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"Land Was the Main Basis for Business: Markets, Merchants, and Communities in Frontier Iowa"

Bremer, Jeff. ""Land Was the Main Basis for Business": Markets, Merchants, and Communities in Frontier Iowa." The Annals of Iowa 76 (2017), 261-289. Available at:

In Bremer's 2017 article for Annals of Iowa, he provided meaningful insights into the motivations of Iowa's early American emigrants. Also of note, the author discussed how individuals, families, and communities sought to work to provide for wants and needs in early Iowa.

Bremer utilized a wealth of primary source material and quantitative date to fully-develop how early Iowans found a variety of ways to provide for themselves. Moving beyond typical insights on transport of goods providing opportunities for markets off the farm, examples abound of individuals taking initiative to capitalize on specific opportunities. For instance, eager Iowans sold a variety of agricultural products to other emigrants heading further west, be in Mormons heading for Utah of prospectors bound for California.

"AMERICANS and Europeans moved restlessly west across North America in the nineteenth century, searching for land and economic independence. People moved to new homes to “improve their material circumstances,” argues historian David Danbom, and most of them accepted the developing market society that had emerged from the original 13 states in the late eighteenth century." (261)

"Westward migration brought Euro-American families to Iowa for the first time in the 1830s and 1840s. They arrived with the intent of producing a market surplus to allow them to buy land and provide for themselves and their children. Such people needed goods that only others could provide—such as guns, cloth, nails, salt, and coffee—and they did not want to permanently leave behind the material comforts of their former homes. Merchants followed their customers into Iowa, providing goods for cash, barter, or credit. The first stores provided basic provisions, but by 1850 merchants in eastern Iowa were offering a wide variety of goods, from foodstuffs to spices, shoes, and paper." (261-262)

"Market participation did not harm the bonds between neighbors. Communities and neighbors assisted each other in many different ways, working together to complete a myriad of tasks that required mutual labor, including planting and harvesting crops, constructing buildings, traveling together to distant markets, and caring for sick neighbors. Iowa was, as farmer Thomas Warner wrote, “a good country for a poor hardworking man.” (262)

"Families in Iowa did not produce solely for local trade, and their economic actions were usually not limited by tradition or communal ideas. People came to Iowa to acquire land and improve their economic status. The ideal of the self-sufficient pioneer family was “inconsistent with the Iowa experience,” argues historian Dorothy Schwieder. Most Iowa farmers wanted to produce a surplus and make a profit. Furthermore, their mentalité, or worldview, was not opposed to individual gain and market participation, as some historians have argued." (262-263)

"By the time Iowa opened to formal white settlement on June 1, 1833, an acre purchased from the federal government cost $1.25. Settlers bought about one-third of Iowa’s land directly from the federal government with cash; another 40 percent of the state’s land was purchased using land warrants that veterans received for military service. (State land grants, including those to support railroad construction, and property given out through the Homestead Act, made up the rest of land sales in the state.) In addition to the cost of land, settlers needed capital to migrate west, as well as to purchase tools, seed, wagons, and livestock. Newcomers also had to feed themselves while awaiting their first crop. In the 1850s it could cost $500–$1,000 to establish a 160-acre farm; essential livestock, such as oxen, horses, cattle, and hogs, cost at least $200. Expenses could run into the hundreds of dollars for the first year." (263)

"Families might pay for property in Iowa by selling a farm in a state back east. But not all migrants were so fortunate. In 1860, 19 percent of farmers in Iowa were tenants who paid for rented property with a portion of their harvest. Families often labored for years to save money. Men worked as trappers or hired hands or practiced an artisan craft, such as tailoring, if they had such skills. Women might sell surplus eggs or butter." (263)

"FAMILY GOALS included providing land for children, which depended on favorable land values." (266)

"Bad harvests or bad luck could, however, undermine a family’s goal of buying their own land." (268)

"FARM FAMILIES who survived in Iowa for a year or more often found that incoming settlers gave them a market for their surplus. Dutch farmers in central Iowa found “ready consumers in the increasing population of the neighborhood.” Sjoerd Aukes Sipma, who immigrated from Holland to Iowa, wrote in a letter in 1848 that the farmers living near him “made a good living” because of the continual demand for food from new families." (269)

"During the California Gold Rush, Iowa farm families sold surplus hay and corn to emigrants heading west in the spring before grass had grown for their livestock to consume. Thousands of travelers provided a “good home market” for Iowans in eastern Iowa, wrote Benjamin F. Gue." (270)

"The increased demand for agricultural production led to steep increases in prices that farmers received for their goods. The price for a dozen eggs or a pound of butter went from five cents up to 25 to 30 cents. “Beef, poultry, milk, vegetable, flour and feed were all in active and daily demand.” The price of corn went up by ten times." (270)

