History establishes that even before the advent of modern media, erroneous climate messages were disseminated to the public. A folk belief captured by the phrase ‘rain follows the plow’ (RFTP) is a prime example of such misinformation. This belief, popular in the late nineteenth century, maintained that cultivation of arid lands in the United States beyond the 100th meridian west would boost precipitation, creating a climate more favourable for farming. Encouraged by this narrative, homesteaders cultivated arid lands west of the meridian. Rain did not follow the plough and many farms in the Great Plains failed. RFTP was also invoked in South Australia in support of agricultural settlement north of Goyder’s Line, a geographical boundary delineating the limits of reliable rainfall in the colony. This article revisits the origins of the doctrine and places RFTP messaging in its historical context by examining articles and poetry published in American and Australian settlement-era newspapers. The results of two newspaper database surveys reveal that a number of historical RFTP stories and an environmental poem with religious overtones appeared first in US newspapers and were later republished in newspapers throughout Australia. One of the surveys also reveals that, from 1876 to 1898, reports of parliamentary discussions or debates referencing the slogan were published in South Australia. The dissemination of inaccurate climate information in settlement-era America and Australia is discussed in relation to a proposed conceptual framework based upon contemporary theories of science communication that might provide a basis for the analysis of historical science messaging.
Keywords: climate, rain follows the plow/plough, 100th meridian, Great Plains, Goyder’s Line, Charles Dana Wilber, Samuel Aughey, science communication, United States, South Australia