Explaining How Things Worked

Guest post by David B. Danbom

I wrote Sod Busting: How Families Made Farms on the 19th-Century Plains as the result of a conversation I had with Bob Brugger at the JHU Press booth at an Organization of American Historians meeting a few years ago.

I was complaining about how poorly American history textbooks actually explained things, especially when it came to the economy. Bob told me the Press was coming out with this “How Things Worked” series and asked whether I would be willing to do a volume on the settlement of the Plains. Having just complained about how poorly other historians explained how things worked, I could hardly turn him down.

Once I got into this project, I realized that historians don’t explain things very well because it is so hard to do. Take federal land policy, for example. The Homestead Act was laid on top of lots of other land legislation, was immensely complicated in itself, and was modified by virtually every Congress in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. No wonder farmers had so much trouble satisfying its requirements!

Another issue that required some hard thinking was credit. Plains farmers were dependent on credit, of course, but they got it from a variety of sources and it was extended to them in a variety of ways. Most challenging for me was figuring out the machinations of mortgage companies, which seemed to behave a lot like the big banks at the time of the 2008 financial crisis.

It is one thing to gain an understanding of land policy or farm credit and to explain it clearly enough that a college student can understand it. It is another thing to make material with a tendency to be as dry as the western Plains interesting. In order to do that, I mined the reminiscences of Plains settlers, many of whom struggled with the problems of land acquisition, home and farm making, credit, and the creation of schools, churches, and other institutions that I was trying to explain. I hope that these research assistants from the past helped make this book come alive for students, making it as much about how people made things work as it is about how things worked.

Sod Busting is designed to give students a clear idea of how people made farms and lives on the Plains. I hope it is brief enough, inexpensive enough, and interesting enough that it is not burdensome for students. And I hope that it helps their instructors convey to them how things worked on the Plains.


David B. Danbom is a retired professor of history. His many books include Born in the Country: A History of Rural America, also published by Johns Hopkins.