Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The peopling of the Great Plains in the United States was significantly fueled by the promotional activities of state and territorial immigration boards. Following the Civil War many U.S. citizens looked for a fresh start in the sparsely populated Plains. Overpopulation and a lack of land on which to build a livelihood also influenced many Europeans to emigrate and create a new life for themselves in the opened tracts of the Great Plains. The Homestead Act of 1862 provided another major impetus by giving any U.S. citizen, or alien who intended to become a citizen, 160 acres of land.

Developed settlements encouraged law and order, provided entrepreneurial opportunities in agriculture and industry, and offered better methods of reliable transportation for the new transplants. The railroads promoted settlement by providing land along their tracks and by mounting vigorous advertising campaigns. Attracting immigrants to the Plains was economically important for land companies, as well as for the already settled residents of the territories and many newly organized states. In the early 1870s, for example, the community of Yankton paid local merchants who were in New York on business to meet incoming steamships and make a pitch to immigrants– particularly German Russians, who knew how to farm the prairie–to settle in southeastern Dakota Territory. Many state or territorial governments established boards or bureaus of immigration to foster the settlement of the Plains.

The immigration boards advertised primarily in the United States and Europe through newspapers and pamphlets and by setting up exhibits at World Fairs and various conferences. Colorado's immigration board was typical of these government agencies. In 1872 the Territory of Colorado established the Board of Immigration to promote Colorado as an attractive and desirable locality for those seeking homes, to supply immigrants with full and authoritative information, and to aid and facilitate their journey to the territory. Similarly, the Dakota Territory's legislature set up an Immigration Bureau in January of 1871, headed by a commissioner who published promotional pamphlets and spent time in New York competing with agents from Kansas and Nebraska for potential Plains settlers. The size of the bureau was increased to five in 1875, including a German who was responsible for immigrants disembarking from steamboats in New York and from trains in Chicago, and a Norwegian who was assigned to attract Scandinavians. The bureau operated until 1877, by which time immigration had its own momentum, prompted by settlers' letters back to the Old Country.

For most people, moving to the Great Plains was difficult, not least because of the environmental challenges. Information about the climate and living conditions was particularly helpful for many prospective settlers. Immigration handbooks and publications provided necessary facts, but they sometimes exaggerated the qualities of the environment and the settlements in order to attract more people. These handbooks became an important genre of literature throughout the latter part of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries. Although the immigration boards were not above overrating their advertised regions, most agencies published credible and honest information so that the newcomers would be successful in their pursuits. A failed settlement, after all, could not significantly contribute to the growth and development of the region.

Erin McDanal Colorado State Archives

Board of Immigration. Collection. Colorado State Archives, Denver. Greenleaf, Barbara Kaye. America Fever: The Story of American Immigration. New York: Four Winds Press, 1970.

Schell, Herbert S. History of South Dakota. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961.

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