Academic journal article Michigan Academician

Antebellum Michigan Farmers and Their Soils: Choices Had Consequences

Academic journal article Michigan Academician

Antebellum Michigan Farmers and Their Soils: Choices Had Consequences

Article excerpt


Antebellum Michigan and the other four states in the Old Northwest attracted farmer-settlers in search of improved economic opportunities. Economic success in farming was helped by cultivating productive soils. Farmers in the pre-soil science era depended on rules-of-thumb and public pronouncements in selecting an area's best soils. The present article describes claims about the supply of soils in Michigan and its individual counties. This is followed by an economic assessment of farmers cultivating differently productive soils as classified by a recent soil survey in mid-Michigan's antebellum Midland County. The assessment combines multiple data sets that link individual farms to their soils and to each farm's performance in 1859, according to the agricultural census of 1860. The methodological contribution of the analysis demonstrates the feasibility of making linkages using land patents, deeds, soil maps, and census enumerator sheets for the 1860 population and agricultural censuses. The concluding discussion section in this article links the article's findings to assumed but untested hypotheses about the influence soils had on antebellum migration patterns. Both the methodological and substantive contributions of the article are based on a limited number of antebellum farmers in a single county.


The Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 laid the basis for opening 239,345 square miles (over 153 million acres) for settlement in the five states of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin. (1) Approximately 104 million of these acres (68 percent) contained potentially productive Alfisol and Mollisol soils. (2) There was a healthy demand for these and other new farm acres. During the 1850s alone, these five states added a net 273,000 new farms and twenty-two million new farm acres. (3) Although productive soils were widely available, not all farmers selected them. The percentage of farmers who made unwise choices and the economic consequences of these selections are the focus of the present study. (4)

Although there is a vast technical literature on the relationship between soil types and crop yields, little has been published on links between soils types and crop yields specific to individual antebellum farms. Instead, data have been aggregated at the township, county, or state level.

Research based on individual farms is a labor-intensive endeavor that requires linking patent, deed, soil survey, and agricultural census information. The present study's linkages of these data sources are limited to mid-Michigan's antebellum Midland County. Although information is available for only 31 farms, the pattern of relationships revealed from the diverse data sets for these 31 is supportive of research using other approaches. This consistency demonstrates the value of linking different data sets to enhance our understanding of antebellum farmers, farm economics, and settlement patterns.

This focus on individual farms will assume that antebellum farmers were rational decision-makers who selected land that would maximize the farm family's economic well-being. (5) Of course some farmers did not deliberately select poor soils. Instead, accurate information on soils was not readily available; also, farmers differed in their ability to identify good soils.


According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's most recent soil survey, Midland County has "about 332,800 acres, or 520 square miles" of land. (7) The county is located in a transitional agricultural area just west of Saginaw County. Some experts claim that grain-based agriculture is not viable north of a convex line stretching from today's Saginaw to Muskegon. (8) This line is also the approximate division between two vegetation zones as well as two broad soil types: the gray brown Podzolic of the south and the Podzol of the north. (9) Midland's coordinates of 43. …

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