Prior to the opening of Kansas and Nebraska, the idea was prevalent that the geography and climate of the country west of Missouri and Iowa differed from the east, but with few exceptions there was little exact information and less understanding of the nature and extent of the variations of soil, or of rainfall, temperature, wind, or other climatic characteristics, or appreciation of the distances involved. As a result a multitude of free and easy generalizations were present, based upon assumptions of similarity of conditions, but applying to points hundreds or even over a thousand miles apart, and soil and climatic factors fully as divergent. Because artesian wells were found in southern New Mexico, some concluded that the water problem of any of the Great Plains territories might be solved by the same means. [1] In some of the newspaper discussion the assumption was made that the climate could be modified by tree planting, and a Kansas correspondent of The National Era, Washington, D.C., anticipated the timber-culture acts of twenty years later by recommending that congress give a quarter-section of land to any person who would plant trees. [2]

     Few notable exceptions are found among these preliminary observers. An unidentified writer in the Louisville (Ky.) Journal, March 15, 1856, divided the United States into five natural areas: (1) from the Atlantic to the Mississippi river north of 33 parallel; (2) from the Mississippi river to the Great Plains; (3) from the eastern edge of the Plains to the Sierra Nevada mountains; (4) from the Sierra Nevada [sic] mountains to the Pacific ocean; (5) south of the 33 parallel, the cotton area with supplementary crops of sugar and rice. The author maintained that the first and second were the nation's great cereal areas and the third the livestock area. This assignment was significant in limiting the cotton area by the 33 parallel and dedicating the country west of the Mississippi river, including Missouri, to grain and livestock, with the edge of the Plains as the dividing line between the two West-

2 Winter Wheat in the Golden Belt of Kansas

ern industries. The account of another observer traveling in the trans-Mississippi West, published in the Louisville (Ky.) Courier, July 22, 1856, also recognized even more explicitly these natural areas; limited the cotton-sugar area to the Lower South and recognized the movement of settlement across the eastern line of Kansas and Nebraska as breaking the Indian frontier, and that after fifty years the pioneer was overcoming "the artificial barriers heaped up in his path." This timberless, tall-grass country west of Missouri was designated as the nation's producer of breadstuffs, while the short-grass, or buffalo grass, Plains would be the great grazing section. He argued explicitly that "no such country . . . exists in Europe, nor on the continent from the Atlantic seaboard to the Missouri frontier," and "to render these views clear we must seek the causes of this novel order of industry in the topography of the country, and in the laws which affect the climate, soil and vegetation." The gradual diminution of rainfall from Missouri westward was recognized as characteristic of the region, and he attributed the dry climate to natural causes of continental scope whereby the moisture-laden air mass moving northwestward from the Gulf of Mexico was driven eastward by the dry Pacific air mass moving across the Rocky mountains, having deposited its moisture in transit as snow and rain in the high altitudes of the mountain ranges. The driest belt lay in the High Plains just east of the Rocky mountains, the rainfall increasing gradually eastward as the dry Pacific air mass exerted a diminished influence on the northward drift of the moist Gulf air mass.

     It was only after occupation of the country was actually underway that these more exceptional views became generally accepted and a clearer view of realities emerged and even then only slowly. The Lawrence Republican took the ground in 1857 that "to a large proportion of our farmers, this soil and climate are so different from what they have been accustomed to, that for some time they will be obliged to work comparatively in the dark." Appealing to those who could contribute information based upon experience in agriculture in Kansas, the editor emphasized the advantages to be derived from interchange of views. [3] The par-

Subhumid Environment and Agriculture 3

ticular object of inquiry was "the raising of fall or winter wheat" and the fact that "some . . entertain[ed] doubts of this being a good wheat country. . . "

     Richard Mendenhall, who had come to Kansas in 1846 as a Quaker missionary to the Indians, wrote from near Osawatomie:

My attention is at present particularly turned to the subject of Winter wheat. I have labored assiduously to dispel the fears of the people, relative to the adaptation of our soil and climate to the culture of wheat-. . . I never known a failure in the wheat crop of Kansas, and I have never a crop that was not a tolerably fair one.-Though I have never seen better corn anywhere than I have seen raised in Kansas, yet I consider wheat a surer crop than corn, for our winters are generally dry and moderate, so that wheat is not killed out by either freezing or drowning; and in spring it comes to perfection before the drought sets in. [4]

     This statement presented evidence that Mendenhall had acquired a reasonably clear idea of the relation of Kansas climate to crops; the danger to the fall-planted crops of winter-killing; the dry summers, with the consequent importance of bringing crops to early maturity ahead of the severe summer weather. Winter wheat met this climatic formula better than corn, and he realized this basic fact, although many of his fellow farmers did not. He minimized the dangers to the winter wheat crop, but experience was to demonstrate that many years were to pass before the major hazards could be overcome. Furthermore, other factors than the single one of climate were to influence the cropping program of farmers in the relatively humid eastern part of Kansas. There were two possible points of view in dealing with development of this new country; one, the mere matter of newness and the problems attending the bringing of it into full production; the other; the matter of fundamental difference in physical environment. Mendenhall's views fall into the latter category because he was not thinking of this as just another frontier like others farther east, but rather in terms of a different environment.

