The Origin and First Half Century of the U.S. Department of Agriculture

Published on: 15:30PM Apr 29, 2019


Prior to the beginning of the Civil War, all things agricultural at the federal level were handled by the Agricultural Division of the U.S. Patent Office.  As defined in the legislation establishing that Office in 1839, their mission was to “acquire, propagate, evaluate, and distribute seeds and plants to farmers, and to collect agricultural statistics and production information.”  Garden plots and greenhouses were constructed on the National Mall near the Capitol building to help propagate the seeds that were collected and distributed as part of the Division’s activities.  By the 1860s, the Division was sending out 2.4 million packets of seeds a year around the country, from their space in the basement of the Patent Office Building.  This building now houses the National Portrait Gallery.


On May 15, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation that created the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), although its head was designated to be a Commissioner and not of Cabinet rank.  This status was a compromise reached because some members of Congress did not believe that a cabinet-level agency should be devoted to a single economic sector, even though at the time about half the nation’s workforce was involved in agriculture.  The fixtures, property, and staff of the Agricultural Division were transferred over to the new agency on paper.  USDA remained in the basement of the Patent Office Building until they outgrew that space and moved into a nearby building on the Mall in 1868.  The new USDA building was constructed on a portion of the site where USDA’s experimental farm had been operated during the war and in its aftermath. 

The first Commissioner of Agriculture, Mr. Isaac Newton, was appointed by President Lincoln to his position, after having served as superintendent of the Agricultural Division of the Patent Office since August 1861.  Mr. Newton was a native of New Jersey whose previous role had included selling butter, ice cream and other food produced on his Pennsylvania dairy farm to the White House.  His innovative practices on that farm helped to bring him to the President’s attention.  In his new role, Commissioner Newton established a Division of Statistics at the Department, and began to publish the first monthly reports on crop conditions in the 21 Union states plus the Nebraska territory in July, 1863.  The Department established part-time positions for staff to work as agents in the states in 1882 to help collect crop reports, the first state-based employees on the USDA payroll.


President Grover Cleveland signed legislation as a lame duck at the end of his first term in 1889 that established USDA as a cabinet agency, at the urging of the National Grange organization.  The first Secretary of Agriculture that he appointed, Mr. Norman J. Colman, who had been serving as Commissioner of Agriculture at the time, served only 17 days in that cabinet rank position.  After President Benjamin Harrison took the oath of office that March, he appointed a new Secretary, Mr. Jeremiah Rusk, a Civil War veteran who ended the war as a brevet brigadier general in a Wisconsin regiment.  Rusk served for three terms in Congress and two terms as a governor of Wisconsin before being nominated by President Harrison.[i]  Secretary Rusk was instrumental in driving Congress to enact the first federal meat inspection laws in 1890 and 1891.

Mr. James Wilson, known as ‘Tama Jim” from his home county in Iowa, was appointed as Secretary of Agriculture by President William McKinley in 1897.  Mr. Wilson was born in Scotland but his family emigrated to the United States when he was sixteen years old and they settled near Traer, Iowa in 1855 (Iowa State University, 2019).  Mr. Wilson served for three terms in the Iowa legislature (as House Speaker for the last term), for three terms in the U.S. Congress, and had been Director of the agricultural experiment station at Iowa State College for several years before President McKinley brought him to Washington DC to serve as Secretary of Agriculture.  Secretary Wilson was to maintain that role for 16 years, serving in the administrations of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William H. Taft as well.


The responsibilities of the Department expanded greatly during Secretary Wilson’s lengthy tenure, and the size of its workforce grew as well.  The new bureaus included Plant Industry, Entomology, Chemistry, Statistics, Soils, Biological Survey, and Forestry. The Forest Service was established in 1905, after Mr. Gifford Pinchot, then head of the Bureau of Forestry, persuaded President Theodore Roosevelt to transfer custody of the national forests from the Department of the Interior to Agriculture.  Departmental employees spiked more than 450 percent over that period, from 2,444 in 1897 to 13,858 in 1912.


In order to house the larger staff, Congress voted funds to construct a new administrative building for the Department in 1903.  Initially, the funds appropriated were only enough to build the two laboratory wings of the building, and employees were forced to walk into the open on a wooden walkway when moving between the two wings until the central portion was funded and finally completed in 1930.  This building still sits on the southeast portion of the National Mall, now formally named the Whitten Building, commemorating the long-time chairman of the House Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee, Representative Jamie Whitten (D, MS).