I think that two of the most important environmental factors that helped to play a part to the development and expansion of the United States were the potato famine in Ireland and the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. These two major events helped to shape our country into the one we know today and are more closely linked then some people believe. The Irish Potato Famine began in September of 1845 with the first death from starvation being recorded the fall of the following year and lasted another three years.
While this was devastating to Ireland and laid waste to a large part of its population, it also ended up stimulating Irish immigration to the United States, leading to both growth contributing to our workforce and expansion as these new immigrants looked to improve their lives by moving out of the ghettos and tenements of the large cities like Boston and New York to find land of their own. (Irish Potato Famine, Gone to America, 2013) During the famine years almost one million impoverished, starving and ill Irish men and women came to the United States.
In 1847, the first big year of Famine emigration, the city of Boston was swamped with 37,000 Irish immigrants; New York had about 52,000 land the same year. All incoming passenger ships to New York had to stop for medical inspection. Anyone suffering from a fever was taken away and quarantined on Staten Island and the ship was then quarantined for 30 days, this was due to the fact that Typhus was running rampant though out Ireland due to weakened immune systems caused by starvation. (Grada, 2103).
Those that managed to escape the slums and ghettos moved west toward the Appalachian Mountains and beyond them to the Mississippi River and then onto the Great Plains to farm their own land. However early exploration of the Great Plains showed a scarcity of surface water or lumber which originally made the area less eye-catching for pioneer settlement or farming. In fact it was known as the Great American Desert. However, after the Civil War, settlement in the area began to increase, persuaded mainly by the Homestead Act, and the push for western development.
The Homestead Act was a Federal law in the United States that gave a hopeful farmer freehold title to 160 -640 acres of new land outside of the original 13 colonies. After an uncommonly wet period the government and settlers began to believe that “rain follows the plow” and that the typical weather of the area had transformed for good. The original farming activities were primarily cattle ranching with some crop growing; however, a chain of harsh winters that started in 1886, as well as overgrazing, as well as a short drought in 1890, led to a growth of land under development. Buonanduci, 2013) Settlement into the region began yet again at the beginning of the 20th century. A return of abnormally wet weather re-established the previously held opinion that the semi-barren area could sustain large-scale farming. Technological advancements led to improved automation, which allowed for farming on an even bigger scale. With the US involvement in World War I, food prices rose encouraging farmers to increase their production. In the area of Llano Estacado farmland doubled between 1900 and 1920, and land that was being cultivated tripled between 1925 and 1930.
Unfortunately the drought that followed in the 1930’s, along with the expansion of farming and fact that soil conservation was overlooked in favor of productivity as the economy began to take a turn for the worse. For example, cotton farmers in the panhandle of Texas and Oklahoma left their fields exposed during the winter months, when the winds in the High Plains are at their peak; they burned their wheat stubble, which increased exposure to erosion. With nothing to hold onto, the loose dirt turned into large dark clouds, blackening the skies and reaching all the way to New York and Washington D.
C. The storms of the dustbowl were given names like “Black Blizzard” and “Black Roller” because the ability to see was reduced to only a few feet at times. Millions of acres of farmland became worthless; hundreds of thousands of people were required to leave their homes. The devastation of their farms began a mass evacuation from Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and the adjacent Great Plains. While many went west to California looking for work many others went as far north as Toronto and other more urban areas searching for employment and relief.
The Dust Bowl migration was the biggest movement in American history in such a small amount of time. By 1940 2. 5 million people had relocated off of the plains, 200,000 of these moved to California. While these are both considered to be environmental disasters by many, they also aided in the expansion and development of our country. We have learned from these and made our country what it is today thanks to these two factors as well as many others.