The Great American Desert

At one period after the geography of the West was fairly well known, all the country embraced in the State of Kansas was supposed to be unfit for habitation—at least unfit for habitation by a civilized people. This erroneous conception of the country continued down to comparatively recent times. And even when the State was first settled it was not thought that the western portion of it would ever become an agricultural country. This false impression resulted from an inexact knowledge of the regions extending from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean. That deserts existed in those countries—and do still exist—must be admitted. The writers and geographers of those days did not know the exact locations of those desert wastes. They were supposed to begin at the Missouri River and to be continuous to the Rocky Mountains, while in fact they principally began with those mountain ranges and lay to the west of them. That there were sandy wastes eastward from the Rocky Mountains is well established, and to this day there are extensive districts along the Arkansas River in Kansas, designated as “Sand Hills.”

Perhaps Lieutenant Pike was to some extent responsible for the legend “The Great American Desert,” which adorned the maps of the school Geographies published in the early part of the nineteenth century. His reports are extremely interesting, and they were widely read. And they were consulted, no doubt, by the authors of those same Geographies. His language is not ambiguous, and neither is it exact in all mentions of localities. Especially is this true of his summing up. In the following instance, however, he is definite enough in his designation.

In this western traverse of Louisiana, the following general observations may be made; viz: that from the Missouri to the head of the [Little] Osage river, a distance in a straight line of probably 300 miles, the country will admit of a numerous, extensive and compact population; thence, on the rivers Kansas, La Platte, Arkansaw, and their various branches, it appears to me to be only possible to introduce a limited population on their banks. The inhabitants would find it most to their advantage to pay attention to the multiplication of cattle, horses, sheep, and goats, all of which they can raise in abundance, the earth producing spontaneously sufficient for their support, both winter and summer, by which means their herds might become immensely numerous; but the wood now in the country would not be sufficient for a moderate share of population more than 15 years, and it would be out of the question to think of using any of it in manufactures; consequently, the houses would be built entirely of mud-brick [adobe] like those in New Spain, or of the brick manufactured with fire. But possibly time might make the discovery of coal-mines, which would render the country habitable.

In reasoning as to the cause of the absence of timber from the prairies, he so wrote that a confusion of localities was possible in the minds of readers—and even students.

Numerous have been the hypotheses formed by various naturalists to account for the vast tract of un-timbered country which lies between the waters of the Missouri, Mississippi, and the Western Ocean, from the mouth of the latter river to 48º north latitude. Although not flattering myself to be able to elucidate that which numbers of highly scientific characters have acknowledged to be beyond their depth of research, still I would not think I had done my country justice did I not give birth to what few lights my examination of those internal deserts had enabled me to acquire. In that vast country of which I speak, we find the soil generally dry and sandy, with gravel, and discover that the moment we approach a stream the land becomes more humid, with small timber. I therefore conclude that this country never was timbered; as, from the earliest age the aridity of the soil, having so few water-courses running through it, and they being principally dry in summer, had never afforded moisture sufficient to support the growth of timber. In all timbered land the annual discharge of the leaves, with the continual decay of old trees and branches, creates a manure and moisture, which is preserved from the heat of the sun not being permitted to direct his rays perpendicularly, but only to shed them obliquely through the foliage. But here a barren soil, parched and dried up for eight months in the year, presents neither moisture nor nutrition sufficient to nourish the timber. These vast plains of the western hemisphere may become in time as celebrated as the sandy deserts of Africa; for I saw in my route, in various places, tracts of many leagues where the wind had thrown up the sand in all the fanciful form of the ocean’s rolling wave, and on which not a speck of vegetable matter existed.

While it is not likely that he had seen “Tracts of many leagues where the wind had thrown up the sand in all the fanciful form of the ocean’s rolling wave” at any point in the country which later became known as the “Prairies” of the “Prairies region” his final conclusion might lead any student of his travels having no other source of information to think he had:

But from these immense prairies may arise one great advantage to the United States, viz.: the restriction of our population to some certain limits, and thereby a continuation of the Union. Our citizens being so prone to rambling and extending themselves on the frontiers will through necessity, be constrained to limit their extent on the west to the borders of the Missouri and Mississippi, while they leave the prairies incapable of cultivation to the wandering and uncivilized aborigines of the country.

