Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Back Forty

Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 31, 2014

Every once in a while you’ll hear someone talk about the back forty. When you do, what they’re talking about is a remote and uncultivated or undeveloped piece of land of indefinite size, and not necessarily forty acres in size.

Malaysian born and University of Wisconsin educated Ken Chew is the mayor of Moraga in California, with this term being his second go at being Moraga’s mayor. He has a reputation for saying what he thinks and not mincing his words according to an article published in the January 1, 2014 edition of the Lamorinda Weekly newspaper. Among many subjects discussed in the article by journalist, Sophie Braccini, was a certain section of land leased to a local country club.

The preliminary list includes what is always the first goal in Moraga: fiscal sustainability and a balanced budget. Chew would like to see refinement of the capital improvement plan for all of the town’s assets. “We are doing very well with our roads, but the town owns other properties and we need to be very clear on the maintenance and/or future of these assets,” he said, including the land known as the “Back 40” that the town leases to the Moraga Country Club.

The book “A History Of Appalachia” by Richard Drake, professor emeritus of history at Berea College, published in 2001, discusses Appalachia, from the 1800s onwards, and in great detail, with numerous sources. In this book, the author included this passage:

Most sociologists and anthropologists who have looked into small Appalachian rural communities have found that the local community, apparently fairly democratic, is actually divided by family reputation, income differentials, and the degree of uban sophistication. Other useful analyses trace the distance from urban ways, placing the person closest to the city as “superior” with the rural “back forty” places next, and the remote “holler” as the poorest and least powerful.

In the book “A Stretch On The River: A Novel of Adventures on a Mississippi River Towboat” written by Richard Pike Bissell (1913 – 1977) and published in 1950, the idiom back forty was also used. The story is about the son of a wealthy family who, rather than being drafted to fight in the war, chose to work on a Mississippi River towboat.  The author weaves his tale of a typical trip up the river in such a way that reader is left with an accurate picture of the era when towboating on the Mississippi was an exciting and viable employment for eager, young men. On page 56 of the book, the following is found:

“I seen him. A forty-miler if I ever seen one. By the time we get to Rock Island lock he’ll decide he’s got to go home to help get the hay in or breed the bull or plow the back forty. I seen his brand a many times before.”

A newsletter out of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin known as “Our Boys” was published quarterly by the Wisconsin Home and Farm School Association. In Volume 10 published in January of 1916, under the keen eye of Editor and Business Manager, W.J.C. Ralph, and Associate Editor, R.M. Bradford, the following was announced:

Early in the winter a couple of acres of land was cleared up on the backforty.” The trees were cut into logs, posts and firewood.

Back in 1832, it was determined that 40 acres was the right amount of land that should be made available to settlers in the US Midwest as the population expanded westward. Forty acres was agreed by the government to be small enough and at a low threshold price to advance the frontier. This was in place until 1862 when the Homestead Act of 1862 (which was officially repealed in 1976) determined that 160 acres should be made available at no charge to anyone who would was willing to live on the land and cultivate it for at least five years. In other words, settlers were provided sweat equity in exchange for their land.

Shortly after the Homestead Act of 1862, during the spring and summer of 1865, in South Carolina, there was also a push to provide freed slaves with forty acres and a mule under Sherman’s Special Field Order, No. 15. As can be imagined, it was a highly successful program that provided freed slaves with the opportunity to own property. The concept began to take shape in 1816 when the American Colonization Society was formed and the issue of resettlement for freed African Americans was discussed.

A quarter section was half a mile by half a mile — 160 acres — and was made up of four quarters, each being 40 acres in size. The back forty was usually the forty acres furthest away from the homestead, and was definitely the last to be cultivated since it was the least likely to provide a bountiful crop if cultivated.

Forty acres was accepted by the mid-1750s as a sufficient amount of land with which a farmer’s needs could be reasonably supported. It was determined that forty acres of good land was all a farmer needed for a herd of two hundred sheep, or one of twenty cows, and that forty acres would result in a sufficient number of lambs and calves, wool, butter, cheese and other commodities, to make the land profitable for a farmer.

That being said, the back forty meaning an uncultivated or undeveloped piece of land is pegged to 1862 at the time of the Homestead Act.

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2 Responses to “Back Forty”

  1. mutanatia said

    Did you come across any direct connections to the Land Rush of 1889 or the Sooners in your research?

  2. Not really. The expression was already part of the lingo by the time the Land Rush of 1889 happened.

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