Homesteading: Dreams and Realities

As settlers and homesteaders moved westward to improve the land given to them through the Homestead Act, they faced a difficult and often insurmountable challenge. The land was difficult to farm, there were few building materials, and harsh weather, insects, and inexperience led to frequent setbacks. The prohibitive prices charged by the first railroad lines made it expensive to ship crops to market or have goods sent out. Although many farms failed, some survived and grew into large “bonanza” farms that hired additional labor and were able to benefit enough from economies of scale to grow profitable. Still, small family farms, and the settlers who worked them, were hard-pressed to do more than scrape out a living in an unforgiving environment that comprised arid land, violent weather shifts, and other challenges (Figure).

A map shows the trails used in westward migration and the railroad lines constructed after the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. The trails labeled include the Oregon Trail, California Trail, Spanish Trail, Desert Trail, Red River Trail, South Texas Trail, California/Oregon Trail, Santa Fe Trail, and Ft. Smith Trail. The railroad lines labeled include the Great Northern, Northern Pacific, Southern Pacific, Central Pacific, Atlantic & Pacific, Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe, and Texas & Pacific.
This map shows the trails (orange) used in westward migration and the development of railroad lines (blue) constructed after the completion of the first transcontinental railroad.