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Downloadable Media: The Era of Self-Sufficiency
Utah is not the best state for agriculture; good land and water are both scarce. Nevertheless, hundreds of small farming villages were founded throughout Utah after the arrival of the Mormon pioneers in 1847. Families in these villages farmed on small plots of land near their communities. The land was dry and had to be irrigated for raising animals and crops. Farmers brought water to their land by digging ditches and canals with hand tools and horsepower. During the first decades of Utah settlement, each family and village worked to become self-sufficient, striving to grow and raise everything they needed to take care of themselves.
But as Utah approached statehood and the twentieth century, there were changes ahead. What happened to Utah agriculture after statehood? What impact would these changes have on the people of Utah? What effect would the changes in Utah's agriculture have on our rural communities, our economy, our land and water use, and our values. Consider these questions as you study Changes and Challenges: A Century of Utah Agriculture.
The first company of Mormon pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley through Emigration Canyon on July 24, 1847. They started establishing a community and named the area "Great Salt Lake City." In the fall of 1847, three more companies of pioneers made their way to the Salt Lake Valley. By 1869, more than 70,000 Latter-day Saint pioneers traveled along the Mormon Trail on the north side of the Platte River.
What made the Mormon landscape unique?
At the Utah State Historical Society website, read the Utah History to Go article titled, "What Made the Mormon Landscape Unique?" by Becky Bartholomew. As you read this article, look for what made Mormon villages in Utah different from other American settlements.
Why were they different? How have communities that began as Mormon villages in Utah changed over the years? What things, if any, have not changed?
As part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed February 2, 1848, Mexico ceded 55 percent of its territory to U.S. forces, including the present-day states of California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, most of Arizona and Colorado, and parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming. Mexico also relinquished all claims to Texas.
Farmers during Utah’s period of self-sufficiency farming raised wheat for bread, cattle for meat, and sheep for meat and wool. They also grew hay, barley, corn, and oats to feed their animals. Families kept chickens for meat and eggs, and dairy cows for milk. In the warm climate of southern Utah farmers experimented with growing sugar cane for sugar and molasses, grapes for wine, and cotton for cloth. Utah women even tried raising silkworms to produce silk for making fine dresses. Why might the people of Utah have worked so hard to become self-sufficient in the years before statehood?
Farming in Widstoe, Utah
Study this photograph. What can you learn from it about the people who chose to farm the land surrounding these isolated Utah villages?
Cowboys & Cattle
Cowboys and cattle are an important part of Utah's history. Cattle ranches were located in all areas of the Utah territory. Cowboys trailed livestock to winter or summer pastures and searched the deserts and canyons for strays. Some of the first livestock herds in the Utah territory belonged to former fur trappers Jim Bridger and Miles Goodyear. Cattle were a crucial part of the Mormon economy and a critical bartering item when thousands of California-bound gold seekers passed through Utah in 1849. Today, cattle still influence the attitudes and lifestyles of many Utahns. Cattle ranchers have preserved the culture of their predecessors while also adapting to modern-day technology advancments such as vehicles, computers, drones, and more.
The Pony Express was a mail delivery service that depended on fast horses. Even though it only lasted a short period of time, it was an important piece of history in the American West. Utah had several Pony Express stations, and the old trails can still be seen in the western deserts of Utah today. The Pony Express had 190 relay stations, and 24 of the stations were located in Utah. Using horses, young men carried letters from Missouri to California as fast as they could. At each station, a rider jumped off his tired horse and mounted a new horse. The riders were allowed two minutes to get a drink and piece of bread. After switching horses eight times, they tossed the mailbag to a new rider. Because of this system, mail hardly ever stopped moving. The Utah Territory was the most dangerous part of the Pony Express. Some Paiute bands thought riders and stations were a threat to their hunting grounds. The Pony Express generally provided excellent service, covering the 1,966-mile one-way distance in 10 days or less. In October 1862, the Pacific Telegraph was completed at Salt Lake City, and messages could be relayed almost instantly. The Pony Express became obsolete overnight.
The Homestead Act of 1862 was one of many land acts the United States government passed to encourage the settlement of land in the western part of the country. Signed into law in 1862 by Abraham Lincoln after the secession of southern states, this Act turned over vast amounts of the public domain to private citizens. Ten percent of the area of the United States (270 million acres) was claimed and settled under this act. This provided 160 acres of public land free of charge (except for a small filing fee) to anyone who was either 21 years of age or head of a family, who was a citizen or person who had filed for citizenship, and who had lived on and cultivated the land for at least five years.
The Homestead Act
The Homestead Act, signed into legislation by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862, gave private citizens the rights to claim U.S. public lands. A homesteader had to be the head of a household and at least 21 years old to claim a 160-acre parcel of land. However, because of unsettled conflict between the Mormon Church and the United States government, the citizens of Utah Territory were not able to take advantage of the Homestead Law until 1869.
