Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The myth that "rainfall follows the plow" began in the late 1800s as new settlers pushed onto the Great Plains. The settlers needed water to transform the prairie into farms. As they crossed the 100th meridian and the twenty-inch rainfall line, settlers persuaded themselves that they were the agents of increased precipitation. Proponents of this theory believed that breaking the prairie sod would allow rainfall to be absorbed into the soil. This moisture would then evaporate into the atmosphere and result in an increase in humidity and rainfall.

Some early explorers and writers had suggested the possibility of altering the Plains by cultivation. Santa Fe trader Josiah Gregg proposed that extensive cultivation of the earth might contribute to the multiplication of showers, and itinerant Englishman Sir Richard Burton pointed to increased rainfall at the Mormon settlements in Utah and attributed the change to cultivation and tree planting.

One of the most widely recognized supporters of the plow theory was Dr. Samuel Aughey Jr., a professor at the University of Nebraska. Professor Aughey wrote numerous articles, addressed the Kansas and Nebraska state boards of agriculture as well as the Nebraska State Legislature, and published a book entitled Sketches of the Physical Geography and Geology of Nebraska in 1880. He explained that the soil would absorb the rain like a huge sponge once the sod had been broken. This moisture would then be given slowly back to the atmosphere by evaporation. Each year, as cultivation extended across the Plains, Aughey argued, the moisture and rainfall would also increase until the region was fit for agriculture without irrigation.

Following in Aughey's footsteps was Charles Dana Wilber, who popularized the phrase "rain follows the plow" in his book, The Great Valleys and Prairies of Nebraska and the Northwest (1881). Other individuals supporting this theory included H. R. Hilton, a Kansas farmer-agriculturist; Orange Judd, editor and publisher of the Prairie Farmer in Chicago; and Professor Frank H. Snow, later chancellor of the University of Kansas.

Railroads, trying to attract settlers to their land grants, also quickly adopted a theory that advocated an increase in rainfall in the Great American Desert, and they used it in their promotional slogans. For example, the Santa Fe Railroad printed a pamphlet showing a Kansas farmer using a steel plow. The pamphlet asks, "Who killed the Great American Desert?" The sturdy yeoman answers, "I did with my team and plow." The railroad also advertised that the rain line was moving steadily westward at the rate of about eighteen miles per annum, keeping just ahead of and propelled by the advancing population. Whenever Professor Aughey spoke, a stenographer employed by the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad was usually close at hand. Copies of his speeches were published and distributed to prospective emigrants in Europe.

The plow theory essentially ended with the severe droughts of the 1890s, although some diehard proponents suggested that this was only because the plowing had not been deep enough.

See also PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT: Aughey, Samuel, Jr.

M. Jean Ferrill Northern Michigan University

Emmons, David M. Garden in the Grasslands. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1971.

Ferrill, Jean Williams. "The Marginal Lands of Australia and the American West: Some Comparisons in Their Perceptions and Settlement." In The Process of Rural Transformation, edited by Ivan Volgyes, Richard E. Lonsdale, and William P. Avery. New York: Pergamon Press, 1980: 68–88.

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