The school geographies were based on such information as Pike and other explorers furnished. Having had no personal experience on the Western prairies they were unable to say just what bounds these deserts had and where they were in fact located. There are extensive deserts in the Southwest now—in New Mexico, Arizona, California, and other states. There are immense tracts covered with drifting sand and cacti; horned toads and rattlesnakes. But if water for irrigation can be developed those deserts become fertile fields and blooming gardens.

An examination of the old maps in the school geographies of the first half of the nineteenth century reveals “The Great American Desert” in various localities and with ever varying bounds. A Modern Atlas on a New Plan to Accompany the System of Universal Geography, by William Channing Woodbridge, Hartford, Oliver D. Cooke & Co., 1831, was largely used throughout the country in its time. In it the Map of the United States shows “The Great American Desert” extending from the west line of Arkansas Territory and of Missouri to the Rocky Mountains. And from the Platte to the Red River. On the desert, as thus defined, is marked this inscription: “The desert is traversed by herds of Buffaloes & wild Horses & inhabited only by roving tribes of Indians.” And this map marks all the country of the United States west of the Mississippi except Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri, as “Missouri Territory.”

By the year 1839, the “desert” had contracted its bounds. In that year was published in New York, Smith’s Atlas, Designed to Accompany the Geography, by R. S. Smith, A. M. On the Map of the “United States and Texas,” the “Great American Desert” is delineated as embracing the Panhandle portion of Texas and the country west of the 101st meridian to the Rocky Mountains—and from the Arkansas to the Platte, following the North Fork of the Platte. The country west of the Arkansas and Missouri, and between the Platte and the Texas line, is called the “Indian Territory.” The north line of Texas was then as now, except that it reached the Arkansas, which it followed to the source. A part of the country north of the Platte along the Missouri—the reservations of the Omahas and Loup Pawnees—was also included.

The descriptions found in these school books, or those they were de signed to accompany, never failed to compare “The Great American Desert” with the “Great Sahara” of Africa, as witness this from the Elements of Geography, by Benjamin Workman, A. M., Philadelphia, 1814:

“West of the Mississippi, and south of the Missouri, there is a vast extent of un-timbered country, of a barren sandy soil, which had some resemblance to the deserts of Africa.”

In A System of Modern Geography for Schools, Academies and Families, by Nathaniel G. Huntington, A. M., Hartford, 1836, there is an account of the “Missouri Territory” a part of which is as follows:

“This territory is a vast wilderness, resembling a desert, extending from the state of Missouri and the river Mississippi, to the Rocky Mountains. It is a region of open elevated plains, generally destitute of forest trees, and interspersed with barren hills.

“It is inhabited almost exclusively by various tribes of Indians, and traversed by herds of wild horses and buffaloes, which in some instances range by thousands in a drove, appearing almost to cover the face of the ground.”

There is an important map, as pertaining to this subject, in the History of American Missions to the Heathen from their Commencement to the Present Time, Worcester, Spooner & Howland, 1840. Upon that map there is drawn a line marking the “Western Boundary of Habitable Land.” That line passes through what is now Kansas a little west of Wichita. It may be reasonably concluded that the author of the map supposed the line to represent the east boundary of “The Great American Desert.”

In some of the books published in the period of “The Great American Desert” there were pictured caravans crossing the deserts in much the same fashion that travelers were represented on the African deserts, except that there is an absence of camels. And even this feature might have been added. In 1857 the general Government bought a number of camels to be used on the deserts of Arizona and California, and their employment there was only prevented by the coming of the Civil War. It is said that these desert animals were abandoned, but lived and increased in a wild state, becoming in some parts of the Southwest a common nuisance.

