Agriculture in the West

Many new products revolutionized agriculture in the West. John Deere, for example, invented a horse-pulled steel plow to replace the difficult oxen-driven wooden plows that farmers had used for centuries. The steel plow allowed farmers to till soil faster and more cheaply without having to make repairs as often.

In the 1830s, Cyrus McCormick invented a mechanical mower-reaper that quintupled the efficiency of wheat farming. Prior to the mower-reaper, wheat farming had been too difficult, so farmers had instead produced corn, which was less profitable. As in the South after the cotton gin, farmers in the West raked in huge profits as they acquired more lands to plant more and more wheat. More important, farmers for the first time began producing more wheat than the West could consume. Rather than let it go to waste, they began to transport crop surpluses to sell in the manufacturing Northeast.

Regional Specialization

Over time, regional specialization emerged: the West farmed to feed the Northeast, the South grew cotton to ship to the Northeast, and the Northeast produced manufactured goods to sell in the West and South. The roads, canals, and other internal improvements made under Henry Clay’s American System made this nationwide trade possible.


The steamboat, invented by Robert Fulton in 1807, permitted fast two-way traffic on the nation’s new waterways. Within a couple of decades, steamboats were in use on all of the major rivers, canals, and eventually on the high seas. The steamboat completely changed shipping: for the first time in history, mariners didn’t have to rely on winds and currents, so they could travel directly to any port at any time. Planters in Missouri, Mississippi, and Louisiana, for example, could easily and cheaply ship cotton, rice, and sugar upriver on the Mississippi rather than send it around Florida and up the Eastern seaboard, as they had previously done.

Transportation: North vs. South

The Erie Canal, completed in 1825, was only the first of several canals in the North that linked western farmers with eastern manufacturers. Other major canals were built in Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Few canals were built in the South: the South produced enough food to feed itself, and it relied on Atlantic shipping to send cotton to the North and to receive manufactured goods.

This relative isolation of the South prevented the South from modernizing and improving its standard of living to the degree that the North and West did. Although the standard of living improved in all three regions, the South lagged behind. Northern manufacturers shipped most of their finished products to the West, while the West grew rich on Northern grain purchases. Better transportation in the North—canals, roads, and especially railroads—would be a major factor in the war as well.

Popular pages: The Pre-Civil War Era (1815–1850)