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A History Of Drought On The Great Plains

September 20, 2015

By Paul Homewood 


Today’s post on megadroughts in Kansas reminds me of one I ran last year.

There are some detailed accounts of the 19th droughts, but also a reference to the unusually wet period in the 1880’s, which led to the theory that “the rain follows the plough”.

A drought followed in the 1890’s, but another wet period in the early 20thC again encouraged unsustainable cultivation of the land.


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, the hottest July on record in Nebraska, 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.



  1. ClimateOtter permalink
    September 20, 2015 9:29 pm

    A short, wetter period between 1877 and 1890. Wasn’t there a temperature blip during that same period? It rose a bit from the end of the LIA, then dropped again briefly, if I recall rightly.

  2. Bloke down the pub permalink
    September 21, 2015 1:10 pm

    Did you read the Philip Eden column in the Telegraph Sunday? It’s interesting that, in debunking the Al-Aziziyah world record temperature, he’s quite willing to acknowledge the effect of concrete and tarmac on high temperature readings, yet as far as I know, he still thinks Heathrow is an acceptable place to do climatology.

  3. September 21, 2015 1:22 pm

    1859 was a strange summer for the US Northeast. My family owned a farm outside Meadville, Crawford County, PA from the American Revolution. The Army Corps stole it in the late 1960’s to install a dirty little puddle called a “reservoir project”. I grew up going to the farm, my grandmother’s family home in the country outside Meadville (south of Erie). There was a white pine in the front yard which had a fork from the severe frost on June 4,1859 which killed the terminal. According to newspaper accounts, it killed all fruit buds and most of the grain crops. Ice as thick as 1/2″ formed and there was a 2-3″ snowfall. A week later there was a second, but less severe frost. Flour was brought in by canal due to shortages. One merchant sold his imported flour for the regular price instead of gouging and helped to bring financial stability to the region.

    The question? Who do we blame for that “extreme climate” event in 1859?

  4. Lee Provost permalink
    September 21, 2015 1:45 pm

    I really appreciate the comments and anticipate my daily emails from Paul. This is a great site for the truth! Thank you everyone

  5. September 21, 2015 7:48 pm

    I think that those views from the past should be very useful for our days scientists, helping them to make predictions and create models…. I also remember reading an article about USA’s weather being influenced by the war – Seems that those World War had a high influence over the oceans and thus over the entire climate.

  6. Andy DC permalink
    September 22, 2015 11:19 pm

    July 1936 was overall even hotter than July 1934 in the American Great Plains and Midwest.

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