The Growth of the American Economy: An Introduction to the Economic History of the United States

By Robert G. Albion; Harold F. Williamson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 19
The Great Plains

AS A GEOGRAPHIC PROVINCE, the Great Plains are entirely unlike any other region of the United States. They comprise a vast, treeless, and semiarid area embracing about two-thirds of the Louisiana Territory acquired by the United States from France in 1803. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led an expedition across their upper part via the Missouri River in 1804-1806, and Z. M. Pike and his explorers crossed their lower part in 1806-1807. Pike regarded the plains he crossed as a desert, too and for the occupation of white men; and Major Stephen H. Long, who led an exploring party across much the same region in 1820, concurred in Pike's opinion. Indeed, Long wrote "Great American Desert" across the Great Plains part of a map accompanying his report of the expedition, and American geographers in later years so described them in the nation's textbooks.

The Great Plains range in elevation from 1,000 feet along their eastern border to 6,000 feet at the base of the Rocky Mountain. During early days, their wide-sweeping surface was generally grass-carpeted and of fine soil. East of the Mississippi River, settlers had found adequate supplies of wood and water, in addition to good land. But on the Great Plains there was neither, except in restricted areas, and as a consequence homesteaders resorted to unique adaptations.1 Such innovations, combined with many others, gradually transformed the immigrants into plainsmen, as will be noticed further along in this chapter.

The Great Plains were visited by adventurers and hunters from many nations during the first two decades after they became a possession of the United States. Their broad bosom was ranged by countless herds of antelope, bison, and elk, as well as by Indians, all of which attracted many restless spirits. Others came seeking economic opportunity.


Sante Fe Traders

Coronado crossed the Southern Plains in 1541 and within the next two centuries other Spaniards became fairly familiar with the same area,

____________________
1
The most authoritative book on the Great Plains is W. P. Webb, The Great Plains ( Boston: Ginn and Company, 1931). As to a division of the region into two geographic provinces, see Willard D. Johnson, "The High Plains and their Utilization," in twenty-first and twenty-second Annual Reports of the United States Geologic Survey, parts IV ( Washington, 1901- 1902).

-411-

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