While the post gardens were extremely important sources of nutrition for soldiers, they also served to provide evidence for the potential of the northern plains to support agriculture and farm families. The debate about the economic future of the plains emerged in early 1874 just as the Northern Pacific Railroad (NPRR) was beginning to fail financially and while its surveyors were attempting to locate the best route through northern Dakota Territory and Montana.
The debate began with two rather unlikely opponents – at least unlikely in the field of agriculture. General William B. Hazen commanded Fort Buford at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers. His troops maintained gardens on the river bank which contributed to the improved health of the soldiers. But, Hazen argued that though the gardens could be maintained with the great effort of the soldiers and their ideal location on the river, general agriculture was bound for failure.
Colonel George A. Custer also contended that the lands surrounding Fort Buford would never support general agriculture, but were exceptionally fine grazing lands for cattle and horses.
Other voices entered the debate. Some were well-known and respected, such as General Thomas Rosser, the engineer who supervised NPRR construction; others were less well-known men, and some were of suspicious character. The New York Times had sent a correspondent to the region who reported negatively about the area.
While the famous and not-so-famous debated the future of Dakota, settlers in the Red River Valley and in the Bismarck region began planting wheat and other grains and turned to their own gardens to support their families; they also planted fruit trees and shrubs. By 1880, the debate about the quality of the region had quietly died. Both Custer and Hazen were right: periodic drought characterized the climate of the west-river country, though small grains did fairly well and cattle ranchers prospered. The Red River Valley became known as the “bread basket of the world” for its highly productive wheat farms. The Northern Pacific Railroad eventually completed its line from Minneapolis through Dakota to Seattle in 1883.
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