Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Context files: Did your ancestor clear a Midwestern farm in the 1850s?

Economists Jeremy Atack and Robert Margo have confirmed what most of us might have expected: that the coming of the railroads in the 1850s did encourage Midwestern farmers to clear more land. That's the gist of their new paper at the National Bureau of Economic Research (full access by purchase or university affiliation).

The authors identified 278 counties in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Missouri that didn't change their boundaries, and compared land-clearing activity in counties that got a railroad during the 1850s with those that didn't. For many reasons the figures can't be precise, but they figure that between 1/4 and 2/3 of the land-clearing activity was inspired by railroad access, and the cheaper transportation and higher crop prices that it promised.

"Whatever else might have led Midwestern farmers to undertake the back-breaking labor of clearing their land," they conclude, "no other single factor seems likely to be as important as the potential gains from trade deriving from the arrival of the Iron Horse."

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