Describe the rise and decline of the western Plains farmer in the late nineteenth century.
Farmers began to move en masse into the Great Plains in the aftermath of the American Civil War. They were drawn by the promise of cheap land, as well as by government encouragement, particularly in the form of the Homestead Act, which guaranteed land to anyone who would settle it for five years. Small homesteaders eked out an existence on the plains, assisted by new technology that made farming more efficient, as well as railroads that facilitated the sale of crops in distant markets, particularly in Chicago. But the era of the small farmer was short-lived, as railroads fixed prices and charged rates that priced out many small farmers, who often found themselves buried in debt as commodity prices rose and fell throughout the period. Land speculators, often railroad magnates, invested heavily in enormous tracts of land and set up massive farms that anticipated the agribusinesses of the late twentieth century. All of these factors militated against economic success for Plains farmers, and the Populist movement of the late twentieth century, with its emphasis on democratic reforms and currency devaluation, emerged in response.