The economic reality of living off the land has been fraught with complexity throughout American history. Physical control of the range has required force, vigilance, and political acumen. But the exercise of sovereignty was only a beginning. Individual and governmental efforts to influence land distribution rivaled environmental abuse as forces that those working the land had to face. Many failed to meet these challenges.
Walter Prescott Webb postulated that the environment altered human beings forever. He wrote that entering the Great Plains could be a life-changing experience. At the ninety-eighth meridian, "one sees what may be called an institutional fault (comparable to a geological fault) running from middle Texas to Illinois or Dakota. . . . At this fault," Webb postulated, "the ways of life and of living changed. Practically every institution that was carried across it was either broken and remade or else greatly altered." 1 Webb did not foresee the converse, however. The impact of human beings on the land was equally shattering ecologically.
James Malin was particularly concerned about the role the environment played in the working of the land, and he also discussed the influence of land policy and speculation. Malin recounted a story by "K," probably James Kirkwood, an engineer on the Missouri Pacific Railroad. "K" believed that