From the earliest days of settlement, agriculture has been basic to the economic development and cultural progress of Indiana. In the wake of trappers and solitary riflemen came land-hungry settlers to establish relatively small family-sized farms, which for 50 years were the backbone of Indiana economy. During that time the industries of the State were in the main mere offshoots of agriculture; and even today, when manufacturing, quarrying, and mining have far outstripped farming in the number of workers they engage, Indiana is still one of the leading agricultural States.
The first settlers to enter Indiana Territory around 1800 came from Kentucky, Virginia, and the Carolinas, and made their homes in southern Indiana, along the Ohio River. Soon thereafter immigrants from the North and East bought Government land along the Wabash and Whitewater Rivers and their tributaries. A little later this dependence upon waterways was broken somewhat by the building of the National Road and the Michigan Road, paid for by the sale of near-by lands. Before long a great belt of farms extended north and south, and another east and west across the State, and by 1830 the population of Indiana was 348,000.
Because of the natural fertility of the deep glacial soil in the northern two-thirds of the State, it was possible to make a good living on a small holding. The soil on the southern hills, being thinner and subjected to heavy water runoff, was more rapidly depleted. In the early days, however, before forests had been cut off and soil erosion had occurred on a large scale, this land also was generally fairly productive.
Most of the early settlers lived in log cabins and produced most of their necessities. Pioneer farm implements were few and crude, and efforts to raise crops unsuited to the region resulted in many costly failures. Some of the farmers wasted much time and energy trying to raise cotton and tobacco; they tried to introduce grape culture on a large scale, in imitation of the Swiss settlers at Vevay. The culture of hemp, flax, and hops was also widespread in the first quarter of the century, but by 1850 all these attempts had been abandoned in favor of more adaptable crops.
One of the chief obstacles to agricultural expansion in those early days was the presence throughout most of the State of large areas of marshy land. In the north especially the marshes covered a wide area, and fevers and ague were common. Proper drainage later brought better farms and better health.
The most unfortunate feature of pioneer agriculture was the utter disregard for maintenance of soil fertility. The soil seemed infinitely rich, and after clearing a field farmers often planted 12 to 20 corn crops in succession. Especially on the southern uplands this practice was ruinous, and when part of the land eventually was turned back to pasture there was a struggle with briars, sassafras, weeds, and erosion.
In spite of these adverse conditions the farms of Indiana multiplied and the farmers prospered. Gradually they learned that hogs, corn, and wheat could be raised profitably and a swelling stream of grain and pork began pouring southward to the New Orleans market. By 1830 the most populous town in Indiana, Madison, with 2,000 inhabitants, was noted for the quantity of pork barreled there. Richmond, Indianapolis, Logansport, Terre Haute, Crawfordsville, LaFayette, and New Harmony also were stable communities rising along the principal waterways. Everywhere this general quickening of life and trade rested on the foundation of improved farming.
For the farmers of the Middle West, the period from 1825 to 1860 was one of political ascendancy and economic growth. Aided by the mechanics and factory workers of the Atlantic seaboard, they held the balance of power in the struggle between the industrial Northeast and the agricultural West and South. As a debtor class they benefited from 'cheaper money,' low-priced commodities, and the continued power of the Democratic party.
In this prosperity the railroads became an increasingly important factor in Hoosier life. The canals that linked northern Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico by way of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers had done much to enable farmers to transport their products to market cheaply. But the railroads were faster and less dependent upon the weather, and by the 1850's this new form of transportation was welding the East and the West together. 'The stream of migration westward,' in the words of Dr. Charles A. Beard, 'became a torrent; in return the stream of wheat, corn, and bacon from the farms became an avalanche.'