Saturday, November 07, 2009

Great American Desert

From: Democracy in America By Alexis de Tocqueville
The concept of the Great American Desert had long been familiar to Americans and indeed it controlled much of the directions of the growth of the nation for a major part of the nineteenth century. So we have to dip back a little bit before the Civil War to see how this geographical concept, this geographical myth, came into being, and how it influenced the growth, the thoughts, the attitudes, of the American people as they moved westward.

In 1819, the federal government of the United States decided that it needed a good amount of information for the territory that lay beyond the Mississippi River, westward to the Rocky mountains. They hired an explorer, a map-maker named Stephen H. Long to take a journey to map this terrain, to keep a journal, to inform the federal government about what at the time was a vast unknown territory to all Americans. And so Long set out in 1819 traveling westward from what is now the border of Nebraska, traveled through Iowa to the front of the Rocky Mountain ranges, then traveled south and back through what eventually would become Oklahoma and Arkansas. He drew a massive map as well as a series of subsidiary maps and wrote a major report for the federal government, a report that was published along with its maps in 1821. Over the area that today we know as the Great Plains, Stephen H. Long simply printed in giant letters, the words "The Great American Desert." And in his journals and in his reports which accompanied his map, Long wrote that in his opinion, "I do not hesitate in saying that the entire area is almost wholly unfit for cultivation. And of course it's uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their existence." Buffalo, wild game, goats might live there, but not people. It was indeed on the map that finally reached the public in 1823--it was the Great American Desert.

Consequently, there was very sparse settlement in the area beyond the Mississippi River in the 1840s and the 1850s--isolated pioneer homesteads here and there, but not settlers pouring in vast numbers until the late 1850s and the early years of the 1860s. In the years immediately following the end of the Civil War, traffic into the trans-Mississippi West picked up dramatically by the hundreds, then by the thousands, then by the hundreds of thousands. Settlers poured into the Great Plains moving westward. As the population increased in the Great Plains trans Mississippi West area, many people came to recognize that the old myth of the Great American Desert was no longer true. If indeed it had been true, they needed a way to combat the myth. People eager on boosting settlement and attracting business and getting railroad connections wanted the rest of the nation to believe that the so called Great American Desert was not a desert at all. So they built a counter myth. Now they began to call the Great Plains in the late 1860s and the 1870s "The Garden," the Garden of the West, an agricultural paradise in which there was space enough, and time enough for people to achieve their wildest dreams. A new kind of booster literature appeared portraying the entire Great American Desert area, the entire Great Plains area as an agrarian heaven, an idyllic spot.
From American History 102: Which Old West and Whose?
Power believed that the only way to overcome the tradition that Dakota was the Great American Desert was to actively promote the region in the farm periodicals of America and Europe of that day.
From Bonanza Farming in the Red River Valley