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A History Of Drought On The Great Plains

March 24, 2014

By Paul Homewood



I’ve been watching an fascinating series about the 1930’s dustbowl. We all know just how severe that drought on the southern plains, and indeed much of the US, was during that decade.

What I had not realised was that the previous couple of decades were unusually wet. It seems that this encouraged farmers to plough the natural buffalo grass, which held the soil together and helped to retain moisture. There was even a theory that “rain follows the plough”!

Evidently, the old hands (mainly stockmen) warned of the dangers, as they remembered the earlier droughts in the 1890’s.

[No prizes for anyone who is thinking about “cycles” here!]


Wiki give a good summary of 19thC droughts in the US. Take close note of the comment that “the period between 1877 and 1890 was wetter than usual


There were at least three major droughts in nineteenth century North America: one from the mid-1850s to the mid-1860s, one in the 1870s, and one in the 1890s. There was also a drought around 1820; the periods from 1816 to 1844 and from 1849 to 1880 were rather dry, and the 19th century overall was a dry century for the Great Plains. While there was little rain-gauge data from the mid-19th century in the middle of the US, there were plenty of trees, and tree-ring data showed evidence of a major drought from around 1856 to around 1865. Native Americans were hard hit, as the bison they depended upon on the Plains moved to river valleys in search of water, and those valleys were full of Natives and settlers alike. The river valleys were also home to the humans’ grazing animals, which competed against the bison for food. The result was starvation for many of the bison.

The 1870-1877 drought brought with it a major swarm of Rocky Mountain Locusts, as droughts benefit locusts, making plants more nutritious and edible to locusts and reducing diseases that harm locusts. Locusts also grow more quickly during a drought and gather in small spots of lush vegetation, enabling them to swarm, facts which contributed to the ruin of much of the farmland in the American West. The evidence for this drought is also primarily in tree-ring, rather than rain gauge, data.

The 1890s drought, between 1890 and 1896, was the first to be widely and adequately recorded by rain gauges, with much of the American West having been settled. Railroads promised land to people willing to settle it, and the period between 1877 and 1890 was wetter than usual, leading to unrealistic expectations of land productivity. The amount of land required to support a family in more arid regions was already larger than the amount that could realistically be irrigated by a family, but this fact was made more obvious by the drought, leading to emigration from recently settled lands. The Federal government started to assist with irrigation with the 1902 Reclamation Act.



Drought and Depression in 1890s Nebraska


The Nebraska State Historical Society has this account of the 1890’s:


Nebraska in the early 1890s suffered from protracted drought, and farm prices fell to new lows. Conditions were so unfavorable that immigration, which had more than doubled the state’s population in the 1880s, almost ceased. Nebraska’s population only increased by seven thousand persons between 1890 and 1900. Some became so discouraged that they sold or gave up their property and left the state.

Charles H. Morrill, a prominent farmer, businessman, and banker for whom Morrill County was named, both witnessed and experienced these conditions in Nebraska. In his autobiographical The Morrills and Reminiscences, published in 1918, he recalled:

“In the year 1893 crops in Nebraska were almost totally destroyed by drought and hot winds. Then came the panic and financial stress, which paralyzed business. In 1894 Nebraska was doomed to have another crop failure. Farmers were obliged to ship in grain and even hay to feed their stock; many sacrificed their live stock by selling at very low prices. Some farmers shot their stock hogs to prevent their starving. Financial conditions grew worse and the entire state was almost in the grip of actual famine.

“Values were greatly reduced, merchants and banks failed. In Lincoln all banks with the exception of three went out of business or failed. Farmers could not pay interest on their mortgages; land could not be sold at any price; foreclosure of mortgages was the general order. . . . In the central and western sections of the state the price of land fell to almost nothing. In Custer County, a very large acreage went into the ownership of eastern real estate and loan companies. These lands were mortgaged for five hundred to seven hundred dollars on each one hundred and sixty acres. One eastern loan company offered to sell me forty quarter sections at two hundred dollars each.

“The crop for 1895 was almost a failure. The result was that all confidence in Nebraska real estate was gone. . . . Good farm lands in Polk and other eastern counties sold as low as twenty-five hundred dollars for one hundred and sixty acres. Many of these farms had improvements thereon valued at fifteen hundred to two thousand dollars. No one desired to purchase while almost everyone wished to sell.”



Kansas Drought of 1890s


And this account in Kansas is similar:


In many regards the early 1890s were harder on farmers in western Kansas than were the 1930s. Although the dust storms of this prior period were fewer and less severe than they would be four decades later, the social costs were at least as high and probably higher.

Wheat and (especially the less drought-tolerant) corn yields fell off and many (not only in Kansas but throughout the western plains) faced starvation or malnutrition — problems encountered by few people during the “Dirty Thirties.” While many of the region’s settlers simply walked off the land (leading cattle ranchers to begin buying up much of the land from which they had recently been driven), many of the rugged frontier types stubbornly waited out the drought.

The emigrants planted corn and wheat, reaping excellent harvests, and the precipitation totals seemed to lend credence to the contemporary scientific theory proffered by the region’s boosters that “rain follows the plow.” This belief, of course, had no basis in fact – the mid-1880s had merely coincided with an unusually wet cycle on the plains. By 1889, the cycle had shifted to drought.




Another history of the 1894 drought in 1894 states;


The weather was also a problem in Adams County in the early 1890s. Rainfall was low and July, 1890 saw several days of 100-degree heat topped by 110 and 115 degree days. The corn crop was destroyed and several businesses failed in Hastings.


 Unfortunately, NOAA temperature records don’t extend that far back, but a look at the station records for Hastings in July 1934, it would appear that conditions were similar in 1894.

In 1934, there were 22 days >=100F, with four of 110F or more. The highest was 113F.





Contrast that with the hottest month of the 2012 heatwave, when the highest temperature was just 103F.




Clearly heatwaves in that part of the country are not becoming more intense, and droughts are a naturally occurring, cyclical event. But don’t expect those who worship the Gods of Low Carbon to tell you this.

One Comment
  1. March 26, 2014 7:18 am

    Brings home the adage: “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” (Feynman)

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