Theme #2 Historic
Our world heritage has been reenacted on the Great Plains. Although the idea that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny was long ago discredited, it is a wonderful metaphor for historians. If ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, then American history on the plains recapitulated world history around the globe. It is a vivid reenactment because we can see it so plainly because of the visual panoramas. Organize by place names on the Great Plains!!!
- Paleolithic = Plains Indians
- Neolithic = sparse Indian settlements, Spanish reintroducing then Indians domesticating the horse; bringing the Neolithic Revolution (settlement) by Conestoga wagons and trains to the Great Plains: Homestead Act of 1862 — dispersed settlements on 160 acres — agriculture. Irrigation: Ogallala Aquifer
- Silk Roads = civilizational connectors; California, Oregon, Mormon, and Pony Express trails west and then railroads under the Pacific Railroad Act, etc; Interstate Highway Act.
- civilization: boom era. Inventing the built environment on the Great Plains. Building houses and businesses with Great Lakes lumber, transported by rail, occurred during the economic boom between the Civil War and First World War. Founding towns and cities and communities (George Edward Lemmon)
- nation founding = state foundings, constitution writing … Prairie Republics. For the republican values immigrants brought, see Jon K. Lauck, Prairie Republic: The Political Culture of Dakota Territory, 1879-1889.
- Athens = Morrill Act
- Colonizing, as the Greeks did around the Mediterranean. Out into America’s sea of grass: Lincoln’s Homestead Act.
- war = Indian wars
- bust and decline … For Indians, it was decline of buffalo and being pushed out. For whites, see Frederick Jackson Turner; ghost towns today
- reinvention … T. Boone Pickens, wind energy, Sweetwater, Texas
An alternative is to see the province as the tension-filled stage where Roots of American Order, which was a popular depiction of American history after the Civil War, are lived on the frontier with its values.
Theme #3 Core-periphery
- Spanish exploration, French exploration, Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark, Zebulon Pike, Stephen Long
- Economic exploitation: French trappers and traders; Anglo-American mountain men; gold rush along Colorado Front Range and in Black Hills; cattle drives; supplying the core with goods like beaver pelts, gold, silver, food, etc.
- Colonizing, as the Greeks did around the Mediterranean. Out into America’s sea of grass: Lincoln’s Homestead Act.
For the republican values immigrants brought, see Jon K. Lauck, Prairie Republic: The Political Culture of Dakota Territory, 1879-1889.
- How the periphery became the core. Midwest values. Roots popular in 19th century East took root on the frontier. For a critique, see Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas?
Theme #4 Leaders like to leave their scent and also monuments (think: pharaohs of ancient Egypt). They like to make people feel grateful to them.
But first, they must become the people they are, and a number of presidents experienced the Great Plains in a signficant way.
- Theodore Roosevelt, retreat from grief and civilization in Dakota Territory, hunting and cowboying
- Hoover, born in West Branch, Iowa
- Eisenhower, childhood in Abilene, Kansas
- George H. W. Bush, young man in Midland, Texas
- George W. Bush, childhood Midland, Texas
On the periphery: Abraham Lincoln was the first presidential candidate to go to the Great Plains to Bleeding Kansas, Ulysses Grant, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Reagan, Obama
Presidents and their impact on the way our landscapes look, as well as on land use, through EO’s and signing legislation; that is their monument.
- Washington accustomed Americans to think of the West as the future
- Jefferson acted on it: Township and Range — Empire for Liberty — Lewis & Clark
- Monroe sent out the explorer, Stephen Long, who christened the region (and retarded its development) by calling it the Great American Desert.
- John Quincy Adams, our first “liberal” president, sought extensive internal improvements to the extent that he should be considered a nation builder. National observatory, etc. This set the precedent for the federal government to do much in the Great Plains.