It is interesting to note the persistency of the idea that the country known as the Great Plains was a sandy desert. And it is curious to observe the ignorance of the West remaining in the Eastern States to this day. In 1867 some capitalists there were offered some very valuable mining property in Colorado. Colorado! Was there such a country? Not a dollar would they venture until a mining expert should be sent to investigate. Mr. A. W. Hoyt was dispatched on that business, and one injunction laid upon him was to ascertain for a certainty if there was in fact any such place as Colorado Territory. And he reported to his employers on that country, affirming that it existed, and saying that “The Great American Desert” was almost impassable to man or beast. And in 1878 Rev. Henry Ward Beecher wrote of “riding night and day across the great desert plains.”

Even good old Horace Greeley, always a friend of Kansas, wrote a chapter on “The American Desert.” He made a tour of the West in the summer of 1859. The inhabited districts of Kansas he found attractive enough. But when these were passed he wrote a memorandum of the diminishing comforts of life for the patrons of his Tribune, as follows:

I believe I have now descended the ladder of artificial life nearly to its lowest round. If the Cheyennes—thirty of whom stopped the last express down on the route we must traverse, and tried to beg or steal from it—shall see fit to capture and strip us, we shall probably have further experience in the same line; but for the present the progress I have made during the last fortnight toward the primitive simplicity of human existence may be roughly noted thus:

May 12th.—Chicago.—Chocolate and morning newspaper last seen on the breakfast-table.

23d.—Leavenworth.—Room-bells and baths make their final appearance.

24th.—Topeka.—Beef-steak and wash-bowls (other than tin) last visible. Barber ditto.

26th.—Manhattan.—Potatoes and eggs last recognized among the blessings that “brighten as they take their flight.” Chairs ditto.

27th.—Junction City.—Last visitation of a boot-black, with, dissolving views of a board bedroom. Beds bid us good-by.

28th.—Pipe Creek.—Benches for seats at meals have disappeared, giving place to bags and boxes. We (two passengers of a scribbling turn) write our letters in the express-wagon that had borne us by day, and must supply us lodgings for the night.

The depths of desolation were not experienced until his arrival on the upper reaches of the Republican. On the 2d of June he penned a communication from Station 18, P. P. Express Company, in which he said:

The clouds which threatened rain at the station on Prairie-Dog Creek, whence I wrote two days ago, were dissipated by a violent gale, which threatened to overturn the heavy wagon in which my fellow-passengers and I were courting sleep—had it stood broadside to the wind, it must have gone over. It is customary, I learn, to stake down the wagons encamped on the open prairie; in the valleys of the creeks, where the company’s stations are located, this precaution is deemed superfluous. But the winds which sweep the high prairies of this region are terrible; and the few trees that grow thinly along the creek-bottoms rarely venture to raise their heads above the adjacent bluffs, to which they owe their doubtful hold on existence.

For more than a hundred miles back, the soil had been steadily degenerating, until here, where we strike the Republican, which had been far to the north of us since we left it at Fort Riley, three hundred miles back, we seem to have reached the acme of barrenness and desolation. We left this morning, Station 17, on a little creek entitled Gouler, at least thirty miles back, and did not see a tree, and but one bunch of low shrubs in a dry water-course throughout our dreary morning ride, till we came in sight of the Republican, which had a little—a very little—scrubby cotton-wood nestled in and along its bluffs just here—but there is none beside for miles, save a little lurking in a ravine which makes down to the river from the north. Of grass there is little, and that little of miserable quality—either a scanty furze or coarse alkaline sort of rush, less fit for food than physic. Soil there is none but an inch or so of intermittent grass-root tangle, based on what usually seems to be a thin stratum of clay, often washed off so as to leave nothing but a slightly argillaceous sand. Along the larger water-courses—this one especially—this sand seems to be as pure as Sahara can boast.

The dearth of water is fearful. Although the whole region is deeply seamed and gullied by water-courses—now dry, but in rainy weather mill-streams—no springs burst from their steep sides. We have not passed a drop of living water in all our morning’s ride, and but a few pails full of muddy moisture at the bottoms of a very few of the fast-drying sloughs or sunken holes in the beds of dried-up creeks. Yet there had been much rain here this season, some of it not long ago. But this is a region of sterility and thirst. If utterly unfed, the grass of a season would hardly suffice, when dry, to nourish a prairie-fire.

