Student Question

What were the major differences in the lives of western farmers and ranchers in the late 1800s?

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There were differences because of their trades, but many similarities between farmers and ranchers in this period, especially the responses to technology, increasing population, growing dependance on railroads and difficulties over resources and overproduction of crops and meat production.

I am also assuming you mean the late 19th century, as the term "late 1800s" would in fact mean 1808-1810.  The lives of farmers and ranchers are and were quite different, as the farming of grains and vegetables and the raising of cattle or sheep are very different types of work.  There were in fact great frictions between cattle and sheep rachers and ranchers in general and farmers.  The farmers tended to use barbed wire after 1870 to keep wandering herds of cattle out of their fields, while the free grazing of cattle was a practice which died hard.  It is still, in fact, practiced on some federal lands today.  Free grazers were used to their herds wandering most of the year on vast tracts of land, and resisted the enclosure of land by farmers and small ranches.  There were a number of instances of violence involved.  Sheep and cattle ranchers also had differences resulting in violence especially in Texas, Arizona, Wyoming and Oregon, as sheep tend to crop the grass much shorter than cattle, leaving less for cattle to graze on.  There were even conflicts among cattle ranchers, such as the 1892 Johnson County War, also known as the War on the Powder River, between large cattle barons and smaller ranchers in Wyoming.  In 1883 Texas there was the Fence-Cutter's War, in which free grazers cut the fences not only of farmers but of smaller cattle ranchers who saw the benefits of controlling the movement of their stock and revolving their pasturage.

Life among both farmers and ranchers was difficult, with social isolation a prime factor of life, along with hard labor from dawn to dusk all year long.  Farmers had something of a break in the depths of winter, but stockmen did not. The real problems, however, were the increasing soil exhaustion and over-production. As both farmers and ranchers became ever more dependant on the railroads for the transportation of their goods to market they also became dependant on the railroads for all the goods they needed.  As the production of crops and meat grew, prices declined, but the prices of the goods farmers and rachers needed increased.  This caused economic distress which grew so slowly the problem sort of crept up on people.  The overproduction not only dropped the income of the westerners, but it led to overuse of the soil and water resources, and increasing friction among themselves of access and use of those resources.  Eventually this helped lead to dependance on banks and credit, and helped lead to the Great Depression in the 20th century, and to the Dust Bowl.

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