The Great Dakota Boom 1878-1890: Overview

Between 1878 and 1889 the population of northern Dakota jumped from 16,000 to 191,000. The Great Dakota Boom was on.  Several factors came into play to bring about this population explosion.

First of all, land could be obtained under the government’s liberal land laws. Since 1841 the Pre-emption Act allowed a person, who was at least 21 years old and a citizen or would-be citizen, to purchase 160 acres of government land for $1.25 an acre. Since many potential farmers did not have the ready cash to buy 160 acres, in 1862 Congress passed the Homestead Act which provided for 160 acres absolutely free to anyone who was at least 21 and a citizen or would-be citizen. The settler had to move onto the land, build some kind of residence (usually small clapboard or sod structures), break at least ten acres of sod, and plant a crop. After five, but no more than seven years, the homesteader received title to the land with the payment of small fees. In 1873 Congress passed the Timber culture Act which provided an additional free 160 acres provided that the farmer planted ten acres in trees. After eight years, if the trees survived, a title would be granted. Free land was a powerful incentive to come to North Dakota.

Second, after 1871 a transportation system developed which could carry folks to and produce from northern Dakota. The Northern Pacific crossed from Fargo to Beach by 1881 and the Great Northern laid tracks from Grand Forks to Williston by 1887. These main lines and hundreds of miles of branch lines opened up much of the state for white settlement.

Third, the huge bonanza farms of the Red River Valley and the large ranches in the Badlands area proved to Europeans and American easterners that northern Dakota was a bountiful and promising land. National publications and railroad promotional literature pictured northern Dakota as a land of unlimited possibilities.

Fourth, conditions in many European countries and in states to the east prompted people to seek a better place to live (a free 160 acres looked fantastic to a Norwegian on a 6-acre farm). Northern Dakota was the farmer’s last frontier—the last chance to make a living from the soil.

About 40,000 persons took advantage of the Homestead Act and 20,000 filed for an additional 160 acres under the Timber Culture Act. Some could afford to pay the $200 for a 160-acre pre-emption claim or buy railroad land for $2.50 to $5.00 an acre. As one homesteader from Connecticut observed, “To say that everybody was land crazy would not be a serious exaggeration.”

The Great Dakota Boom transformed northern Dakota into a prosperous wheat and cattle region.

By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton


Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council

Subject Matter

Social Studies

North Star Dakotan:

Journals and Art Work: The Indian People, The Trade, and The Land

The Indian People

The Purchase and Exploration of Louisiana

The Fur Trade

Dakota Territory

The Military Frontier

The Reservation System

George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Great Dakota Boom, 1878-1890

Reservation Troubles, 1886-1890

The Making of a State and a Constitution

The North Dakota Economy, 1890-1915

Life on the Indian Reservations

The North Dakota National Guard and the Philippines

North Dakota, The Great War and After

The Nonpartisan League's Rise to Power

The Nonpartisan League in Power

The Nonpartisan League's Decline

The 1920s

1930s: North Dakota's Economic and Political Climate

The New Deal in North Dakota

The Road to World War II

North Dakota and American Society

North Dakota Optimism and Economic Developments

North Dakota and Political Change