     In the advance of the frontier westward from the seaboard to the Missouri river, corn had been the first food crop, but in combination with livestock and some small grains - wheat, buck-

4 Winter Wheat in the Golden Belt of Kansas

wheat, oats, rye and barley. The settler on the Kansas frontier had come primarily from the corn regions of the middle East, and tended to follow the natural course-that of planting the accustomed staples until local conditions of climate, soil and marketing directed otherwise. In the northernmost parts of the United States, when wheat was planted the varieties were of the soft spring types until the eighteen sixties and seventies, when the hard spring varieties slowly took the lead in Minnesota and the Dakotas. In the more temperate middle region, both the soft spring and soft winter wheats were sown, and if winter wheat did not survive, spring wheat or some other spring crop might take its place, with the obvious advantage of two rather than only one trial for a crop on the same land.

 :  :  The nearer to the frontier the more definitely were the agricultural practices of an extensive rather than an intensive character. The farmer was limited not only by the newness of the environment, -but - among other things - by insufficient capital to finances adequate equipment and tillage operations. The principal point, whatever the causes, is that near the frontier the system of agriculture was more than ordinarily inefficient and under these circumstances crop failures were frequent, and not because of any fault of the soil, the climate or the crops. [5] Partly as cause, and partly as effect of the uncertainty of crops, the farm population was highly unstable and as a local newspaper correspondent reported of his four-year-old community, "Like most new places, we have had many comers and goers." [6]

 :  :  Prior to the coming of white settlers to Kansas, the Shawnee Methodist Mission included. . winter wheat in its crop program, by the fall of 1839 sowing as much as one hundred acres, and increasing substantially its acreage as the years passed until in 1847 or 1848 as much as one hundred seventy-five acres were harvested. [7] With the opening of Kansas to settlers, winter wheat was raised, but it was subordinate to the corn crop. Several factors entered into the continued predominance of corn. It could be ground by simple grist mills into meal, made into grits or hominy, or fed to hogs and cattle for meat. Not only did the habits of the people

Subhumid Environment and Agriculture 5

favor corn in a predominately subsistence economy, but the absence of cheap-water transportation on the scanty streams flowing out of the subhumid plains operated against the small grains, also the expense of costly flouring mills. Under these circumstances, surplus corn could be driven to market as livestock, or be disposed of in the concentrated form of corn whisky. [8]

< :  :  The hazards of winter wheat production were more serious also than Mendenhall had been willing to admit in his winter heat letter. Optimism and pessimism concerning its part in the Kansas crop program fluctuated with the vicissitudes of the seasons. As the Lawrence, Republican put it August 27, 1857, "although wheat is, next to corn, the most important crop raised in our country (excepting the grass crop), it is the most uncertain of all our staples." The hazards numerated were winter-killing, insects, rust, and rain damage to grain in the shock, but with a good yield and prices, the paper maintained that wheat was the most profitable crop Kansas could raise. The wheat crop just harvested when this was written in 1857 was the one planted during the civil war of 1856 and therefore there might be good reason to point out that the greatest hazard of all was probably inadequate and unseasonable preparation of the soil and seeding. Two years later, and after a favorable season, the same paper boasted "If the excellent wheat prospects and of the large acreage sown in the fall of 1858, and rejoiced in its estimate that the cash drain of $100,000 for flour out of Kansas the preceding year would cease with the harvest of 1859. [9]

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1. Kansas Free State, Lawrence, January 7, 1856, from the St. Louis (Mo.) Republican; New York Daily Tribune, October 22, 1856, from the New Orleans (La.) Picayune.
2. The National Era, Washington, D. C., April 23, 1857. For other discussions of trees and climate see the New York Daily Tribune, October 13, 1856, and "Trees" by "W. T.," in The Smoky Hill and Republican Union, Junction City, March 13, 1862. (The name of this newspaper was changed in the course of years to the Junction City Union, and hereafter in this book it is cited by the short title.)
3. Lawrence Republican, December 17, 1857.
4. Letter dated December 20, 1857, in Ibid., January 7, 1858, and reprinted in The Kansas News, Emporia, January 23, 1858.
5. Junction City Union, December 3, 1870: " 'A Kansas farmer recently got up in his sleep and plowed two acres of ground before he woke up-and then he stopped plowing.' We find the above joke going the rounds of the papers. It must be a drive at the scratching, which many of our Kansas farmers palm off for plowing.
6. Ibid., October 17, 1861, "Letter from Madura," fifteen miles northwest of Junction City. For a historical study of the instability of farm population see J. C. Malin, "The Turnover of Farm Population in Kansas," The Kansas Historical Quarterly, 4 (November, 1935) 339-372.
7. Martha Caldwell, Annals of Shawnee Methodist Mission, . . . (1939) 31. For the harvest of 1847 or 1848 see the Richard Mendenhall article, Lawrence Republican, January 7, 1858.
8. "Letter From a Farmer," Ibid., November 3, 1859, and editorial, December 15, 1859; "What Crops Shall We Raise?" ibid,. April 5 1860; "The Farming Interest" May Ibid., 17, 1860; Doctor Buck, Jefferson county, before the Kansas State Agricultural Society, 1864, in Report of the State Board of Agriculture ... 1873 (Topeka, 1874) 31, 37.
9. Lawrence Republican, June 16, 1859.