Economic Systems

  Vegetable Cannery
Female and child workers in a vegetable cannery
[audio] Economics

  • Southwest farmers had trouble irrigating because they needed to cooperate with their neighbors, and it was hard to rally all the people they needed.
  • The Mormons in Utah had many neighborly bonds, making cooperation while irrigating easier.
  • Immigrants worked in a variety of trades, such as mining, railroad working, small businesses, farming and ranching.

Natural Resources

  • People found that the Plains area was excellent for farming wheat and grazing cattle.
  • Gold and silver miners often came to the West first.
  • Copper was used in electric wiring, so it became valuable after electricity became widely used.
  • Lead became more valuable because it was used in plumbing.
  • Growing industries, especially the railroad, made coal and iron more profitable.

[audio] Equipment and Tools

Farm equipment

  • The new steel plow, reaper, and other new farm equipment helped simplify farming in the Great Plains.

Water problems

  • With mechanical well drilling, farmers were able to dig more wells. They could also make them deeper.
  • Dry land farming: some land remains unfarmed for a year so that it can store water for the next round of crops.

Barbed wire

  • The first North Americans to have large amounts of cattle were the Mexicans.
  • Once barbed wire was created, people could keep livestock out of other farmer's crops.

Major Railroads

  • The Union Pacific railroad, which began in Omaha, Nebraska, was mostly laid down by ex-soldiers and Irish immigrants.
  • The Central Pacific, which started in Sacramento, California, was worked largely by Chinese immigrants.
  • The government paid the railroad for each mile of track, so companies got more money for longer, less direct routes.
  • In addition, longer, winding routes reached more towns.
  • The railroad company received even more money from the towns it reached.
  • The Union and Central Pacific railroads both ended in Promontory Point, Utah.

[audio]Other railroads

  • The railroads helped Western Industry. They brought them farming supplies, coal, and other important materials. They also took the farmers's products to the East.
  • Cattle - A new business.
  • The West, especially Texas, had lots of cattle. In the east, the cattle were over ten times more expensive. Ranchers realized that they could make money if they drove the cattle East.
  • Some Native Americans were angry because the cattle drives went through their lands. Sometimes, the Native Americans attacked the ranchers and the first drives lost money.
  • Cattle drives went through many cities, starting with St. Louis, Kansas City, and Sedalia, Missouri. Next, they included Abilene, Kansas; Cheyenne, Wyoming; and Dodge City, Kansas.
  • Once the ranchers started using the railroad for cattle, they were more successful.
  • As more of the open Western land was developed, cattle drives could not move as easily over the land. Bad weather also killed much of the cattle. As new railroads came, cattle drives were less necessary.

Demand for Product

  • Western grain became increasingly needed by union soldiers during the Civil War.
  • The growing population of urban cities also led to demand for grain.
  • In Europe, famine and war also led t o increased grain exports.

Regional Economies

  • In a regional economy, products are made to supply a limited area.
  • In Minneapolis, wheat from the Plains states was milled by factories and made into cereal, flour, etc.

[audio]Money and Credit

  • Banks charged high interest to farmers and ranchers because they knew that farms and ranches often failed. Bankers preferred to lend money to big mining corporations and the railroads, because they were more likely to be able to pay back.


  • The large corporations enjoyed the most profit in the West.
  • Farmers, ranch and railroad workers, and miners made much less money. Farmers had a hard time making money because they had to pay fees to the railroads for product shipment. They also had to pay high interest rates. Sometimes, the demand for their products would decrease, and the farmers could not charge as much for their products.
  • In the late 1800's, many Mexicans started to work on railroads, industries, and big ranches instead of small farming and ranching.

[audio] The Farmers' Situation

The Farmers' Advantages The Farmers' Struggles

1) Laws: Donation Land Law, Homestead Act, Desert Act and Timber Stone Act: All helped people purchase cheap land

2) Natural Resources: Dakota territory and Montana - good for wheat. Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico - good for cattle

3) Valuable mineral deposits throughout the West, oil. Good for growing automobile industry

4) New Equipment: steel plow, reaper, disc harrow, mechanical well drilling, barbed wire

5) Transcontinental Railroad: important for bringing supplies, moving products to the East.

6) Demand for products great because of the Civil War, the growth of U.S. cities, and European need for crops.

1) Weather was harsh in the Great Plains

2)160 acres not big enough for a large cattle ranch, but too big for a farm

3) Irrigation difficulties in the Southwest

4) Farming profits mostly made by a few large companies

5) Farmers had to pay high interest rates and railroad rates.

6) Unpredictable demand for crops

7) Fights with neighboring Native Americans over land