An Institutional Fault Line
When the first settlers slogged across the Sabine and Red Rivers and made their way into Texas, they felt at home among the timberlands and piney woods and river bottoms of East Texas. The great southern forests extended from the Carolinas, west of the Mississippi, and beyond Louisiana and into Texas. The land they encountered was also blessed with abundant rain. Most of the first settlers in Texas came from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, the Carolinas, and other southern states. They knew, as did their ancestors, how to clear land and make it usable. Clearing land of virgin forests was backbreaking labor but it had to be done, and clearing forests took many hands and many axes. Once the trees and stumps were cleared, the land could be plowed and put to use.
As with any frontier, a number of settlers pushed onward and inland, and moved further west in the hope of finding new lands worthy of farms, towns, schools, and a good life. They too wanted to settle in the familiar forests of their parents, but these settlers discovered that the great southern timberlands did not extend forever. Just west of present-day Waco, Texas, the forests abruptly disappeared, and the land turned flat and treeless and dry. These new flat lands extended west to the Rocky Mountains, north to Canada, and south to Mexico.
This topographical nuance was noticed by the great Texas historian Walter Prescott Webb, who based his history of the Great Plains on a simple, invisible boundary—the 98th meridian. This line runs north and south around the globe but divides Texas into two distinct geographical regions, one timbered and known, one arid and dangerous. Webb also believed that the 98th meridian was more than a geographical fault; rather, the invisible boundary symbolized an institutional fault: “At this fault the ways of life and living changed.”1 West of the 98th meridian settlers had to invent new modes of life