"THOSE WHO COULD STAY in Iowa needed money to pay taxes and buy items at local stores, because most people did not want to live primitive subsistence lives. The production of foodstuffs for household consumption continued, even as commercial production increased." (272)

"Market participation helped families meet their needs but did not displace traditional farm production for family consumption. Iowa reflected the “dual nature” of this economic system. Farms existed in an increasingly commercial world, and midwestern families, including those in Iowa, produced a larger surplus per person than farms in the Northeast." (272)

"Iowans pursued opportunities to produce, harvest, or hunt items for sale or exchange. They hunted birds, with one town’s residents exporting 760 dozen quail and several tons of prairie chickens via railroad. Families also sold salted meat or smoked hams to railroads for sale in eastern cities. Income from the sale of wild game brought “a large sum of money” and helped families pay their taxes, noted Clarence Ray Aurner, who collected pioneer lore in a series of short books." (273-274)

"Before railroads remade the transport map of Iowa, surplus farm goods had to be moved to towns for sale. Families hauled their surplus grain, wheat, oats, and animal skins, sometimes halfway across the state, to sell or exchange so they could make their spartan homes more comfortable." (274)

"Waterways served as useful transport for Iowans. Since markets were hard to reach and money was scarce, local residents built flatboats and other craft to send surplus goods to markets before railroads arrived. Those who lived near rivers floated surplus goods down the Cedar or Des Moines rivers and then down the Mississippi to St. Louis when they could. James Marsh wrote that the first settlers north of Des Moines built a flatboat, which they loaded with their surplus cheese, butter, wheat, and maple sugar. They then floated down the river, selling and trading their goods for provisions, which they loaded onto the boat." (275)

"People took advantage of commercial opportunities when they were available, even if access was difficult. In central Iowa, the Des Moines River provided a route for small steamboats when the river was not too low. In 1859 the Charles Rogers made its way upriver to Fort Dodge full of sugar, coffee, tobacco, flour, and other goods. Near Boone, the boat sold $110 of its stock to a farmer who was “very anxious for supplies.” In Fort Dodge the boat sold all of its remaining goods by noon the day after it arrived. Fort Dodge served as a good market for nearby farmers but often lacked much in the way of store inventory, so area farmers often took surplus grain and livestock, as well as fur and pelts, to Des Moines to exchange at stores in the city." (276)

"MERCHANTS followed their customers into the newly settled areas of Iowa, providing the “necessities of life” on credit and meeting the material demands of farm families. Initially, they sold staple items from tools to foodstuffs from towns in eastern Iowa, but their ability to access customers was limited by inadequate transportation links to central and western sections of the state." (279)

"As areas became more populated and transportation links improved—especially with railroads in the late 1850s and 1860s—advertisements in local papers showed that furniture, kitchen goods, and even pianos had become commonplace." (284)

"MARKET PARTICIPATION did not, however, undermine the bonds that tied communities together. Families assisted each other in all phases of life and at all times of the year, from clearing land and harvesting crops to raising homes and taking wheat or pork to market. People exchanged labor, livestock, and foodstuffs with each other and ensured that their neighbors survived and prospered. The Iowa frontier was not the selfsufficient myth of popular imagination but one of shared sacrifice and mutual support." (285)

"People shared resources and freely exchanged almost any item that another family might need. Families pastured their cattle and sheep on open, unclaimed grasslands; prairies and woods also provided a great place to gather wild fruits, such as crab apples, wild plums, and strawberries. Hunters pursued animals across the countryside in search of meat or furs. Those with extra food often shared it with neighbors." (286)

"PEOPLE who came to Iowa in the mid–nineteenth century arrived with a strong commercial orientation. They accepted the need to participate in the expanding market system of the United States. Families pursued the chance to sell farm goods at almost every opportunity and used any profits to invest in buying land or in making their lives a bit more comfortable by purchasing material goods at stores. They accepted and understood the need to earn a profit to achieve their economic goals and emigrated to Iowa to buy land and provide for future generations. Securing capital for land or store goods did not mean that families produced goods only for market, as almost every farm family had to provide some of their own food. But Iowans were not solely self-sufficient farmers. They pursued the opportunity to exchange surplus goods at local stores for items they could not, or chose not to, make for themselves. Such items included necessities, such as powder, tools, and nails, as well as luxuries that made life easier or more pleasant, such as sugar, coffee, alcohol, or tobacco. Merchants helped meet this burgeoning demand for goods, following their customers into and across Iowa and helping to transform the prairies and forests of Iowa along with the people that bought their products. Communal labor and assistance helped families feed themselves and become involved in the burgeoning market economy. Such neighborhood bonds operated as a welfare network that provided companionship and comfort to families regardless of season. While life was challenging and filled with hard work, the common pursuit of shared goals helped families support each other." (288-289)


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