The Lure of the Land: A Social History of the Public Lands from the Articles of Confederation to the New Deal

By Everett Dick | Go to book overview

XVIII

Beyond the 100th Meridian

AS LATE AS THE 1870's the maps of the United States showed a vaguely defined region called the Great American Desert. Zebulon Pike, the first American explorer to traverse the area between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains, and the originator of the desert idea, reported that the territory that lay between the meridian through present-day Kansas City and the Rocky Mountains, and north as far as the 48th parallel, was without question a desert and "might in time become as celebrated as the African deserts." He referred to the sterility of the soil, the lack of rainfall, the absence of trees, the lack of fuel, the scarcity of water, and the sparseness of the vegetation. One is inclined to believe, however, that Pike's judgment was in part conditioned by the contrasts with the area he had explored just previously: the wooded, well-watered Mississippi River basin from St. Louis to north-central Minnesota. But Pike also thought that the desert might be a blessing because it would restrict the westward movement and lead to a more compact population, and thus ensure the continuation of the Union. (This was a reflection of the thinking of some that the rapid extension of settlement would result in the breaking away of the self-sufficient westerners from the rest of the nation.) Pike judged, however, that a limited grazing business might be conducted on the marginal grassland to the west of civilization.

The historian of the Long expedition of 1819-1820 moved the eastern boundary of the desert farther west, to the 98th meridian, but he was even more emphatic about the utter worthlessness of the Great Plains. He pronounced the area between the 98th meridian and the Rocky Mountains a "dreary plain, wholly unfit for cultivation, and of course uninhabitable by a people dependent upon agriculture for their subsistence." He thought it should "forever remain the unmolested haunt of the native hunter, the bison, and the jackal."1

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1
Wallace Stegner, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian ( Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1954), pp. 215-216.

-298-

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