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Intro to Pioneer Farming


Pioneer Farmers

In 1803, the Louisiana Purchase transferred to the United States government all French claims to the region between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains.

With this purchase, the U.S. government claimed the land we now call Iowa as part of the United States. But it wasn't until the 1830's that pioneer farmers from the east began crossing the Mississippi River to settle in Iowa.

Two boys walking behind covered wagon.Where Indian groups once freely hunted the buffalo and elk, the pioneer farmer now plowed the rich prairie soil, planted fields and built homes. Pioneer farming was very hard work and nearly all of it was done by hand.

The invention of the steel plow helped to make the hard work of pioneer farming successful. In 1837, John Deere invented a plow with a shiny steel blade. Pulled by oxen or horses, it ripped through the dense sod uncovering the thick black soil.

This was still hard work because the thick prairie grasses had long roots that extended deep into the soil. But the steel plow was superior to the cast iron plows that were made for New England's sandy soil.

Breaking plow

As time went by, farm machinery continued to improve and become more efficient. Early farmers did most of their work by hand or with simple pieces of farm equipment. By 1870, horses had become the most important animal on the farm. They not only pulled wagons and buggies, but also worked in teams to power corn planters, hay rakes and plows.

Man on spring tooth self-dumping horse rake.Between 1833 and 1870, over one million pioneer settlers moved into the state. Many of these settlers traveled to Iowa in wagons pulled by horses or oxen. Others came by steamboat and some by stagecoach. Following the Civil War (1861-1865) railroads expanded rapidly replacing the stagecoach.

Many pioneer settlers who immigrated to Iowa between 1833 and 1870 were born in states to the east of Iowa. They came in large numbers from Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and New York. Other immigrants came from countries such Germany, Great Britain and Ireland.

Today, many Iowa communities still celebrate a special ethnic heritage. For example, Decorah is known for its Norwegian culture, Elkhorn for the Danes and Cedar Rapids for its Czech heritage.

These are just a few of the many Iowa towns that trace their roots to immigrants from afar.

We often think that long ago change happened slowly. But Iowa changed very rapidly between 1833 and 1870. During those 37 years Iowa was transformed from a pioneer frontier to a major agricultural region.

Take a look at the native vegetation in Iowa prior to pioneer settlement. Most of the forests were located along the rivers (area shaded black). The prairie grass covered the rest of the state.

Because of the changes brought on by the Industrial Revolution settlers in 1870 had better horse-drawn equipment. They could farm more land than the early pioneers.

By 1870, all 99 Iowa counties were dotted with towns and farms. Railroads were beginning to transport Iowa farm products throughout the United States. These changes made Iowa the important state it is today.

Introduction to Pioneer Farming Continued...

Photos used by permission from the State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City.
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