Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Edwin James, chronicler of Stephen Long's 1820 expedition, formed the image of the Great American Desert (the Plains as a region unfit for American settlement), and geographies published in New England from 1820 to 1835 perpetuated the myth. Elite New Englanders wanted to end westward expansion and its concomitants: new states, senators, and congressmen and thus a diminution of New England's political power. The wish was father to the Federalist myth of the Great American Desert in the New England mind. In the remainder of the East, beyond New England and its extensions, the desert, viewed as lying farther and farther west and increasingly narrow against the Rocky Mountain front from 1845 onward, was only one of a pool of myths about the Great Plains that included the pastoral region and the garden. During the middle third of the century, even among the elite in the South and the interior and especially on the frontier and on the eastern margins of the Great Plains, the desert notion did not exist. The Mormons were the exception: from 1855 to the present, the Great American Desert had become an invented tradition for a majority of their literate public. The Mormon crossing of the Great Plains, relatively easy and uneventful, was transformed by Mormon leaders in the pulpit into a neo-Mosaic traverse of their American Sinai, the Great American Desert east of the Rockies, which, among a number of traditions, proved the Mormons to be God's chosen people, the Latter-day Saints, and their leaders to be inspired by God.

In the Plains region, ignorance of the desert myth changed twenty years into the settlement process as boosters and writers for the railroads and state chambers of commerce published hundreds of pamphlets and books promoting the Plains. The pamphlet writers, many of whom had been educated in the Northeast during the 1840s and 1850s, found it easy to contend that the agricultural frontier now existed 100 miles or so into the Plains of Nebraska and Kansas, which had been labeled the Great American Desert during the writers' youth. The perceived agent of change in the Plains was increased rainfall, caused either by plowing the soil or by tree planting, or a corollary of Manifest Destiny, or a reward from a benevolent God. In the escalation of Plains promotion, the boosters referred to the "conquest" of the Great American Desert and challenged the prospective migrant to go west and further the change. The boosters, local county historians, and Plains newspaper editors of the period from 1870 to 1900 erased the memory of the land actually encountered by the pioneers.

After 1880 Plains pioneers, predominantly midwesterners who had encountered no Great American Desert in their texts in the 1850s and 1860s, conveniently adopted the eastern boosters' textbook desert in their reminiscences recorded for state historical societies and for publishers of county histories. They talked themselves into believing that they had either conquered or disproved the existence of the desert. In effect, they initiated the process of the reinvention of the tradition of the Great American Desert by claiming to have conquered it. The romantic Plains historians from 1885 to 1910 drew on these pioneer recollections without knowing of the selfglorification embedded within them, completed the reinvention of the desert tradition, and propagated it.

In The Great Plains (1931), Walter Prescott Webb recapitulated the boosters' rediscovery of the desert in the 1870s; the only difference between Webb's discovery and that of his booster predecessors was that he found in the 1920s references to the Great American Desert in three school geographies from 1840 and 1850. Based upon these, he built a factitious superstructure: the Great American Desert idea did exist in the American mind from 1820 to 1870, was at its most popular in the 1850s, and halted the American frontier. American historians who wrote the school and college textbooks followed Webb's interpretation of the desert myth. The paradox exists, therefore, that during the period from 1820 to 1870, when Webb and his followers claimed that a Great American Desert existed in the American mind, practically nobody, excepting the Mormons after 1855 and a well-educated minority in the Northeast before 1855, believed in the existence of a desert west of the Missouri. The only period during which a belief in either a real or an imaginary Great American Desert in the Great Plains region ever existed consensually in the American mind, and then only among the high-school- and college-educated, was from 1920 to 1970

See also WAR: Long, Stephen H.; Pike, Zebulon

Martyn J. Bowden Clark University

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

Bowden, Martyn J. "The Great American Desert in the American Mind: The Historiography of a Geographical Notion." In Geographies of the Mind: Essays in Historical Geosophy in Honor of John Kirtland Wright, edited by David Lowenthal and Martyn J. Bowden. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976: 119-47.

Lewis, G. Malcolm. "Regional Ideas and Reality in the Cis-Rocky Mountain West." Transactions, Institute of British Geographers 38 (1966): 135-50.

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