Section 2: Drought

Drought is a serious climate issue in North Dakota. It can cost farmers an entire summer’s crop. Drought can force ranchers to sell their livestock because there is no grass for feed. Drought can reduce surface water in ponds and rivers.

Drought, however, is also very difficult to identify. Some weather experts call drought a “creeping phenomenon” because it is very hard to tell when it starts and when it ends. In addition, drought may be localized. A county may be suffering from drought while the neighboring county has sufficient moisture.

The average amount of moisture expected in North Dakota each year is just a little over 17 inches. The eastern part of the state averages more precipitation than the western part of the state. However, any part of the state can experience droughts. The droughts can be brief and localized, or severe and widespread. The following chart shows how often drought appeared between 1889 and 1962 in North Dakota.

 

Western 1/3 of North Dakota

Central 1/3 of North Dakota

Eastern 1/3 of North Dakota

Number of years between 1889 and 1962 with less than 17 inches of rain

55

 38

12

 

Drought by Bavendick
Document 7: Drought by Bavendick. In 1952, a meteorologist named Frank Bavendick compiled a book of weather data for North Dakota. His book includes this section on drought and notes the extent of the drought in particular years. Bavendick, Frank. Climate and Weather in North Dakota. Bismarck: U. S. Weather Bureau Office and North Dakota State Water Conservation Commission, 1952.
The governor of Dakota Territory reported to the Secretary of the Interior each year because territorial government was under the regulation of the Department of the Interior.  In 1886, Governor Gilbert Pierce reported that a severe drought had affected crops in 1886.  He suggested that the drought had encouraged cattle raising in the northern part of Dakota Territory.   Governor Pierce’s annual report included a chart showing how many people in 1886 had filed on public land under the Homestead, Timber Culture, or Pre-emption laws.  In 1887, Governor Louis K. Church presented a similar chart in his annual report to the Secretary of the Interior.  His data demonstrates that the drought had caused a dramatic reduction in the number of new filings on federal land.   Church shows an increase in the number of “proofs” on Homestead and Timber Culture claims.  This is because many of the claimants who arrived during the boom had qualified to receive the deed to their land following five years of required residence.  Church’s data also shows an increase in the number of Homestead claims that were “commuted,” or paid for in cash.  When they paid for their claims, settlers could sell the land or mortgage it for cash. The governor of Dakota Territory reported to the Secretary of the Interior each year because territorial government was under the regulation of the Department of the Interior.  In 1886, Governor Gilbert Pierce reported that a severe drought had affected crops in 1886.  He suggested that the drought had encouraged cattle raising in the northern part of Dakota Territory.   Governor Pierce’s annual report included a chart showing how many people in 1886 had filed on public land under the Homestead, Timber Culture, or Pre-emption laws.  In 1887, Governor Louis K. Church presented a similar chart in his annual report to the Secretary of the Interior.  His data demonstrates that the drought had caused a dramatic reduction in the number of new filings on federal land.   Church shows an increase in the number of “proofs” on Homestead and Timber Culture claims.  This is because many of the claimants who arrived during the boom had qualified to receive the deed to their land following five years of required residence.  Church’s data also shows an increase in the number of Homestead claims that were “commuted,” or paid for in cash.  When they paid for their claims, settlers could sell the land or mortgage it for cash.  The governor of Dakota Territory reported to the Secretary of the Interior each year because territorial government was under the regulation of the Department of the Interior.  In 1886, Governor Gilbert Pierce reported that a severe drought had affected crops in 1886.  He suggested that the drought had encouraged cattle raising in the northern part of Dakota Territory.   Governor Pierce’s annual report included a chart showing how many people in 1886 had filed on public land under the Homestead, Timber Culture, or Pre-emption laws.  In 1887, Governor Louis K. Church presented a similar chart in his annual report to the Secretary of the Interior.  His data demonstrates that the drought had caused a dramatic reduction in the number of new filings on federal land.   Church shows an increase in the number of “proofs” on Homestead and Timber Culture claims.  This is because many of the claimants who arrived during the boom had qualified to receive the deed to their land following five years of required residence.  Church’s data also shows an increase in the number of Homestead claims that were “commuted,” or paid for in cash.  When they paid for their claims, settlers could sell the land or mortgage it for cash.  The governor of Dakota Territory reported to the Secretary of the Interior each year because territorial government was under the regulation of the Department of the Interior.  In 1886, Governor Gilbert Pierce reported that a severe drought had affected crops in 1886.  He suggested that the drought had encouraged cattle raising in the northern part of Dakota Territory.   Governor Pierce’s annual report included a chart showing how many people in 1886 had filed on public land under the Homestead, Timber Culture, or Pre-emption laws.  In 1887, Governor Louis K. Church presented a similar chart in his annual report to the Secretary of the Interior.  His data demonstrates that the drought had caused a dramatic reduction in the number of new filings on federal land.   Church shows an increase in the number of “proofs” on Homestead and Timber Culture claims.  This is because many of the claimants who arrived during the boom had qualified to receive the deed to their land following five years of required residence.  Church’s data also shows an increase in the number of Homestead claims that were “commuted,” or paid for in cash.  When they paid for their claims, settlers could sell the land or mortgage it for cash.
 

