Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Despite a widespread image as an uninviting desert, the Great Plains was the subject of numerous agricultural "colonization" schemes, beginning in 1811 with Lord Selkirk's colony for displaced Scottish crofters at Assiniboia. Similar projects would continue throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, particularly after the Plains was claimed as public domain and then granted in sprawling checkerboard blocks to the various Pacific railroad companies. While the primary impetus behind these schemes was to mobilize the most substantial asset possessed by the two federal governments and the railroads–western land–many also promoted the cooperative group settlement of tightly knit ethnoreligious communities.

The predominant Plains-as-colony image, however, stands these forward-looking ideas of national and community development on their head. Rather than a vision of success, the colony metaphor is more often invoked in a story of regional failure. Declining grain prices during the deflationary 1870s and 1880s brought financial ruin to many rural families, just as agricultural settlement was expanding onto the Great Plains. Rather than abandon the agrarian frontier dream and its hopeful image of a bountiful garden rising amidst the Great American Desert, many on the Great Plains blamed their region's troubles on the moneyed interests of the East. Eastern banks, railroads, elevator companies, commodities traders, and others formed a "plutocracy" that siphoned off the lion's share of the farmers' hard-earned wealth. Even north of the border, where Ontario was long viewed by western boosters as a necessary and welcome metropolitan partner, the East became an amorphous conspiracy whose greed and indifference retarded the growth of Canada's promising Northwest.

This overtly regionalist brand of colonialism peaked during the drought and depression years of the 1930s, after which the Sunbelt rise of the Pacific and Gulf Coasts made stories of an all-powerful eastern conspiracy difficult to support. Rather than truly disappear, though, the Plains-as-colony thesis was transformed. While not dismissing populist concerns with eastern money power, authors during the 1930s and 1940s such as Walter Prescott Webb, Joseph Kinsey Howard, and Bernard DeVoto increasingly looked to nature for the primary factor limiting economic and community development on the Plains. Many of the region's problems certainly could be traced to eastern greed, indifference, and ignorance, they argued, but there was no escaping the Great Plains' dry climate. Indeed, nature forced Great Plains residents to accept a devil's bargain of sorts: agricultural settlement in this arid and remote region required the tools provided by eastern industry to produce the crops and transport them to distant markets, which were themselves organized by eastern financial interests.

By century's end, the region's image had returned full circle. Rather than blame greedy eastern or coastal interests, observers such as Donald Worster and Frank and Deborah Popper concluded that the failures of the Great Plains' rural economies rested on a basic environmental miscalculation and a continent-wide obsession with economic growth at all costs, in which rural residents of the Great Plains are no less culpable than the metropolitan powers of the coasts. Consequently, federal farming assistance programs and groundwater-mining schemes simply postpone the inevitable retreat of farm communities from the arid Great Plains. The would-be agricultural colony, in the eyes of many, has become a desert once again.

Peter S. Morris Santa Monica College

DeVoto, Bernard. "The West: A Plundered Province." Harper's Monthly Magazine (August 1934): 355–64.

Owram, Doug. Promise of Eden: The Canadian Expansionist Movement and the Idea of the West, 1856–1900. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980.

Worster, Donald. An Unsettled Country: Changing Landscapes of the American West. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994.

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