Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

MALIN, JAMES C. (1893-1979)

A distinguished historian of the Great Plains, James Malin was born on the homestead of his father, Jared Nelson Malin, near Edgeley, North Dakota, on February 8, 1893, and lived there and at nearby Kulm while his father was by turns farmer, store clerk, real estate and agricultural implement salesman, sheep man, and lay preacher. The family moved to Edwards County, Kansas, in 1903. Young Malin experienced Plains country farming and sheepherding at first hand as well as life in Lewis, Kansas, before entering Baker University at Baldwin City, Kansas, in 1910. Initially enrolled as a mathematics major, he switched to history and also completed the equivalent of majors in philosophy and biology before his graduation in 1914. After periods of high school teaching, graduate study at the University of Kansas, and military service, he completed a doctorate and joined the history department at the University of Kansas in 1921. He retired in 1963. He long served as associate editor of the Kansas Historical Quarterly and was president of the Agricultural History Society, the Kansas Historical Society, and the Kansas History Teachers Association. A fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he served on committees of major associations in American history, geography, and American studies.

Malin wrote fifteen books, more than 100 articles, and many book reviews. He prepared two survey texts during his early career and later published in the philosophy of history, but most of his publications deal with the history of his native state and the adjacent grasslands of the Plains. Several of Malin's books focus on the regional and national politics involved in establishing Kansas Territory and the subsequent state: Indian Policy and Westward Expansion (1921), John Brown and the Legend of Fifty-Six (1942), and The Nebraska Question, 1852–1854 (1953). In the early 1930s he began to investigate the accommodation of European Americans to the subhumid environment of the grasslands, innovating methods for studying population turnover and community development and investigating relevant research in other disciplines. He described his results as "history from the bottom up" in articles and books such as "The Turnover of Farm Population in Kansas" (Kansas Historical Quarterly, 1935), Winter Wheat in the Golden Belt of Kansas: A Study in Adaptation to Subhumid Geographical Environment (1940; reprint, 1944), "Dust Storms, 1850–1900" (Kansas Historical Quarterly, 1946), and The Grassland of North America: Prolegomena to Its History (1947).

Malin significantly advanced understanding of the history of the North American grassland regions. He particularly illuminated the factors underlying mid-nineteenth-century Indian policy, the activity of political factions in territorial Kansas, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, settler and agricultural adaptation, the incidence of dust storms, and the influence of science and technology in shaping regional development. He was the first American historian to make extensive use of federal and state census returns at the farm level. Alone among western historians of his generation, he drew heavily on ecological research, and he believed that ecology paralleled history in its objectives. However, he disputed some of the generalizations of ecologist Frederic Clements and his followers concerning the American grasslands.

Sensitive to editorial oversight, Malin published most of his own books during the last third of his career, a practice that impeded the circulation of his ideas. Malin died on January 16, 1979, at Lawrence, Kansas.


Allan G. Bogue University of Wisconsin-Madison

Bogue, Allan G. "James C. Malin: A Voice from the Grassland." In Writing Western History: Essays on Major Western Historians, edited by Richard W. Etulain. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991: 215–46.

Malin, James C. History and Ecology: Studies of the Grassland, edited by Robert P. Swierenga. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

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