Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Great Plains was never developed homogeneously, but after the early nineteenth century its image was associated with a sequence of supposed socioeconomic potentials or conditions. During some periods this image was one of limited or even negative potential, as with the Great American Desert in the first half of the nineteenth century and the Nation's Stepchild in the mid-twentieth century. The first of the positive economic concepts was that of the pastoral region, which emerged after the Civil War and climaxed circa 1885, by which date the coequal and approximately contemporary concepts of a pioneer settlement region and a dry-farmed cash grain region were in the ascendancy. Between 1884 and 1887 severe winter conditions or premature chinooks or hot dry summers had affected every part of the pastoral region. Their effects were catastrophic for a type of ranching that during good years had appeared not to require insurance in the form of constructed shelters, supplementary feed, and artificial reservoirs. The climatic disasters, coinciding almost exactly with a national economic depression, quickly weakened the pastoral image.

Especially on the western Great Plains, stock raising had begun slowly with the realization that cattle abandoned or straying from emigrants on trails west not only overwintered but often flourished on the shortgrass divides between valleys. It did not, however, emerge as a dominant economy until the 1870s, when there was an eightfold increase in the number of cattle in the northern and central parts of the region. However, the image was probably stronger than the ranching economy it epitomized. It had been promoted in eastern North America and elsewhere by several books. In The Central Gold Region: The Grain, Pastoral, and Gold Regions of North America (1860), William Gilpin devoted a chapter to "Pastoral America." Published on the eve of the Civil War, the book was predictive: "The Great Plains of America" were "not deserts" but formed "the Pastoral Garden of the World," an immense, longitudinally oriented "empire of pastoral agriculture" at the threshold of which the frontier of settlement had just arrived. Once the prediction materialized, James S. Brisbin, in The Beef Bonanza; or, How to Get Rich on the Plains (1882), and Walter Baron von Richthofen, in Cattle-Raising on the Plains of North America (1885), were particularly important in publicizing it. Von Richthofen, in a brief first paragraph, announced that the "former Great American Desert" had become "the largest and richest grass and pasture region of the world" and that it would "probably soon become the most important beef-producing country of the globe." The image was further strengthened by the associated glamour of the cowboy culture, which was already being promoted in literature. Ironically, further publicity was associated with the demise of ranching in the mid-1880s. Much of the investment and many of the leading participants in ranching were from eastern North America and Europe, and their losses were widely known. Although the ranching economy revived, the powerful icon of a pastoral region was never reestablished.

See also AGRICULTURE: Cattle Ranching.

G. Malcolm Lewis University of Sheffield, England

Lewis, G. Malcolm. "Regional Ideas and Reality in the Cis–Rocky Mountain West." Transactions and Papers of the Institute of British Geographers 18 (1966): 135–50.

Lewis, G. Malcolm. "William Gilpin and the Concept of the Great Plains Region." Annals of the Association of American Geographers 56 (1966): 33–51.

Previous: Okies | Contents | Next: Potts, Jerry

XML: egp.ii.045.xml