European Settlement of the Great Plains

The Lost Ways 2

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The main settlement of the Great Plains occurred after the 1840 migrations to Oregon and the 1849 Gold Rush to California. Environmental historian William Cronon has interpreted the history of the Great Plains in terms of narrative. The grand narrative of America, Cronon argues, is a story of progress. The frontier narrative depicts that formative story and, as such, is the master narrative of American culture. A hostile environment, initially conceptualized as a Great American desert, was gradually brought under control and transformed into a garden, making the Great Plains a Garden of the World. That transition in perception occurred as people increasingly settled the Plains and gained control over nature. Two formative accounts reveal the environmental history of the Great Plains as a progressive narrative: Frederick Jackson Turner's "Significance of the Frontier in American History" (1893); and Walter Prescott Webb's The Great Plains (1931).

The opposite, or declensionist narrative, according to Cronon, relates history as environmental decline. A pristine grassland, at first uninhabited, was then occupied by nomadic bands of Indians. White settlers who came into this natural Garden of Eden, or nearly pristine nature, transformed it over a period of 150 years into a desert, exemplified by the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Donald Worster's The Dust Bowl (1979) illustrates the ecological decline of the Plains that came about through capitalist agriculture and ranching and resulted in the ecological disaster of the Dust Bowl.

These two story lines, however, are both linear — the first uphill, the second downhill, masking nuances and irregularities. "When we choose a plot to order our environmental histories," Cronon notes, "we give them a unity that neither nature nor the past possesses so clearly. In so doing, we move well beyond nature into the intensely human realm of value."10 Stories that focus on white settlers often leave out other people's perspectives — for example, those of black cowboys and homesteaders and women settlers, as well as the stories of native Americans and the bison (told in chapter 1). How are these stories illustrated in the environmental history of the Great Plains?

Frederick Jackson Turner's 1893 account of "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" depicts the progressive story as a traditional hero narrative. European immigrants are the heroes who settled the land, crossing the Atlantic and the eastern United States in successive frontier lines. According to Turner, the frontier transforms the settler. The encounter with wilderness "strips off the garments of civilization." It puts the colonist "in the log cabin of the Cherokee and Iroquois." But as the victor gains control, "little by little he transforms the wilderness." The outcome, however, is not the old European émigré, but a new American, formed by the frontier. Democracy and American civilization, in a perennial rebirth, fill the land. Democracy, according to Turner, is "born of free land."

The fur traders, who constituted Turner's first frontier, explored the West during the 1820s through the 1840s, employed by trading companies such as John Jacob Astor's (1763-1848) American Fur Company. The competing company, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, employed some of the world's most famous traders, such as William Ashley, Jim Bridger, Milton Sublette, and Kit Carson. Competing with these companies from the north was the Hudson's Bay Company, which merged with the Northwest Fur Company and held a monopoly in Canada. Traders scoured the West, capturing and shipping eastward the pelts of fur-bearing animals, in particular the beaver. Mountain men fanned out over the Rockies along Indian trails, coming together at a given time and place each year — a "rendezvous" — to which they brought the year's collection of pelts. Held between 1825 and 1840, rendezvous sites included camps along the tributaries of the Green and Snake Rivers. French, Scottish, and German traders, along with Native Americans and African Americans participated in the trade as hunters, trappers, voyageurs, and entrepreneurs. African Americans were often used as go-betweens in negotiations with Indians, to reduce friction between the parties.

In Turner's progressive narrative, the rancher's, miner's, and farmer's frontiers followed that of the fur traders. Turner writes: "Stand at Cumberland Gap and watch the procession of civilization, marching single file — the buffalo following the trail to the salt springs, the Indian, the fur-trader and hunter, the cattle-raiser, the pioneer farmer —and the frontier has passed by. Stand at South Pass in the Rockies a century later and see the same procession with wider intervals between. The unequal rate of advance compels us to distinguish the frontier into the trader's frontier, the rancher's frontier or the miner's frontier, and then finally the farmer's frontier."11

South Pass, on a gradual rise at 7,375 feet at the Continental Divide in Wyoming, was on the trail most settlers followed west. Here they could take the Sublette Cutoff (named after the fur trader, Milton Sublette) across Colorado and north to Fort Hall in Idaho, where they followed the Oregon Trail along the Snake River, crossed into the Columbia watershed, and traveled south to Oregon's fertile Willamette Valley. Alternatively, they could take the California trail westward along the Humboldt River, crossing the Sierras and heading down to California's Gold Country and Central Valley. Some dipped south into Salt Lake City, Utah, settling in the region developed by Mormons. On arriving at their destinations, the emigrants pursued mining, ranching, and farming, settling the far West and the Great Plains.

The Rancher's Frontier

Historian Walter Prescott Webb's The Great Plains (1931) builds on Turner's progressive narrative, describing the rancher's and farmer's fron tiers on the Plains in terms of two formative factors — environment and technology. Webb states: "New inventions and discoveries had to be made before the pioneer farmer could go into the Great Plains and establish himself."12 Technologies allowed settlers to subdue a forbidding environment that had three main characteristics not found in the eastern United States. First, as pioneers moved west of the 100th meridian, the environment of the Plains became increasingly arid, lacking the minimum twenty inches of rainfall per year that would support agriculture reliably. Second, the Plains were treeless, and therefore did not provide the timber for fuel and building materials readily available in the East. Third, the Trans-Mississippi Plains were level, rising only gradually westward, which meant that rivers were shallow and lacked the power to operate mills or float ships.

