Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Only one-twentieth of the Great Plains's surface is flat, yet flatness has long been an important component of the region's image. Why this discordance? The explanation in part is in the region's name.

In 1776 Alexander Henry the Elder delineated cartographically the northern edge of the "Great Plaines," and in 1785 Peter Pond mapped out the northeastern and eastern edge of the "immense Pleins." Both fur traders made it clear that the names applied to a vast region extending westward to the Rocky Mountains and for an unspecified but considerable distance to the south. Whatever the spelling, plains became associated with extensive grasslands. That concept may have been received from earlier French traders, as Henry's French spelling suggests. In turn, perhaps, the French had been influenced by Native Americans. Crees, for example, used the words "muskuty tuskee" (grassy ground), and, between the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers, Anthony Henday reported in 1754–55 leaving the "Muskuty Plains" that he was conscious of having been on for precisely seventy-eight days.

With the exception of the second quarter of the nineteenth century, when the name "Great American Desert" dominated, "Great Plains" remained the accepted name for the region. Yet, especially for those speaking English as their mother tongue, the term plains conveyed and still conveys the interlinked image of flatness, levelness, and openness. It is not strange, therefore, that many expressed surprise on first experiencing Great Plains landscapes. Lodisa Frizzell, an emigrant from Illinois, noted in 1852 that what she saw from the Platte River valley was "not nearly so level as I had supposed," and a London editor, William H. Dixon, observed in 1867 that the "grassy plains" of Kansas were "not level, as many persons think, but rolling uplands."

By the late nineteenth century, eminent scientists felt it necessary to correct the regionwide image. Richard Hinton, special agent in charge of irrigation for the United States Department of Agriculture, cautioned in 1890 that "it must not be imagined that . . . the word Plains imply a vast and perfectly level stretch of country." John Wesley Powell, arguably the best-known field scientist of his generation, observed in 1896 that the region was "in fact a group of elevated plateaus" and that "it would serve to harmonize the nomenclature if the name could be changed from plains to plateaus." But by 1914 the physiographer Nevin Fenneman had reluctantly concluded that "the name Great Plains is so firmly attached to the region by custom that it must be retained."

The false image of flatness is not, however, entirely an accident of nomenclature. There were, and remain, other factors. Pre-Civil War lobbyists for transcontinental railroads promoted the image. In a petition to Congress, George Wilkes argued in 1846 that "a smooth unbroken plain, leading gradually to the culmination of the [South] Pass," afforded a better natural route "for the construction of a railroad than is offered by the same extent of any portion of the globe." Once railroads had been built, however, companies attempted in their publicity to dispel the image of flat, monotonous landscapes. Yet for passengers, the routing of many railroads along the easily engineered divides between valleys reinforced this image. Above the hidden river valleys there were, according to John Lambert in 1854, and for the most part still are "few objects to arrest the eye," and the atmosphere is "so transparent, that it is only the curvature of the earth's surface that limits the view."

This most extensive and recurring of the region's landscape types gave rise to an ocean simile. The waving grass, persistent winds, scudding clouds, all-encompassing sky, long sweeping vistas, pervasive horizon, absence of upstanding features, and general feeling of emptiness created the impression of a land ocean. It was a simile that reinforced the image of flatness, as in the Abbé Emmanuel H. Domenechs's 1860 description of the static landscape of West Texas as "an ocean of dark stunted herbs in which not a single brush or bramble obstructed the view, where nothing marked a beginning or an end, and where all was mute and motionless." While the simile conveyed exaggerated images to people outside the region, the reality sometimes led to the insanity of its residents. Arguably, that condition was a consequence of confinement by an encircling horizon and scenic monotony within it rather than to a geometrically flat world.

G. Malcolm Lewis University of Sheffield, England

Hammond, Edwin H. Classes of Land-Surface Form in the Forty-eight States, U.S.A. 1:5,000,000. Map Supplement no. 4. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 54 (1964).

Lewis, G. Malcolm. "The Great Plains Region and Its Image of Flatness." Journal of the West 6 (1967): 11–26.

Lewis, G. Malcolm. "Indian Delimitations of Primary Biogeographic Regions." In A Cultural Geography of North American Indians, edited by Thomas E. Ross and Tyrel G. Moore. Boulder CO: Westview Press, 1987: 93–104.

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