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Who settled on the Great Plains?

Before 1860, few people moved west to try to settle on the Great Plains. The poor soil and harsh climate discouraged them - along with the fact that the Plains were officially 'Indian territory' - land was expensive to buy, and anybody wanting to go west faced a long, dangerous and uncomfortable journey.
After 1865, thousands of settlers moved onto the Plains.
Freed slaves went there to start a new life as freemen, or to escape economic problems after the Civil War.
European immigrants flooded onto the Great Plains, seeking political or religious freedom, or simply to escape poverty in their own country.
Younger sons from the eastern seaboard - where the population was growing and land was becoming more expensive - went because it was a chance to own their own land.
They were followed by other Americans - such as tradesmen and government officials - who hoped to make their living from the farmers who had moved onto the Plains.


Factors encouraging people to go West

The Homestead Act, 1862This allowed homesteaders to claim 160 acres of land free if they lived and worked on it for five years. The prospect of free land was very attractive to people who could never have afforded a farm back home.
RailroadsIn order to encourage the railroad companies to build the transcontinental railways, the government gave them a two-mile stretch of land either side of the railroad - part of the companies' profit came from selling this land. Therefore they launched a massive sales campaign, offering a 'settlement package', which included:
a safe, cheap and speedy journey west
temporary accommodation in 'hotels' until the families had built their own home
other attractions such as schools, churches and no taxes for five years
Manifest destinyThe idea grew up that white Americans were superior, and that it was America's manifest destiny (obvious fate) to expand and encourage 'the American way of life' on the Great Plains. The writer Horace Greeley, who popularised this idea, advised Americans: 'Go West, young man'.
Tall talesOnce the population of an area reached 60,000, it could apply to become a state of the USA. Local governments therefore encouraged publicity campaigns which claimed, for example, that farmers in the west could grow pumpkins as big as barns and maize as tall as telegraph poles. Many people moved west thinking they would make a fortune.