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Uncovering ‘backsetting’

This lost agricultural practice was key to breaking the prairie to the plow

In a number of accounts of homesteading there is mention of the practice of backsetting which was carried out when breaking sod.

Just what backsetting actually involved was unknown to the interpretation committee at the Manitoba Agricultural Museum (MAM) until the committee obtained a book on the history of the Red River Valley. The book contained a paragraph in which backsetting was described as plowing virgin prairie sod to a depth of two to three inches making sure that the grass and vegetation were completely rolled under. Then, at a later date, the field was re-plowed at a depth of five to six inches.

While the paragraph does not describe which direction the re-plowing took place in, from descriptions of how tough the root mass of prairie sod was to cut through, it would be logical to think that the re-plowing ran with the direction of the original plowing, not at an angle to it.

How long the time period between the original operation and the re-plowing was not discussed in the article either. One would think that the time period would be long enough that the plants plowed under would have died with the root mass beginning to break down.

Recently, a number of photographs from the pioneer period were donated to MAM. One of the photographs was of six oxen hitched together pulling a wheeled implement that is obscured by the oxen. While the quality of this photo is not good, it is an interesting photo because of the large number of oxen in the hitch. As oxen had a reputation as being more powerful than a horse, the first question that came to mind was, why are so many hitched together? Particularly as oxen also had a reputation as a cantankerous beast capable of stubborn behaviour. The more oxen that were hooked together, the more likely there was going to be trouble. So what was the farmer doing that he required six of these powerful beasts?

We began to look more closely at the field being plowed and noted that the field in the foreground had been plowed previous to this operation. While there appears to be vegetation visible at places, this vegetation does not appear to be cereal stubble. From the appearance of the trend soil, particularly as it formed long ribbons, we were of the opinion that it was sod being turned over. We also noticed that between the second and third oxen from the left and continuing towards the horizon in the photo, the appearance of the rolled-over dirt is noticeably rougher and more heaped up. It was then realized that the photo is of a farmer carrying out the practice of backsetting and the wheeled implement is more than likely a single-bottom riding plow. Backsetting would explain why the farmer needed six oxen on the plow.

As the farmer riding the plow is wearing a coat, it is likely that he is plowing in the fall. Just when the original plowing took place is not known, but judging from the lack of weeds and grass growing on the turned-over sod, it is likely the first operation took place that summer.

Next spring it is likely the field would be plowed once more with a set of harrows being also dragged across the field to smooth out the surface, making the field ready for seeding. Being as this farmer possesses a riding plow and six oxen, he may have entered homesteading with some amount of assets accumulated elsewhere and may possess a drill or seed dribbler to seed the field with. A seed dribbler resembled a drill only with no disc openers, sliding shoes or hoe openers. A dribbler had a seed box with a fluted drive to measure seed out. The seed just fell on the ground and a set of spring shanks with teeth mounted on the seed dribbler buried the seed. Of course, in the pioneer era the farmer may just have broadcast the seed by hand and lightly plowed or harrowed the seed in.

It is noticeable that the oxen are not fitted with the heavy wooden neck yokes usually associated with oxen but rather with collars and chain traces. There is also a rope fastened around the base of the horns of the right-hand ox with the end of this rope then tied to the horn rope of the ox immediately to the left. The horn rope of this ox is then tied to the ox to the left of this animal. This is repeated all down the line of oxen effectively “daisy chaining” the horns together.

One can also see a strap of some sort on the right-hand animal leading up over the back of the animal and tied to the outside horn of the animal. This may be a leather trace used to control the direction the ox is taking, by pulling on the horn of the animal. There also appears to be a strap running over the back of the left-hand ox which may be attached to the outside horn of this ox. With the horn ropes in place, when the farmer wants to turn to the right, he pulls on the trace attached to the outboard horn of the right-hand ox which turns this animal’s head right, pulling the heads of the other oxen in this direction through the horn ropes. As the heads turn right, the team turns right.

How the farmer got the oxen into motion is not known as there is no whip visible. The whip was not to beat the animals with but rather to make a cracking noise behind the animal’s ears which annoyed them and made them move.

The chain traces of the right-hand ox appear to be fastened to what appears to be a wooden pole which is probably serving as an evener. There appears to be a heavy rectangular beam laying on the ground immediately in front of the plow wheel that is seen in the photo which is likely serving as an evener bar. Given that there are six oxen in the hitch, it is likely there are three eveners with two animals chained to each evener. The heavy evener bar is then needed as each evener can be chained to the bar and the bar then fastened to the plow. If the eveners were fastened directly to the plow, when the animals began pulling, the outboard pair of animals would begin to crowd in on the centre team which would then cause problems.

The tongue of the riding plow is visible between the third and fourth oxen. There is a neck yoke hanging between the third and fourth animals, chained to the bottom of each of the animal’s collars, which is supporting the end of the tongue and keeping it off the ground. The tongue’s purpose was to steer the plow as the tongue steered the right-hand front wheel of a riding plow.

Ox collars were a different design than the collars used on horses as the ox pulls from the top of the animal’s neck, whereas a horse pulls from lower down on the neck. Generally, it is believed that wooden neck yokes for oxen were more commonly used than neck collars but as we can see here, ox collars were in use. It may have been that collars were easier to use than neck yokes when a multiple oxen hitch such as the one seen here, was needed.

For more on Manitoba’s agricultural history and information about the Manitoba Agricultural Museum visit its website.

About the author

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Alex Campbell is a dedicated volunteer and Member of the Interpretation Committee at the Manitoba Agricultural Museum. http://ag-museum.mb.ca/

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