Before the passage of the Homestead Act, the Great Plains had often been referred to by geographers as “The Great American Desert” due to its common pattern of drought and generally arid conditions. However, once the Homestead Act was passed, the area along the 1ooth Meridian was often advertised, especially by the railroads and their land agents, as a veritable paradise. In reality, this was a place of long droughts and sudden downpours, although the snowstorm and thunderstorms never managed to counterbalance the drought.
What were the problems with the Homestead Act? Was 160 acres enough land to support a family in the “desert” of the Great Plains? That number had been chosen because it was more than adequate for the support of a family in the Ohio Valley. But the Great Plains had entirely different soil, topography, and climate, with very little surface water available, fewer trees, and limited technology at the time to do anything about it.
Of course, some scientists tried to warn about the ecological disaster that could ensue. One of these was John Wesley Powell, a fascinating character in his own right who explored much of the Desert Southwest, including the Colorado River, even though he only had one arm. Powell warned that large settlements dependent upon agriculture would not really be possible west of the 100th Meridian– the western boundary of Oklahoma and Texas.
Unfortunately, more people believed a discredited theory of climatology that “the rain follows the plow.” The general idea was that, once the plows of the settlers turned over the original sod, moisture would be released into the air, priming the water cycle and increasing rainfall. I know– crazy! However, just by chance, the 1870s and 1880s were unusually wet, and so many people, including some who called themselves scientists, considered this fluke of weather to be proof of man-made climate change.
Of course, eventually, encouraging thousands of small farms on the Great Plains would have devastating ecological consequences: The Dust Bowl of the 1930s: http://www.eoearth.org/article/Dust_Bowl