Friday, February 18, 2011
From “the Great American Desert” to the “American Breadbasket”
For people of a European background, the terms "desert" or “barrens” were often used to describe treeless lands whether they were arid or not. It was long thought that treeless lands were not good for agriculture; thus the term "desert" also had the connotation of "unfit for farming."
The exact location of this “Great American Desert” was not clear, Carey and Lee's Atlas of 1827 located the Great American Desert as an indefinite territory in what is now Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas. Others thought the desert included an area 500 miles wide lying directly east of the Rocky Mountains and extending from the northern boundary of the United States to the Rio Grande River. Generally, in the first half of the 19th century most people thought the land between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains was a desert.
Zebulon Pike’s influence was large, after his 1806 expedition he wrote "From these immense prairies may arise one great advantage to the United States, that is: 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 frontier will through necessity be constrained to limit their extent to 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."
This idea that the area west of the states of Arkansas, Missouri, and Iowa was unfit for citizens of the U.S. was so prevalent that it led to the establishment of an “Indian Territory” where Indians from east of the Mississippi River would be moved as a result of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Dozens of tribes were moved and promised lands they could keep “forever” in what are now the state of Nebraska and Kansas. The Indian tribes already residing in those areas were not happy to have new neighbors. “Forever” proved to be only 20 to 40 years as most of these Eastern tribes and many of the “Plains Tribes” were moved again to a reduced in size “Indian Territory” [the present state of Oklahoma]. This happened because the Americans finally realized the Great Plains could be productive land for agriculture.
Today, the Great Plains once known as the Great American Desert along with the Corn Belt that begins east of the Great Plains and extends out onto them from America’s primary grain belt region and are the breadbasket to America and much of the grain-hungry world.
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Foreman, Grant. 1934. The Five Civilized Tribes. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press.
Nordin, Dennis S. & Scott, Roy V. 2005. From Prairie Farmer to Entrepreneur. Bloomington, Indiana: University of Indiana Press.
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