Friday, February 18, 2011

From “the Great American Desert” to the “American Breadbasket”

In 1806 Lieutenant Zebulon Pike, exploring at the direction of President Thomas Jefferson labeled the Great Plains of the United States as the “Great American Desert.” In 1820 Major Stephen Long on another expedition seconded this opinion when he reported “it is almost wholly unfit for cultivation, and of course uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence.” Such was the belief most Americans held about the Great Plains well into the 19th century.

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.

And what a great agricultural area it has become. The eastern area of the “Great American Desert” normally has more than enough rainfall to produce abundant corn and other grain and agricultural products. And the western area of the “Great American Desert” blossomed in the 1940s, when mechanized pumping was introduced and people began to tap the great water reservoir of the Ogallala Aquifer [sometimes called the High Plains Aquifer] that lies under the area. The formerly dry land flourished under abundant irrigation water from below ground. More and more wells were drilled and pumping capacity dramatically increased. Center-pivot irrigation was introduced, which resulted in huge, lush green circles of agricultural crops on the dry brownish landscape. Large-scale, mechanized pumping of groundwater transformed the agricultural productivity, the society and culture, and the economy throughout the area of the Aquifer.

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.


Andrist, Ralph K. 1964. The Long Death. New York: The MacMillan Company.

Carlson, Paul H. 1998. The Plains Indians. College Station, Texas: Texas A & M University Press.

Foreman, Grant. 1972. Indian Removal. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press.

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.

Ridder, Mary. 2007. Root of Change: Nebraska’s New Agriculture. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.

Webb, Walter Prescott. 1931. The Great Plains. New York: The MacMillan Company.

Wishart, David J., Editor. 2004. Encyclopedia of the Great Plains. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.

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