What did they know - and not know
Nebraska was a great mystery to most potential emigrants when it became open to settlement in the 1850's and to homesteading in the 1860's. Many Europeans and eastern Americans felt drawn to the west, but had limited access to accurate information about areas such as Nebraska. What they did know was that it was part of what was then known as “the Great American Desert”!
The first “fact” that early pioneers easily determined and thought they understood was a location's Latitude and Longitude. It was thought that similar Latitudes would have similar weather. Based on the amount of sunlight a location received, the farther north site would be cooler and the site farther south would be warmer. Nebraska has the same Latitude as the warmer, southern European countries such as Spain, Italy, and Greece. This scared many emigrants because most came from the cooler European countries to the north.
The other “fact” was Longitude and its effect on the amount of rain a location might receive. The 100th Meridian West, which went through the center of Nebraska, was thought of as the boundary between the semi-arid climate of the west and the humid climate of the east. This meant less than 20 inches of rain, the amount thought to be needed for successful farming. Without looking at a map, many potential emigrants thought that the Missouri River, 5 degrees to the east, was this boundary. How far west of the Missouri River can someone safely settle? Not taking into consideration a land's physical characteristics and closeness to large bodies of water, these were the first two facts most immigrants could evaluate.
It was known that there was a limited amount of land available in the East and the post-Civil War South was too politically unstable. So, most Europeans and eastern Americans looked to the West. The far West seemed too “wild” for most, so many looked to the lands just beyond the Missouri River. Since the 1840's pioneers had traveled the whole length of Nebraska as they journeyed to the west coast. There were newspaper articles and travel guides to help inform those interested about the west. Everywhere the Railroads were promoting the virtues of the land just waiting for someone to make their own. People thinking about settling in Nebraska faced two serious problems they had to overcome. First of all, they lacked reliable and accurate information about their intended destination. Secondly, they were exposed to a great amount of misleading and faulty information which could affect their ability to succeed.
So what were the truths and lies told of Nebraska? Depending on the time period, the season, and the specific location, much of what was said of Nebraska was both true and false! The early explorers were looking for riches and/or routes to large bodies of water. They found none and left the area on the map “blank”. When the plains of Nebraska took the name, “The Great American Desert”, the word “desert” had a different meaning than now. The term met “treeless and remote”. Outside of Nebraska's border along the Missouri River this was true. In the 1840's, thousands of pioneers crossed Nebraska traveling west. In the spring they had to contend with rain, mud, and swollen rivers. The soil appeared to be fertile with its long green grasses and colorful flowers, but without trees. Road ranches along the trails kept small herds of livestock and grew crops. The prairies supported an abundance of wildlife. Lost cattle could be found grazing wild over the Sandhills. By the 1850's the idea of the plains being a “desert” was losing its hold on the popular imagination of potential emigrants. Most of the state received enough rain for agriculture and the rest enough for raising livestock. Still there were major droughts in the 1870's and 1890's where many farmers and ranchers failed, but they were soon replaced. When it came to predicting the amount of rainfall, it was a “wash”. With the invention of the steel plow it was thought that “rain followed the plow”, so the future would be better. This was not true, but with the invention of the steam drill and the windmill, water became available even during the worst of droughts.
The location of the land in Nebraska was very important. Even with its elevations varying over 4,700 feet and having two climate zones, the most important factor was the closeness to the railroads and the markets. By the time most potential Homesteaders came to Nebraska, the best land was already owned by the railroads and the land speculators. Even though the most bias and misleading information came from the railroads, it was also known that their success was very much related to the success of those who they sold land to. The farmers and ranchers dependence on the railroads, the banks, and distance markets was one subject emigrants lacked knowledge of and was a continued source of problems.
When it came to Nebraska's climate, most settlers lacked knowledge of facts other than the amount of rainfall. The harshness of climate was a surprise. Most people had never experienced very hot summers on top of very cold winters, the strong winds, the hail, and the deadly tornadoes which came with life on the plains. Much of the plains were settled during relatively wet years and the knowledge of dry land farming in the future was lacking.
Settlers were more surprised by the lack of timber when they actually saw it with their own eyes. Most people were used to living near wooden areas. Timber was needed for housing, fencing, and fuel. Plentiful sod made a satisfactory first home. With the amount of land most settlers now had, fencing was not as important. There were many substitutes for fuel, such as cow chips. With the coming of the railroads timber was more easily available, but at a cost. The use of barbed wire for fencing also reduced the need for timber.
The amount of damage that could be caused by Locusts was a fact that was totally unknown to most emigrants. Only those people who were personally exposed to the results could report on it to others. Most travel journals had no idea how bad it really could be. One day it looked like they might have a great crop, the next day it could be gone. With Locusts coming on top of droughts, many settlers decided it was time to go elsewhere.
Loneliness and isolation was a fact totally overlooked by most emigrants and the information they had read. The distance between homesteads was more than most had ever been exposed to in their lands of origin. In Europe most people farmed just outside of the town where they lived. Most farms in eastern America were much smaller and had others close by. The lack of trees on top of the lack of large hills and mountains magnified the distanced between people. The loneliness affected the women the most, but once there were children it was reduced. With all the activities that combined work, food, and entertainment a very rich of social life was started among settlers.
Homesteading proved to be very difficult and buying railroad land was a not whole lot better. Rain was scarce and 160 acres was too small to be economical. Almost one third of all farms and ranches failed. In the early 1850's Nebraska had only a couple thousand settlers, but by 1890 its population was over one million. The enticement of owning one’s own land continued to bring people to Nebraska.