Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


For most of the past two centuries, the concept of the Great Plains as a rich and productive garden has been a part of both popular and official iconography of the region. Sometimes sharing space in the minds of North Americans with the counterimage of the Plains as a desert, sometimes standing alone as the prevailing view of the Plains, the view of the garden has been one of the most enduring and compelling images of the western interior of North America between the Mississippi and the Rockies.

Prior to the nineteenth century, views of the land quality of the Plains were sketchy at best, dependent upon brief forays onto the Plains by British, French, and Spanish explorers and available only to those who had access to the records of exploration or their derivative entries in gazetteers, pamphlets, and government documents. These early impressions varied from the pessimistic view of the Plains as a desert contained within British exploratory accounts, through the more-or-less neutral Spanish perspective in which both garden and desert concepts were present, to a French impression that was imbued with notions of interior abundance. These various images were crystallized in the early nineteenth century by Thomas Jefferson, whose politics demanded ample agricultural land for the expansion of the agrarian republic and whose politically risky purchase of Louisiana Territory sought justification in the notion of a land of plenty. It was true that the Plains were treeless, wrote Jefferson, but only because the soil was too rich for the growth of forest trees. President Jefferson's garden was verified for the American public by Lewis and Clark, who described the Missouri River as watering one of the most fertile portions of the globe.

For most of the first two decades of the 1800s, both elite and folk images of the Plains were dominated by the Jeffersonian view. But as military and scientific explorers ventured into the Plains and began to encounter an environment visually and climatically at variance with their eastern woodlands experience, the counterimage of the Plains as desert began to increase its hold over the better-educated and urban segments of society. In maps and books published in the eastern cities of the United States after 1825, the idea of the Great American Desert was advanced. The desert concept was particularly attractive to those who opposed expansion, and for many of the remaining years before the Civil War the images of garden and desert coexisted in American perceptions of the interior. The desert image was favored by the eastern elite, while rural southerners and westerners readily accepted the garden image, which promised a future of agricultural abundance and fueled a steady western expansion.

It was not until after the Civil War that the Plains environment was tested by Americans and the validity of the garden or desert image confirmed by experience. As first the livestock industry and then farmers began to push into the Plains, and as the railroads began to advance across the region from the east, the garden image started to crowd out the desert idea. Part of the swelling garden image was based on the experience of bumper wheat crops in the Central Plains and increasing herds farther west; equally important was railroad and land agent promotional literature that encouraged prospective Plains dwellers to expect the best. And in spite of the droughts and grasshopper invasions of the 1870s and the blizzards of the 1880s, which, respectively, drove out many farmers and forced a spatial restructuring of the livestock industry, the garden image of the Plains persisted until the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. But even glimpses of the gaunt visages of Oklahomans and Kansans leaving the Plains for California did not destroy the garden concept of the Plains. Countering historian Walter Prescott Webb's pessimistic assessment of the Plains as desert, the farmers and government agents of the 1930s almost immediately recognized that the Dust Bowl was the result of human mistreatment of the Plains rather than a limitation in the Plains environment. The next time the rains failed, went both scientific and vernacular opinion, windbreaks planted crosswise of the westerly winds would prevent soil loss.

Well into the latter years of the twentieth century, both official and popular images of the Plains persisted in picturing the Plains as a region of abundance, not scarcity. Recent advocates of the Plains as a "buffalo commons," the decline in Plains rural population, and some diminishing of agricultural expectations notwithstanding, the view of the Plains as garden is still, if not as strong as in Jefferson's day, the enduring image of this region.

John L. Allen University of Connecticut

Allen, John L. "The Garden-Desert Continuum: Competing Views of the Great Plains in the Nineteenth Century." Great Plains Quarterly 5 (1985): 207-20.

Bowden, Martyn J. "The Great American Desert and the American Frontier, 1800-1882: Popular Images of the Plains." In Anonymous Americans, edited by Tamara K. Haraven. Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971: 48-79.

Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West in Symbol and Myth. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1950.

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