Down to Earth: Nature's Role in American History

By Ted Steinberg | Go to book overview
Save to active project


In at least one respect, the American West—the vast expanse of land running from the 98th meridian bisecting the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas to the Pacific Ocean—was all a big mistake. Following the Civil War a period of unusually wet weather that lasted roughly two decades inspired Americans to head west in droves. Urged on by scientists such as Cyrus Thomas, who pronounced the ample rainfall permanent in nature and “in some way connected to the settlement of the country,” Americans forged into the region under the delusion that moisture would increase in proportion to population. As late as 1884, one Chicago reporter wrote, “Kansas was considered a droughty state, but that day is past, and her reputation for sure crops is becoming widely known.” 1

One of the few people urging restraint as settlers rushed across the continent was a man by the name of John Wesley Powell. A Civil War veteran who lost his right arm in the battle of Shiloh, Powell went on in 1869 to successfully navigate the Colorado River. But his greatest contribution to American society stemmed not from his explorations but from his deep understanding of the hard reality that unfolded across the 98th meridian. The West might seem wet and inviting at the moment, Powell argued in the 1870s, but aridity—a fundamental inability to support agriculture without an artificial infusion of water— defined its true character. As the rain charts available at the time made clear, this was a land subject to less than 20 inches of precipitation annually, an expanse amounting to some two-fifths of the nation bereft of the moisture necessary to grow such crops as wheat and corn without a supply of irrigation water. We now know that it is the Rocky Mountains in league with the coastal ranges further west that, by blocking the passage of storm fronts and squeezing water from the clouds, make the West the dry land that it is. But Powell, in his day, understood enough to realize that it was folly to expect the rains to con


Notes for this page

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this page

Cited page

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited page

Bookmark this page
Down to Earth: Nature's Role in American History


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this book

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen
/ 346

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?