- commanders in chief establish forts, waged wars: Polk in Mexican War truly secured Texas and thus the southern plains
- Lincoln’s railroads and Homestead Act; Morrill Act and scientific agriculture. Impact of 1862 on the Great Plains landscape and beyond: In 1862, Congress passed four landmark pieces of legislation: the Homestead Act, the Morrill Act, the Pacific Railroad Act, and the act to establish the U.S. Department of Agriculture; it was also the year of the fateful Dakota Conflict. These acts and events fundamentally shaped the Great Plains as well as the nation. What were the manifestations on the landscape?
- TR in Sand Hills … TR from changing to controlling nature: Failed theory that trees (through transpiration) generated rainfall over the arid plains. But Pinchot, TR, interested in forestry on the Great Plains.
- FDR: Great Plains Shelterbelt, initiated by FDR in 1934 — a WPA project for field windbreaks designed and planted just after the Dust Bowl.
- FDR: commander in chief through the War Department established numerous military bases (like earlier frontier forts) that also proved to be a huge economic boon to Great Plains communities, in some cases, artificially keeping the region prosperous and voters happy. Emerging from isolationist policies, and anticipation of entering World War II, provided a unusual opportunity to emerge from the Great Depression:
By autumn 1940, Great Plains chambers of commerce and congressional delegations worked hard to gain their share of any federal war-related appropriations because military installations meant jobs and large payrolls during the construction and operation of the bases as well as an opportunity to leave behind the economic hard times of the Great Depression. Indeed, local chambers of commerce, congressmen, and governors, among others, saw the coming war as a great economic opportunity, and they aggressively lobbied the War Department for the establishment of military bases, airfields, and hospitals for their neighborhoods and states. [treatment in fiction: James Fennimore Cooper’s The Prairie, Wallace Stegner and the emphasis on the 100th Meridian. Frank Baum, Wizard of Oz
- Music: Ian Tyson and Sylvia “This Is My Sky,” “The Long Trail,” “Four Strong Winds“
Theme #6 Search for Eden
Frank Lloyd Wright, prairie architecture
Daniel S. Licht, Ecology and Economics of the Great Plains
Richard Manning, Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie
Photographers in search of Edenic images that recall us to beauty – e.g. Rick Dunn‘s dramatic photographs of Pawnee National Grassland.* * *
Historiography: Western history
Frederick Jackson Turner and the ”Frontier Thesis”
The New Western History that sprang up in the 1970s was a late-budding outgrowth of the new social history that emerged in the 1960s. It has sought to debunk the creation myth of the West that most of us learned in grade school. To deconstruct our mythic ideal of the West, the New Western historians drew energy from important predecessors: (1) some Progressive historians who believe a non-Marxian economic determinism lay behind the boom-and-bust cycles that characterize the West; and (2) Borderlands historians who had been looking at the experience of Hispanics and others in the Southwest. The New Western History recast the study of the trans-Mississippi West by emphasizing race, class, gender, and environment. Turning away from the focus on white male heroes and the idealization of Anglo American cowboys, the New Western historians look instead at the hardscrabble experiences of Hispanics, American Indians, frontier women, African Americans, Chinese, Mormons, strikers, and other previously neglected groups on the frontier. The New Western historians portray a somewhat darker view of the West than Bonanza did. It searches out and brings into sharper focus the unprincipled or short-sighted opportunism, drunken jags, rough “justice,” and closed-door democracy that characterized much of the Anglo frontier. They draw on labor history, ethnic history, urban history, and women’s history. Some of the leading practitioners of the New Western History are Patricia Nelson Limerick, Richard White, William Cronon, Donald Worster, Charles Rankin, and Clyde Milner II.