The rancher's frontier, according to Webb, was initiated by longhorn cattle drives north from Texas. "The Cattle Kingdom," he wrote, "was a world within itself, with a culture all its own, which though of brief duration, was complete and self-satisfying."13 Between 1866 and 1886 an open range, characterized by cattle drives and nomadic cowboys, prevailed from north to south on the short grass Plains. Longhorn cattle, released into Mexico with the conquistadors, were raised in the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas and herded north to markets in the Midwest. Abilene, Kansas, in 1867, was the first depot on the east-west Kansas Pacific Railroad to which cattle were driven. Soon cattle towns, such as Sedalia, Missouri and Wichita, Ellsworth, Dodge City, and Ellis, Kansas sprang up across the Plains as additional east-west railroads were constructed. The open range created cattle barons and itinerant cowhands during a two-decade expansion. In addition to whites, black and Mexican cowboys rode the Chisholm and other trails as highly skilled cowboys.

The drought of 1883 put the first crimp into the open range. Then, the nationwide panic of 1884, part of America's continuing cycle of boom and bust capitalist expansion, wreaked havoc in the cattle industry. The blizzards of 1885 dealt the final blow, ending the heyday of the open range. During the next decade, tensions and competition ensued as ranchers, sheepherders, and homesteaders all vied for access to the range. The overgrazed Plains were depleted of the perennial grasses that had supported one steer on every two acres and were seeded with less nutritious annuals that supported one steer per 5 to 10 acres. As perennials declined, wind and water erosion increased and topsoils were lost. Donald Worster calls the results an ecological disaster. "The 'tragedy of the laissez-faire commons'" he notes, "was one of the greatest in the entire history of pastoralism."14

The Farmer's Frontier

The farmer's frontier that followed the rancher's frontier was enhanced by the Homestead Act of 1862, which allowed people to claim title to 160 acres of land. For Webb, six technologies made it possible for farmers to control and manage the Plains environment. Following the Colt six-shooter (1835), which had subdued the Plains Indians, the second piece of technology that, from Webb's perspective, transformed the Plains was barbed wire. Invented in 1874 by Joseph Glidden on an old homestead in DeKalb, Illinois, double-stranded barbed wire was significant because it made the homestead possible. Fields could be fenced in and purebred stock could be kept isolated. The homestead and the vegetable garden could be fenced to keep out cattle, sheep, or deer. Barbed wire made homesteading possible, but spelled the end of the open range. The farmer's frontier of sedentary life and power, however, could now replace the nomadic pastoral frontier of the Indian and rancher.

A third piece of technology that subdued the Plains environment, according to Webb, was the windmill. Developed in Europe in the Middle Ages, the windmill was a part of the technological complex associated with the domestication of animals and crops. It accompanied the European advance onto the Plains, giving settled agriculture a stationary power-base compared to the shifting campsites of nomadic Indians. The windmill kept its vanes pointed into the wind, and the gear changed the rotary motion of the vanes into a vertical motion to pump subsurface water, which could then be stored in a watering trough or pond. Wherever a well could be dug and a windmill situated, water for cattle and crops could be controlled, steers could be fattened, and wheat harvested. The windmill, like barbed wire, made the homestead possible because water for vegetables and other crops could be stored and channeled to gardens and fields.

The fourth technology that subdued the Plains was the John Deere plow. Like the mill, the plow was one of the important pieces of technology that changed Western history. The earliest plows of southern Europe, pulled by oxen, successfully scratched the dry shallow soils of the Mediterranean region. But in northern Europe, the heavy, wet soils required wrought iron plows hitched to several horses, shared communally. Those plows were increasingly refined and brought to Puritan New England and the East Coast. Iron plowshares worked well in the East because the iron could scour the gritty, wet soil. But on the Great Plains, prairie grasses with matted roots and deep growing points resulted in very thick sod, with no grit to scour the moldboard. In 1846, John Deere took a piece of steel off a broken mill saw and attached it to a plow. It worked so well that he ordered high-grade steel from the Pittsburgh steel mills and began manufacturing the John Deere plow. By 1858 his factory was producing 13,000 steel plows.

The fifth technology that changed the Great West was the railroad. The first transcontinental railroad was completed in Utah in 1869 when the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific were joined. Windmills along the tracks drew up water for the steam engines. Railroads not only provided a means for immigrants to reach the Plains, but transported cattle and crops such as wheat and corn to eastern markets.

The sixth technology was the harvester. Mechanized harvesters, cultivators, threshers, and tractors became increasingly sophisticated, allowing the production of monocultures of wheat and corn. In Webb's narrative, technologies — such as barbed wire, windmills, plows, harvesters, and irrigation systems — enabled people to gain some measure of control over the arid, treeless, level environment on the Plains.

The progressive story of the Great Plains reveals that, from the mid-nineteenth century to the present, many cowboys and settlers successfully ranched, homesteaded, and gradually urbanized the Plains. Human production began to move away from subsistence-oriented homesteading and towards capitalist ranching and large-scale agribusiness. As corporate ranching replaced the free range and absentee landowners bought out small farmers, attitudes toward nature became increasingly profit-oriented, managerial, and scientific. Nature was subdued by technology; an ethic of human domination controlled development.

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Responses

  • SEGAN
    What does donald worster mean by the "tragedy of the laissez faire commons"?
    8 years ago
  • sofia
    Why settle in oregon versus the great plains?
    3 years ago
  • Milen
    What were the settlements like on the great plains?
    22 days ago

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