If you had been around in the 1860s, would you have tried to claim a homestead? Why or why not? Why weren't early Utahns not allowed to claim land as part of the Homestead Act of 1862?
The arrival of the railroad in Utah brought with it an ethnic mix of immigrants from Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. British-born people dominated immigration--many who filled jobs in business, labor, and farming. African Americans came to Utah in 1847 with the first immigrant company and farmed in the Salt Lake Valley. Europeans from Sweden and Denmark settled in the Sanpete Valley and worked on hardscrabble farms. Japanese came to Utah looking for work and settled in Box Elder, Weber, and Salt Lake counties, growing celery, strawberries, and other crops for sale. During this same time period, Latinos from southern Colorado and northern New Mexico came to Utah with cattle drives. They settled in southeastern towns and worked as sheepherders and cattle drivers.
Commercial mining in Utah can be traced to Colonel Patrick E. Connor and his experienced volunteers from California and Nevada. They arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in October 1862 and began searching the Wasatch and Oquirrh mountains for gold and silver. In 1863, the first formal claims were located in the Bingham Canyon area. This discovery spurred further exploration. Mining for metals, coal, and minerals was an important component of Utah's economic, industrial, political, and social growth and development. Once the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, this increased Utah's mining efforts from small-scale businesses to large commercial enterprises. Some of Utah's top leading mining districts included Bingham, Park City, and Tintic.
Immigrants were a major source of labor in Utah mining operations. In 1880, approximately 50% of the workers at Bingham Canyon Mine emigrated from northern Europe.
Although Utah mining operations provided employment for a large number of immigrants, discrimination towards these workers was common. Immigrants were paid considerably less than what Anglo workers were earning, even though the work assigned to immigrants was much harder. Why do you think these foreign-born workers were treated this way?
On May 10, 1869, the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroad lines met at Promontory Summit. The railroad brought change to Utah in many ways including agriculture. With a new transcontinental railroad, Utah farmers began sending large quantities of wheat and fruits to people in other parts of the country. Shortly after the transcontinental railroad was finished, Utah beef was sent to San Fransisco in refrigerated cars. In December of 1870, Utah farmers shipped 60,000 pounds of dried peaches to the East.
The Utah Journey
Irrigation is a vital part of agriculture. Obtaining adequate amounts of water for crops was a challenge for early settlers throughout Utah. When the Mormon pioneers arrived in Utah, they had traveled from areas in the United States where crops were watered with plenty of rainfall. They saw the need for irrigation in Utah and immediately started digging ditches and diverting streams. Dry farming was discovered around 1866 by Danish settlers in Box Elder County. As they began watering crops from the Malad River, they soon discovered it was so alkaline that it killed the crops and ruined the soil. Out of desperation and starvation, the settlers plowed up the sagebrush, planted grain, and awaited the results. Much to their surprise, they received fair amounts of grain, and since then, dry farming has been an established practice for Utah farmers.
Dry Farming in a Nutshell
Here is the text of Chapter 20, Dry-Farming in a Nutshell, excerpted from Dry-Farming: A system of agriculture for countries under low rainfall, by John A. Widstoe, A.M., Ph.D, President of the Agricultural College of Utah, published 1920.
After 100 years, this book is still used by farmers around the world. Why might that be?
Visit this page from Utah Stories from the Beehive Archive page to learn more about the origins of dry farming in Utah.
Why is dry farming still a common agricultural practice used today?
Canal Construction in Utah
How would knowing that new canals were planned or under construction have encouraged you to buy land and expand your farm in the early 1900s?
A reservoir is a large lake (natural or human-made) that is used as a source of water supply. In Utah, reservoirs store water for agriculture, drinking water, and other uses. Utah's largest supply of water comes from snowpack and precipitation during the winter. When the snow begins to melt in the spring, water begins flowing downstream. Without reservoirs to collect all the runoff, snowmelt would largely be gone by summer. Reservoirs allow us to store water and extend our water supply throughout the dry months. Reservoirs can only give us so much, so it is important to be aware of reservoir water levels, especially during times of drought.
Take a look at the interactive reservoir map. Is there a reservoir located near you? What is the current capacity for a particular reservoir?
After looking at the precipitation map, why would Dr. Widtsoe's book have been so important? Where would canals and other water projects need to be built?
Considering the challenge of building irrigation infrastructure, why do you think early settlers might have been drawn to the American West?
What role did irrigation play in the survival of the early pioneers? What role does it play today?
During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill LandGrant College Act which funded the establishment of a new college in each state and territory. These schools were to promote higher education and practical learning, especially to those who lived a rural life. On March 8, 1888, the Agricultural College of Utah (now Utah State University) was founded as the state's land-grant institution.
Rooted in Rural Education
With the land-grant distinction, Utah State University has the responsibility to educate the state. Today, USU has a presence in every county in Utah. Before modern technology, professors would travel the state by horse and buggy, train, and cars to teach classes and provide new information and techniques to rural students and residents.
Why is it beneficial to the public for a land-grant university to have a presence in every county?