Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Whether traveling as part of an exploratory expedition, for trade purposes, as emigrants, or as tourists, since the sixteenth century writers have tried to represent the vast, often disorienting spaces of the Great Plains. Beginning with Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, travelers have created metaphorical links with the familiar in order to convey the unfamiliar to their readers. Coronado compared the Plains to the sea, a trope that remains common in the twenty-first century. Drawing on a European tradition that offered no models of description for such land forms, writers have struggled to describe both the vastness and the sense of disorientation they felt in a Plains landscape.

During the period of exploration, travelers' views depended upon their course and mode of transportation. Whereas French explorers and Lewis and Clark, traveling by river, found beauty and abundant wildlife and vegetation, overland travelers such as Zebulon Pike found a Great American Desert. Others such as Englishman Henry Kelsey, traveling in 1690 across what are now the Prairie Provinces, noted with some exasperation that during the long trek he saw only "Beast and grass." Repeatedly, these travelers registered their own sense of insignificance when confronted with the great openness of the Plains. Most of these accounts take the journal form, which allows readers to better gauge the effect of the Plains on travelers. Through the usually daily journal entries, readers gain a sense of the distances traversed, the harshness of travel conditions, and the unrelenting boredom for travelers with inadequate skills for making distinctions in a land new to them.

Travelers, whether explorers, scientists, traders, immigrants, or tourists, write of the difficulty adjusting to the Plains. They feel disoriented, their accustomed sense of perspective fails them, and they notice odd optical effects. Distances deceive, objects appear much larger, and travelers are tricked by mirages. While these effects tend to make travelers uncomfortable, the Plains offer compensation in the clear and healthy air, the sense of boundless freedom, and the restorative powers of Plains life for the ill and the invalid. Josiah Gregg, Santa Fe trader and author of Commerce of the Prairies (1844), felt that his Plains travels healed him, and he only reluctantly returned to the settlements. Many women travelers found the open spaces exhilarating, viewing the Plains in spring as a vast garden. In her 1846 diary, published as Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico: The Diary of Susan Shelby Magoffin (1926), Susan Magoffin describes the freedom she felt on the Plains in spite of traveling with Gen. Stephen Kearny's Army of the West.

Yet the great expanses continued to resist attempts at description. Frequently, travelers write of their own inadequacy at representing what they experience. The phrase "words cannot convey" appear repeatedly in many accounts. Many critics claim that words failed so many travel writers because they were too dependent upon European literary models. The well-educated tourist in particular was too attached to aesthetic conventions to see the Plains in any other way than from a "civilized" point of view. And the Plains rarely corresponded with the attributes accorded aesthetic models such as the beautiful, the picturesque, and the sublime. Nevertheless, references to the sublimity or lack thereof dot many accounts. In spite of the writer's scientific or documentary goals, the language of European romanticism prevailed among many educated travelers, with Native Americans compared to Moors in many accounts from the nineteenth century.

Related to this tradition, both nineteenthand twentieth-century travelers to the Great Plains often lamented what they saw to be the imminent extinction of the bison and the Indians and the very vastness of the Plains. Consequently, accounts from George Catlin's Illustrations of the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians with Letters and Notes (1841) to Francis Parkman's The Oregon Trail (1849) to Ian Frazier's Great Plains (1988) offer a sense of both consequence and urgency for getting the details right.

Many travelers had their sense of the Plains formed by reading earlier accounts before they arrived. Parkman read Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied, Gregg, and John Charles Fremont before his journey, and Susan Shelby Mago.n read Gregg before her trip over the Santa Fe Trail. Classic American writers as diverse as James Fenimore Cooper and Edgar Allan Poe read published accounts and then created characters experienced in Plains life; neither actually traveled to the Plains. Not surprisingly, with published accounts in mind if not in hand, such writers projected their own and others' expectations onto Plains landscapes. While travel writing about the Great Plains offers a fascinating look at the way writers of European descent have struggled with a powerful and unfamiliar landscape, it remained for inhabitants to find a language adequate to convey a sense of place.

See also GENDER: Victorian Women Travelers.

Nancy Cook University of Rhode Island

Dondore, Dorothy. The Prairie and the Making of Middle America: Four Centuries of Description. New York: Antiquarian Press, 1961.

Francis, R. Douglas. Images of the West: Responses to the Canadian Prairies, 1690–1960. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1989.

Thacker, Robert. The Great Prairie Fact and Literary Imagination. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989.

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