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The Carey Act was the brainchild of a powerful cattle baron, Joseph Maull Carey. In 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Carey U.S. attorney for the territory of Wyoming. In Wyoming, Carey helped establish the American Livestock Association and served as Republican mayor of Cheyenne from 1881 to 1885. In 1890, after Wyoming was admitted to statehood, Carey became its first U.S. senator.

Western states were particularly hard hit by the economic depression of 1893. In anticipation of this, Carey sponsored an 1892 bill designed to promote land settlement in the semiarid states in the West. The bill became law two years later. The law's purpose was to reclaim arid lands for agriculture by promoting irrigation development. The new law was intended to improve upon the ...

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