Even the animals have deserted us. No buffalo have been seen this year within many miles of us, though their old paths lead occasionally across this country; I presume they pass rapidly through it, as I should urgently advise them to do; not a gray-wolf had honored us with his company to-day—he prefers to live where there is something to eat—the prairie-dog also wisely shuns this land of starvation; no animal but gopher (a little creature, between a mouse and a ground-squirrel) abounds here; and he burrows deep in the sand and picks up a living, I cannot guess how; while a few hawks and an occasional prairie-wolf (cayota) lives by picking here and there a gopher. They must find him disgustingly lean.

I would match this station and its surroundings against any other scene on our continent for desolation. From the high prairie over which we approach it, you overlook a grand sweep of treeless desert, through the middle of which flows the Republican, usually in several shallow streams separated by sand-bars or islets—its whole volume being far less than that of the Mohawk at Utica, though it had drained above this point an area equal to that of Connecticut. Of the few scrubby cottonwoods lately cowering under the bluffs at this point, most have been cut for the uses of the station, though logs for its embryo house are drawn from a little clump, eight miles distant. A broad bed of sand indicated that the volume of water is sometimes a hundred-fold its present amount, though it will doubtless soon be far less than it now is. Its average depth cannot now exceed six inches. On every hand, and for many miles above and below, the country above the bluffs is such as we have passed over this morning. A dead mule—bitten in the jaw this morning by a rattlesnake—lies here as if to complete the scene. Off the five weeks old track to Pike’s Peak, all is dreary solitude and silence.

The Cimarron runs through the southwest corner of Kansas. Max Greene explored in that region at an early date, and here is the account he wrote of that stream in his The Kansas Region.

Toward the rising sun swells out the easternmost barrier of the Rocky Mountains, the long-extending Ratone, with its porticos of columnar quartz leading to kiosks of slumbrous cedar, by whose springs the dust-stained pilgrim rests and had sweet thoughts of home and friends afar. Here, from the cool embrasures, a yellow and scorched eternity of plain meets the view. So flat is it, you may wander, day after day, without once meeting an elevation perceptibly overtopping the rude mound which marks the emigrant’s grave, until, at last, lured on by the vapory tricks of the mirage, you stand where that desert mockery of a river, the Cimarron, seams the dead, unsmiling level. You look down into that soundless stream of crystal air, and strange, solemn emotions thrill you, as though you trod with regal Ulysses his shadowy glens beneath the low-eaved sky of Cimmeria. You descend the bank and walk the bottom of a sunken river. Miles away, on either side, are the bluffs of projecting nodules of clay, wearing the black and fallen look of deserted forts, and here and there are inlets of dry arroyos pouring in their lesser currents of nothing, A dread of demonry comes over you, and you stagger on like a sick man in a dream. The limber serpent glides from your path. You pause where the acrid fountlet bubbles up and sinks back again beneath the shadow of the silver-margined euphorbia—the one beautiful flower on the bosom of desolation. Thus sifts the broad and deep but viewless Cimarron through quicksands, or gathers in lakes of sunless caverns down where eyeless gnomes hold vigil in the center of the earth, anear the iron-pillared throne of cloudy and formless Demogorgon. If there be a vein of supernaturalism in you, the voiceless appealing of these wizard regions will bring it to the surface of your nature.

In 1836 Irving wrote his Astoria. He had something to say of the “Great American Desert.” It is quoted here to show how extensive the idea of that mythical land was down to that time:

