Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


One of the most famous documents in American environmental history, the Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States (1878) was less than 200 pages long. The authors were members of the Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region, under the direction of John Wesley Powell, intrepid explorer of the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon. Powell's own contribution to their report to Congress was the first two chapters, which were characteristically bold and visionary.

The nation was moving into a vast region marked by aridity, Powell warned, and the traditional system for disposing of the public domain to private citizens–the 160-acre farming homestead–was badly adapted to that condition. Powell relied on data collected by the Smithsonian showing that beyond the 100th meridian rainfall was less than twenty inches a year, on average, which was insu.cient for most crops. Successful settlement would require laws that encouraged smaller-scale farms based on communal irrigation and, more generally, laws that encouraged a pastoral economy of sheep and cattle ranches.

Separating the arid from the humid region was the Great Plains (which Powell called the Sub-humid Region), stretching over nearly one-tenth of the country. He predicted that much agricultural wealth would come out of this "beautiful prairie country," whose rich soils seemed ready for the plow. He foresaw, however, that the Plains would experience many disastrous droughts, leaving people disappointed and bankrupt, and he recommended developing surface irrigation to mitigate some of this uncertainty.

Donald Worster University of Kansas

Stegner, Wallace. Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the American West. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1954.

Worster, Donald. An Unsettled Country: Changing Landscapes of the American West. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1994.

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