19h Century Climate Pseudoscience: Rain Follows the Plow

After the Civil War, as settlers began to settle the drier lands of the western plains, they noticed that the low rainfall had started to increase.    In what must be some impulse programmed into human behavior, folks at the time attributed this cyclical natural variation in climate to man's actions.  The theory went that actually settling the land and overturning the sod brought more rain, encapsulated by the phrase "rain follows the plow".

The theory arose in the late 1860s and 1870s during the westward expansion of European-American settlement west of the Missouri River and across the 100th meridian west. The definition can be found in the Kansas Journey Textbook as well. This was the traditional boundary line between the humid and semi-arid portions of central North America. Specifically, in the early part of the decade, white settlement had spread into central and western Nebraska along the Platte River. Emigrants on the Oregon Trail began reporting that the land in western Nebraska, previously known for its yellowed, dry vegetation during the summer, had seemingly become green.

Out of this evidence, some scientists concluded that the apparent increase in rain was due to the settlement and the effects of cultivation. One of the most prominent exponents of the theory in the United States was Cyrus Thomas, a noted climatologist. After studying the recent history of Colorado, he concluded that the increase in moisture was permanent, and that it coincided exactly with the first settlers' cultivating of the land. Other prominent advocates of the theory were Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, the notedgeographer who had explored and surveyed parts of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado; Samuel Aughey, a professor at the University of Nebraska; and Charles Dana Wilber, an amateur scientist and author.

Thomas and other climatologists offered a variety of explanations for the theory. A common idea was that the plowing of the soil for cultivation exposed the soil's moisture to the sky. In addition, newly planted trees and shrubs increased rainfall as well, as did smokefrom trains, or even the metal in the rails or the telegraph wires. Another hypothesis stated that the increased vibrations in the atmosphere due to human activity created additional clouds, from which rain fell. This idea led to the widespread dynamiting of the air across the Great Plains in the 1870s.[3]

The theory was widely embraced in its day, not only by scientists, but land speculators and emigrants. Some historians have argued that the theory was embraced readily as an outgrowth of Manifest Destiny, the idea that the United States had a mission to expand, spreading its form of democracy and freedom. The theory is regarded as partially responsible for the rapid settlement of the Great Plains in the later 19th century. In 'The Great Valleys and Prairies of Nebraska and the Northwest', published in 1881, Charles Dana Wilber wrote:

In this miracle of progress, the plow was the unerring prophet, the procuring cause, not by any magic or enchantment, not by incantations or offerings, but instead by the sweat of his face toiling with his hands, man can persuade the heavens to yield their treasures of dew and rain upon the land he has chosen for his dwelling... ...The raindrop never fails to fall and answer to the imploring power or prayer of labor.[4]

William Gilpin, the first territorial governor of Colorado and an aide to President Abraham Lincoln, was a proponent of this theory. Gilpin was a strong believer in the idea of Manifest Destiny. One of his books was called The Mission of the North American People. He strongly promoted western settlement and invoked this theory as one of his reasons for people to migrate west.[5]

Climatologists now understand that increased vegetation and urbanization can result in increased precipitation. The effect, however, is local in scope, with increased rainfall typically coming at the expense of rainfall in nearby areas. It cannot result in a climatological change for an entire region. They also understand that the Great Plains had had a wetter than usual few seasons while this theory was developed and increasing settlement were both taking place. When normal arid conditions returned, homesteaders suffered




  1. james:

    Fascinating. I love bonkers theories.
    Actually, it may not be bonkers. The Amazon basin recycles its water with huge rainfall, only a bit topped up from rain coming over the Andes.
    But turning over the sod will (after a moment's reflection) have a one time only effect.

    Contrast with the Rocky Mountain Locust. As soon as the marginal land which was its source was abandoned the locust plagues ceased.

  2. morganovich:

    of course rain follows a plow. how would a dowsing stick work if it didn't?

  3. CC:

    Not quite so crazy. I have seen pictures from space of Israel region. The map of Israel is almost perfectly defined by small clouds resulting from their better agriculture and planting of trees. Not a cloud to be seen in the rest of the image. The same thing can be seen at the Texas-Mexico border: clouds on the US side, none on the Mexico side. Colorado after settlement? Not so sure about that.
    There was also a saying in the East of US that "frost follows the plow" but this is due to cutting the trees. You will indeed get much earlier frost on the ground after removing the trees.

  4. Douglas McKinnie:

    I've anecdotally noted that in my region rain very frequently follows extensive fireworks displays, and the phrase "Rain follows battle thunder" exists because others have noted a pattern there, including Plutarch. I'm thinking that perhaps "rain follows the plow" is an observation of localized effects following seeding of the air with lots of particulate matter, and that in the case of the western expansion climatologists made unwarranted "macro" assumptions based upon observations of "micro" effects.