Other historians of the West have written in reaction to the New Western Historians, emphasizing the democratic practices and republican values that WASPs brought from the East Coast or Midwest to the frontier. The works of Michael Allen and Jon Lauck illustrate. In Prairie Republic, Lauck focuses on patriotic Civil War veterans, religious Anglo Protestants, and educated farmers who were eager to bring to the frontier the democratic practices, republican values, and public morality they had learned back East. They tended to be temperamentally and politically conservative, distrusting the corrupt city politics, Irish Catholics, and Democrats they knew back East. They generally found bonanza farming and gold rushes unappealing. One reviewer wrote by way of summarizing Lauck’s thesis:“Even before Congress deigned to recognize Dakota as two states — with the north the more barren, railroad-dominated locale — a vibrant civic society had developed in what became South Dakota. It was a place dominated by small landholders who distrusted Washington and hated the territorial spoils system, who were devoted to their churches and civic organizations, and who obsessed about synthesizing “the organic law” of the soon-to-be state. By the late 1880s, Dakota Territory had less illiteracy than any New England state, and more newspapers were published there, per capita, than almost anywhere else in America.“The ignorant, gun-slinging, oligarch-controlled West is not what Dakota looked like. The settlers named their towns after Virgil and Seneca. They read Tennyson, Pope, Byron. Such classical education did not, as today, destine young Dakotans for a life in academia. No, this was preparation for a life that took seriously the hard toil of the farm and the grave work of self-government.“Government is such a behemoth in the modern United States that the vast majority of citizens expect all of its institutions to work smoothly without their mundane attentions. Today, more than ever, ‘self-government’ has come to mean merely that we are a people who vote and elect whom we care to. The definition was much broader and more demanding in Dakota Territory. There, self-government meant something closer to what Tocqueville had observed in the Ohio River Valley, which was in many respects repackaged by the historian Frederick Jackson Turner, who spoke of the yeoman farmer as cultivating not just a small landholding but a civil society on which he and his neighbors relied.”
Sources and Resources:
Yale University: http://www.yale.edu/lamarcenter/
University of Oklahoma: http://www.ou.edu/cas/history/western.html
University of Missouri at St. Louis — http://www.westernhistoryassociation.org/
Population and Environment in the U.S. Great Plains analyzes the recursive relationships between environment, population, and land use in the Great Plains, a semi-arid grassland covering roughly one-third of the United States, over a period of about one hundred and fifty years. The project team includes historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and demographers at the University of Michigan, Colorado State University, and the University of Saskatchewan.
Great Plains Quarterly (University of Nebraska)
- A. K. Smiley Public Library – Redlands, California
- Amon Carter Museum – Fort Worth
- Arizona Historical Society
- Arizona State Library, Archives & Public Records
- Autry Museum of Western Heritage – Los Angeles
- Bancroft Library – University of California, Berkeley
- Boise National Forest
- Boise State University
- Center for Transportation Studies – University of Missouri-St. Louis
- Charles Redd Center for Western Studies – Brigham Young University
- Coldwell Banker Heart of Oklahoma – Norman, Oklahoma
- Colorado Historical Society
- Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum
- DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University
- Denver Public Library
- Dubois Museum/Wind River Historical Center
- Godfrey Memorial Library – Middletown, Connecticut
- Historical Research Associates – Missoula, Montana
- History Compass, LLC
- The Huntington Library
- JRP Historical Consulting
- Kit Carson Home & Museum – Taos, New Mexico
- Longmont Museum & Cultural Center – Longmont, Colorado
- Missouri National Recreational River
- Montana Historical Society
- Mormon History Association
- Museum of the Rockies
- Nebraska State Historical Society
- Nevada Historic Preservation
- New Mexico State Records Center & Archives
- Ninth Judicial Circuit Historical Society
- Oklahoma State University, Department of History
- Pepperdine University, History Program
- Saint Louis Mercantile Library
- Salt River Projects
- Society of California Pioneers
- Stark Museum of Art
- Theodore Roosevelt Nature & History Association
- True West Publishing, Inc. – True West Magazine
- University of Missouri-St. Louis, School of Education
- University of Missouri-St. Louis, Department of History
- University of New Mexico, Department of History
- University of Oklahoma, Department of History
- University of Oklahoma Libraries
- University of Utah Press
- University of Washington, Department of History
- University of Wyoming Libraries
- Utah State University
- Western Writers of America