History Detective

Activity 6

Pioneer Farming

exploring the prairie module icon


Buying Land

The first pioneer settlers started to move into present-day Iowa in 1833. But they settled in only a part of Iowa called the Black Hawk Purchase. This section of land was "purchased" from the Sauk and Mesquakie (or Fox) Indians following the Black Hawk War.

Indian Cessions Map


  • Read the following questions.
  • Write your answers to the questions in your notebook.
  1. Which section of the state was open for pioneer settlement first?
  2. In what part of the state were the next sections open for pioneer settlement?
  3. In what general direction did pioneer settlement move?


Check your answers!

After you check your answers, read about how the land was surveyed.

Surveying Land

As settlers began to arrive in Iowa, first they needed to buy land. The federal government had to measure and map the land before it could be sold. This process is called surveying.

When the land was surveyed it was laid out in townships. A township is a square section of land that measures six miles by six miles.

Each township contained 36 sections. Each section was 640 acres or one mile by one mile.

Division of a township - 36 sections, starting with 1 in the upper right hand corner.

But a pioneer farmer couldn't plant a whole section. Most pioneer settlers started with 80 acres. That way several pioneer families would live on a single section of land.

When the government had surveyed the land, they set up a land office where they sold the land at auctions.

Land usually sold for $1.25 per acre. That was a lot of money in the 1830s and 1840s.

Another way the settlers got their land was from the railroad companies. The government gave railroad companies the land to encourage them to build railroad lines in the new territories.

The railroad companies would sell some of it to farmers for a much higher rate. They advertised the land sales with beautiful posters describing the land and the terms of payment.

By 1842, nearly half of the state of Iowa had been surveyed and was open for pioneer settlement.

100 Years of Change

Pioneer farming was hard work. Early pioneers had few machines to help them do their work. Almost every pioneer farm job was done by hand with handmade tools.

Explore the following resources that describe pioneer farming from the early 1800s to the horse-powered farm of the early 1900s.

The Iowa Agriculturist follows the annual cycle of farm work from plowing to harvesting.

1900 Horse-powered Farm
What was the role of draft horses on an early farm?


Use the above resources to build a chart identifying and illustrating the farm jobs done during each season.

  1. Title your chart "100 Years of Change"
  2. Divide your chart into two columns to show how this work was done on the pioneer farm and how it was done on the horse-powered farm of 1900.
  3. For each column, describe the farm jobs done during each season-spring, summer, fall, and winter.
  4. Illustrate your chart with original drawings. The following resources such as paintings by Iowa artist Grant Wood may help get you started.
    Breaking the Prairie
    Fall Plowing
    Young Corn
    Stone City
    Spring in the Country - Grant Wood
    Going Back to Iowa - The World of Grant Wood

Farm Inventions

During the 19th century, many new inventions made farm work easier. These new inventions also allowed farmers to plant and harvest more land.

The history of American Agriculture follows the progress of agricultural equipment over the last 300 years.

Which Came First?


Based on your knowledge of farm equipment during the 19th century, rank each of the following pairs of events.

In each pair, which event came first? Which came later?

When you have made your predictions, go to The history of American Agriculture timeline to verify your answers. When you have made your rankings, check your answers by clicking the "Check your answers" button.

Jethro Wood patented iron plow with interchangeable parts.
2-horse straddle-row cultivator patented.
Check your answers!

Steam tractors were tried out.
Oxen and horses used to power crude wooden plows.
Check your answers!

The growing use of factory-made agricultural machinery.
Cradle and scythe introduced.
Check your answers!

Agriculture became increasingly mechanized and commercialized.
John Lane began to manufacture plows faced with steel saw blades.
Check your answers!

John Deere began manufacturing steel plows.
Change from hand power to horses characterized the first American agricultural revolution.

Check your answers!

camp silos

Submit Feedback

Report Issue / Broken Link