Eastern Colorado, bordered by the foothills of the Rocky Mountains on the west, Kansas on the east, and the corners of Nebraska and Oklahoma, constitutes a portion of the Great Plains. It is the agricultural heartland of Colorado. This semiarid region is characterized by silty and sandy loam soils, twelve to eighteen inches of annual precipitation, and wind velocities averaging from twelve to fourteen miles per hour. Temperatures plunge below zero degrees Fahrenheit in the winter and rise above 100 degrees in the summer. Drought-resistant grama and buffalo grasses, generally known as short grasses, are the predominant natural vegetation.
During the eighteenth century, the Comanche followed the horse herds southward out of Wyoming and across the Colorado plains to the Arkansas River Valley. Spain laid claim to these lands as part of Nuevo México but had to contend with the formidable Comanche. As the United States fought for independence from Great Britain in the late eighteenth century, the Spanish secured several victories against the Comanche on the plains of Southern Colorado.
Then, during the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth, the Algonquian-speaking Arapaho and Cheyenne arrived on the Colorado plains. Both groups had reached the Platte River Valley from the north. The Arapaho ranged west to the foothills and Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, while the Cheyenne mostly kept to the eastern plains. The grasslands nourished the huge bison herds that both native groups depended on for food, clothing, and shelter. By the 1840s, an uptick in the bison hide trade and westward Anglo-American expansion along the Oregon Trail led to a decline in the bison population, and the Plains Indians’ way of life began to change.
Over the ensuing decades, especially after the Colorado Gold Rush in 1858–59, the Native Americans were under increased pressure to give up their land to the United States. Many Cheyenne and Arapaho bands faced starvation during this time, and the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 provoked open war between groups of Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors and the US government.
Per the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867, Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho leaders agreed to give up their land in eastern Colorado and move to reservations. In 1869 President Ulysses S. Grant created a reservation for the Southern Cheyenne in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). In 1878, the Northern Arapaho settled on the Shoshone Reservation in Wyoming. After beginning a northward migration during the late 1870s, in 1900 the Northern Cheyenne received their own reservation in Montana by the directive of President William McKinley.
As the Cheyenne and Arapaho moved to reservations, above-average precipitation in the 1860s encouraged white settlement. Ranchers, especially from Texas, occupied the Colorado plains before large-scale settlement by farmers. During the 1860s, cattle raisers selected ranch sites along the Arkansas and South Platte Rivers, and they brought thousands of Texas longhorns to the Colorado plains on their way to northern ranges and miners’ dinner plates in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. By 1869, approximately 1 million cattle and 2 million sheep grazed the eastern plains, primarily between Denver and the Wyoming border. Eastern investors bought cattle and hired ranch managers and cowboys to graze cattle on the public domain.
By 1872 two cattle associations, the Colorado Stockgrowers’ Association and the Southern Colorado Association, had organized to govern the use of the open range. But during the mid-1880s, overgrazing; abnormally hot, grass-scorching summers; and severe winters with low temperatures and heavy snows ruined the open-range cattle industry. In its place, settlers soon moved onto the grasslands to farm.
In 1870, railroad lines such as the Denver Pacific, which connected with the Union Pacific in Cheyenne; the Kansas Pacific, which reached Denver; and the Rock Island, which reached Colorado Springs in 1888, contributed to the rapid settlement of eastern Colorado. During the 1870s and 1880s editors, travelers, and businessmen reported that on Colorado’s high, dry plains farmers could raise crops sufficient to feed themselves and livestock as well as earn a profit. During the late 1880s more than 16,000 farmers filed homestead applications. They also filed more than 15,000 claims under the Timber Culture Act of 1878. Farmers who claimed land under the Homestead Act of 1862 and Timber Culture Acts of 1873 and 1878 believed the environment of eastern Colorado would support extensive agriculture, but compared to settlement in Nebraska and Kansas, few farmers requested land under these acts. Homesteading on the Colorado plains primarily occurred during the early twentieth century.
During the 1870s many settlers established farm communities or colonies. The Union Colony, which founded Greeley in 1870, helped encourage further settlement in Weld County. Settlement colonies purchased large blocks of land, often served by railroads. The immigrant colonies became compact settlements that supported communal efforts, such as the construction of irrigation systems. During the 1870s the Colorado plains primarily attracted settlers from the Old Northwest (present-day Midwest), New York, Missouri, and Iowa for irrigated farming.
Abundant rainfall during the 1880s led many people to believe that eastern Colorado was situated in a “rain belt.” Farmers plowed the drought-resistant native grasses and planted corn, a traditional agricultural practice in the humid, tallgrass prairie to the east. Longtime farmers, however, cautioned that high annual precipitation rates eventually would return to normal or lower and plunge the region into drought conditions. When drought returned during the late 1880s and early 1890s, crops failed, and hundreds of destitute farmers left the Colorado plains. Many farmers who remained succeeded only because they were located in the Platte and Arkansas River Valleys where they could irrigate their crops. The environment of eastern Colorado, then, ruined agricultural practices learned in the humid east, and the agricultural boom collapsed.