There were several years of drought between 1870 and 1930. But there was only one drought that lasted a long time. Between 1886 and 1895, there were four years of severe drought and a few years of moderate drought. (See Document 7)

The drought of 1886 was particularly important because it brought an end to the Great Dakota Boom. During the boom years, thousands of people moved into northern Dakota Territory to homestead or purchase land. The early years of settlement were a time of plenty of rain. However, in 1886, the wheat crop ran about one-third less than expected. When drought persisted and crops failed several times, some people left their farms. Fewer people wanted to move their families to Dakota Territory. Since farming was the most important occupation in Dakota Territory, the drought served to slow down immigration. (See Document 8)

 

Hobart on prairie fire
Document 9: Hobart on prairie fire. Charles Hobart claimed land near Cummings, North Dakota in 1881. Many years later, he wrote letters to his nephews about the pioneering experience that Charles shared with his brother, the nephews’ father. During the drought of 1886, Hobart started to burn old prairie grass, but it got out of control and burned through much of two quarter sections. Charles H. Hobart, “Pioneering in North Dakota” North Dakota Historical Quarterly Vol. 7, No. 4 (July 1933): 191-227.

Drought keeps bad company. One likely problem associated with drought is prairie fire. Prairie fires were common in early spring and late summer almost every year during the settlement era. During periods of drought, however, prairie fires were more common and more intense. Prairie fire was a common and dangerous enemy to farmers and towns in North Dakota. The legislature passed a law in 1893 explaining exactly how counties should be organized for fighting prairie fire.

Document 10. Prairie fire law. In 1893, the legislature passed a thorough law covering the methods, financing, and responsibilities concerning prairie fire. County governments were responsible for organizing work crews to build fire breaks. Anyone who was required to work on county roads (most landowners) had to help build firebreaks or find someone to take their place. The railroads were also responsible for maintaining firebreaks along the tracks. Trains and lightning were frequent causes of prairie fires. Sometimes fires were purposefully set, such as Hobart’s fire, but got out of control when the wind came up unexpectedly. 2 of 2
 
 
0008-019
Image 11: This fire engine was in use in the town of Scranton. This wagon had a pump to pull water from a lake (in the background) into the hose to pour on the fire. The wagon was pulled by horses or men. It was not likely that such modern equipment was available to fight fires in rural areas. SHSND 0008-019.
Image 10: 0075-0043. Grain planted in a drought year might find enough moisture deep in the soil to sprout and grow. However, if rain does not fall at the right time, the grains will not thrive. This photograph shows wheat has been stunted by drought. Weeds, however, are growing in the soil around the wheat stems. The weeds steal the moisture from the wheat plants. SHSND 0075-0043.
0175-0034
Image 12: A prairie fire in a rural area in the 1880s or 1890s depended on hard work and many hands for control. These people are hurrying to beat the fire out with wet gunny sacks, hoes, and shovels. If they can’t control the fire, it might burn up houses, barns, hay stacks, and crops in the fields. Many pioneers routinely plowed fire breaks around their houses and hay stacks to avoid losing their summer’s work to a prairie fire. SHSND 0175-0034.
Rainfall Map
Map 2: Rainfall Map. Frank Bavendick included this map in Climate and Weather. The numbers in each county show annual average growing season rainfall (April through August.) Bavendick, Climate and Weather, pg 60.