Such is the nature of this immense wilderness of the far west; which apparently defies cultivation, and the habitation of civilized life. Some portions of it along the rivers may partially be subdued by agriculture, others may form vast pastoral tracts, like those of the east; but it is to be feared that a great part of it will form a lawless interval between the abodes of civilized man, like the wastes of the ocean or the deserts of Arabia; and, like them be subject to the depredations of the marauder. Here may spring up new and mongrel races, like new formations in geology, the amalgamation of the “debris” and “abrasions” of former races, civilized and savage; the remains of broken and almost extinguished tribes; the descendants of wandering hunters and trappers; of fugitives from the Spanish and American frontiers; of adventurers and desperadoes of every class and country; yearly ejected from the bosom of society into the wilderness. We are contributing incessantly to swell this singular and heterogeneous cloud of wild population that is to hang about our frontier, by the transfer of whole tribes of savages from the east of the Mississippi to the great wastes of the far west. Many of these bear with them the smart of real or fancied injuries; many consider themselves expatriated beings, wrongfully exiled from their hereditary homes, and the sepulchres of their fathers, and cherish a deep and abiding animosity against the race that had dispossessed them. Some may gradually become pastoral hordes, like those rude and migratory people, half shepard, half warrior, who, with their flocks and herds, roam the plains of upper Asia, but, other, it is to be apprehended, will become predatory bands, mounted on the fleet steeds of the prairies, with the open plains for their marauding grounds, and the mountains for their retreats and lurking places. Here they may resemble those great hordes of the north; “Gog and Magog with their bands” that haunted the gloomy imaginations of the prophets. “A great company and a mighty host, all riding upon horses, and warring upon those nations which were at rest, and dwelt peaceably, and had gotten cattle and goods.”

It was but the lack of truth about the portions of Kansas set down as a part of “The Great American Desert” which caused the errors to be spread broadcast. If the facts could have been known the geographers would have put the desert districts back of the Rocky Mountains where they may still be found. The two great divisions of Kansas, as applied to natural productions, are well defined. They are separate, one from the other, and entirely unlike in physical aspect. They are the Prairies and the Great Plains. The Prairies extend from the Missouri border to an irregular line passing through Council Grove. It is one of the fairest regions of the world. It is a rolling country and well watered. The streams are fringed with fine trees—oak, hickory, walnut, hackberry, cottonwood, and willow. There is no more pleasing landscape than a view from any elevation in the Prairie regions will reveal. For some thousands of years, at least, the Prairies have been grass-clad, well watered, and fertile. They never possessed in historic times any of the characteristics of the desert.

The Great Plains extended from the western borders of the Prairies about Council Grove to the Rocky Mountains. And those elevated passes west of Laramie might be included. That was a country of frayed out and disappearing streams. There was little or no timber. Stretches of drifting sand were to be found, but these were not deserts in the true sense. The country was almost all covered with buffalo grass—perhaps the most nutritious of all grasses. It was short—an inch or two in height—and as thick as the wool on the buffalo. Along the larger streams other grasses were found, some of them coarse and tall. In the country drained by the Arkansas there were diminutive oaks—known to the explorers as Shin-oaks—two or three feet in height, but often prone upon the earth, and having abundant crops of acorns. There were plum bushes of the same dimensions, often loaded with fruit. They were called sand-plums, or buffalo plums, and were relished by the followers of Coronado and all travelers over the Plains since. The Great Plains were the pastures, par excellence, of the buffalo. In no other region were they ever found in such numbers. The antelope was also native to the Great Plains. When the wild horse appeared these Plains became his favorite haunts. The deer, the wolf, the coyote, the rabbit, and numerous birds were to be found on the Great Plains. So, even there the characteristics of the desert were entirely wanting.

There was a Great American Desert. It exists to this hour, but the enterprise of the American will reclaim most of it and make it fruitful. It never did exist in the territory composing Kansas. The mistake of the early geographers was in placing the Great American Desert on the Great Plains. But this mistake is turned to advantage by the enterprising Kansas man. It is the delight of his life to write accounts of the enormous crops now produced “on land which two generations since was a part of the Great American Desert.” His figures in this respect are truly astonishing—but they are, strange as it would seem, only facts capable of demonstration to all.

And, as in all other things, the myth of the Great American Desert is an asset of no mean proportion to the Kansas man. All of which serves to establish, in a way, the boast that what is a calamity for other countries is often a valuable asset for Kansas. It is not true of any other state. It is possible only of—

“Sunny Kansas, with her woes and glory.”

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