By the early 1890s many farm families who once believed they lived in a rain belt now depended on charity for their daily needs. In 1894, as the drought worsened, grasshoppers arrived and stripped the struggling grain fields and other vegetation. Many farm families left eastern Colorado because they could not pay their mortgages or maintain their livestock and machinery. Kit Carson County, for example, lost 36 percent of its population between 1890 and 1900, while the population of Kiowa County dropped from 1,243 to 701 inhabitants. No longer would settlers on the eastern Colorado plains believe that they lived in a rain belt. Thereafter, they increasingly used farming techniques more suitable for agriculture in a semiarid environment.
The drought ended on the Colorado plains during the late 1890s, and the Homestead Act’s lure of free land once again attracted farmers. After 1900, approximately 75 percent of the settlers in northeastern Colorado filed homestead claims, an activity that peaked in 1910. Women constituted approximately 12 percent of the early twentieth-century homesteaders, and more than 40 percent of female filers gained title to their land claims, compared to 37 percent of men. Colorado’s women homesteaders were primarily native-born white women. The new settlers on the eastern plains soon emphasized wheat and cattle grazing and sugar beets in irrigated areas.
When drought returned to the Colorado plains during the 1930s, it contributed to severe wind erosion that made the region a part of the Dust Bowl (1932–40). During the 1920s, extensive grassland had been plowed for wheat. When the drought killed the wheat plants, little vegetation remained to hold and protect loamy soil from prevailing winds that lifted it into the air, creating huge dust storms. Farming became difficult and often impossible. From 1927 to 1931, Colorado farmers harvested 1 million acres of wheat annually for an average of 13 million bushels; in 1935, the drought prevented them from harvesting more than 193,000 acres, or 2.2 million bushels.
The US Soil Conservation Service provided technical advice and financial aid to help farmers apply the best conservation techniques to their land. In Baca County the Soil Conservation Service considered 96 percent of the land highly erodible. The agency encouraged strip cropping, contour plowing, and terracing to help keep down the blowing soil and conserve moisture. The Emergency Cattle Purchase program enabled farmers to sell livestock that they could not feed for lack of grass, forage, and grain. Between August 8, 1934 and June 15, 1935, the federal government purchased 116,580 cattle in eastern Colorado for more than $1.6 million. The program provided for slaughter and canning, and the meat was distributed to poor families during the Depression. The cattle-buying program helped livestock producers remain on the land until the rains returned and the grass began growing again.
In addition to cattle, the federal government also purchased wind-eroded land from farmers. The Land Utilization Project bought land in Baca, Otero, and Weld Counties. In 1960, after considerable reseeding of grasses, extensive conservation work, and the return of average precipitation, these projects became the Comanche and Pawnee National Grasslands. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration also paid farmers to plant less wheat and plant more drought-resistant grains, such as sorghum, as well as practice soil and water conservation techniques to protect their lands from wind and water erosion.
Late Twentieth Century
When near-average precipitation returned during the early 1940s, plains farmers continued to plow more native grassland and plant more wheat. As a result, when drought returned during the early 1950s, the sandy wheat lands once again had serious wind erosion problems. By the mid-1960s, improved irrigation technology enabled farmers to expand their crops of wheat, corn, and alfalfa by drawing water from the Ogallala Aquifer, a vast reserve of groundwater that underlies Colorado and other plains states. This enabled the relocation of the Midwestern livestock industry’s feedlots and packing plants to Colorado’s eastern plains in order to be closer to the source of supply and reduce operating costs. The packing plants attracted cheap, unskilled labor, often from Mexico and Latin America, although other ethnic groups also conducted the dangerous work by the late twentieth century. This new ethnic mix changed the demographic and social landscape and contributed to a complex social environment in Colorado’s eastern plains communities.
Drought again returned during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, ruining wheat and other crops and leaving the ground bare. Strong prevailing winds lifted the soil into the air, just as they did during the Dust Bowl. By the early twenty-first century, the Ogallala Aquifer had declined precipitously due to high pumping rates for irrigation. The water table dropped to too deep a level to permit easy access, and some farmers found irrigation too expensive. Many farmers returned to dry-land agriculture, which meant raising crops such as wheat instead of corn, and with the aid of natural precipitation instead of relying on irrigation. The environment of Colorado’s eastern plains set parameters that required adaptation by all who lived in the region, particularly by those who practiced agriculture. These parameters continue to impose limits on agriculture on the Colorado plains today.