have been grown yet. The grid helped to draw the land into a world of exchange. Then the railroads and the advent of the grain grading system turned the products of the soils itself into something that could be packaged and sold. These commodities played a key part in mediating the relationship between people and the natural world.

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