The Garden and the Desert
At the end of the Civil War the time came at last for the realization of the dream of an agrarian utopia in the West on the basis of the Homestead Act.1 In 1865 the frontier of agricultural settlement ran roughly along the ninety-sixth meridian in eastern Kansas and Nebraska. The surge of westward advance which followed the war soon pushed the frontier out upon the subhumid plains. By the middle 1870's, lands were being taken up in areas where the rainfall was likely to decline every few years below the level necessary for the traditional type of farming on which the myth of the garden had been based. The undependable rainfall posed a problem that for two decades and more proved insoluble. Time and again, between 1870 and 1890, settlement advanced far out upon the plains in periods of relatively high rainfall, only to be forced back by the dry period which always followed.2 Not until special seeds were developed and special methods of cultivation devised -- the techniques of "dry farming" -- was agriculture feasible on a large scale beyond the one hundredth meridian.3 And even with these new weapons the Western farmer has continued to fight a drawn battle with an inhospitable terrain. After a half century of struggle, the drought of the 1930's turned much of the settled portion of the plains into a dust bowl and raised the question whether the region had not been seriously overpopulated.4
But in the decade following the Civil War the impetus of the westward movement and the implied pledge of the victorious Republican party to develop the West were uncontrollable forces urging the agricultural frontier onward. On the level of the
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imagination it was therefore necessary that the settler's battle with drought and dust and wind and grasshoppers should be supported by the westward extension of the myth of the garden. In order to establish itself in the vast new area of the plains, however, the myth of the garden had to confront and overcome another myth of exactly opposed meaning, although of inferior strength-the myth of the Great American Desert.
The conception of the Great Plains that had prevailed generally in this country during the first half of the nineteenth century did full justice to, if indeed it did not grossly exaggerate, the aridity which settlers encountered there after the Civil War.5 The existence of an uninhabitable desert east of the Rocky Mountains had first been announced to the American public in 1810, when Zebulon M. Pike published the journal of his expedition across the plains to the upper Rio Grande Valley. His assertion that the vast treeless plains were a sterile waste like the sandy deserts of Africa was an impressive warning to the prophets of continuous westward advance of the agricultural frontier.6 Americans were used to judging the fertility of new land by the kind of trees growing on it;7 a treeless area of any sort seemed so anomalous that settlers were long reluctant to move out upon the fertile and well watered prairies of Illinois. The absence of trees over great expanses of the plains was regarded as proof that the area was unsuited to any kind of agriculture and therefore uninhabitable by Anglo-Americans. Henry M. Brackenridge, the son of the novelist, who had made a trip up the Missouri River with a fur trading brigade, wrote in his Views of Louisiana in 1817 that
the prevailing idea, with which we have so much flattered
The existence of the desert was confirmed by the narrative of the Stephen H. Long expedition, published in 1823 9 and it was
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mentioned again and again by writers about the West during the next three decades. When the sudden upswing in travel toward the Pacific Coast began in the late 1830's, the supposed desert, given brilliant but sinister coloring by the accounts of overland travelers' sufferings from hunger and thirst, received even wider publicity. Thomas J. Farnham, who went out from Illinois to Oregon in 1839, wrote that the Great American Desert, stretching three hundred miles east of the Rocky Mountains, was a scene of desolation scarcely equaled on the continent, a "burnt and arid desert, whose solemn silence is seldom broken by the tread of any other animal than the wolf or the starved and thirsty horse which bears the traveller across its wastes." 10 Or, to take only one other example of what the reading public might learn of the region beyond the Missouri, Francis Parkman described the plains as a barren, trackless wilderness extending more than four hundred miles east of the mountains. Sketching the dreary and monotonous scene as his party approached the valley of the Platte River in present central Nebraska, he wrote:
Before us and behind us, the level monotony of the plain was
Such travelers, coming from the familiar well-watered regions east of the Mississippi, were likely to be more vividly impressed by the sterility of the plains than were seasoned Westerners, who had learned that the short-grass country and even the true desert beyond the Rockies were not entirely without resources for sustaining life. Thus Edwin Bryant, a Kentucky newspaperman who went out to California in 1846, noted in his journal that the aridity and desolation of western Nebraska proclaimed it to be uninhabitable by civilized man.l2 The important word in Bryant's statement is "civilized." We have had occasion earlier to notice the prevalent belief that civilization depended upon agriculture. Although regions too dry for farming could be inhabited by migratory tribesmen following their flocks and herds, such peoples were considered uncivilized. They could not be integrated with American society and were therefore perpetual outlaws. The
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analogues were often mentioned--the Bedouins of the Arabian desert, the Tartars of Asiatic steppes.13 Even if American frontiersmen should push out upon the plains and take up the pastoral life imposed upon them by the environment, they would become nomadic brigands, a menace to settled agricultural communities farther to the East.
The belief in the menacing Asiatic character of the plains had its origin in eighteenth-century English discussion of the Ohio Valley. Despite the unsuitability of the dense forests of Ohio and Kentucky for maneuvers on horseback, Edmund Burke had warned the House of Commons in 1775 that if the British government tried to prevent settlement in the trans-Allegheny, the American frontiersmen "would wander without a possibility of restraint; they would change their manners with the habits of their life; . . . would become hordes of English Tartars, and, pouring down upon your unfortified frontiers a fierce and irresistible cavalry, become masters of your governors and your counsellors...."14 Such ideas were much better suited to the Great American Desert; and in his Astoria Washington Irving developed them quite elaborately. On the plains, he wrote, beyond the limits of possible civilization, may spring up new and mongrel races, like new formations in geology the amalgamation of the "debris" and "abrasions" of former races civilized and savage, the remains of broken and almost extinguished tribes, the descendants of wandering hunters and trappers of fugitives from the Spanish and American frontiers, of adventurers and desperadoes of every class and country yearly ejected from the bosom of society into the wilderness.l5
If the "civilized" Indians of the old Southwest were transported beyond the Mississippi, Irving foresaw they too would be gradually transformed by the environment into pastoral hordes like the rude peoples, half shepherd and half warrior, who roamed the steppes of Central Asia. Some would certainly form predatory bands, mounted on the fleet steeds of the plains"A great company and a mighty host, all riding upon horses, and warring upon those nations which were at rest, and dwelt peaceably, and had gotten cattle and goods."16 This prediction concerning the desert was taken seriously by
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other writers. James D. B. DeBow, referring to Irving, wrote in 1846 that brigands and robber chieftains might grow into power on the plains, and ally themselves with the Indians to carry death and dismay to the agricultural frontier.17 An anonymous writer for the unsentimental Hunt's Merchants Magazine in 1851, prophesying the condition of the Far West in 1900, when he believed millions of civilized persons would be living on the Pacific slope, foresaw a continued state of barbarism in the interior basin. It would be overrun by a strange mixture of half-civilized, pastoral nomadic tribes, "A mixture of races, creeds, habits and customs, fusing into one people, and contending for the supremacy of language and tradition." 18 A milder version of the idea was presented by a writer for the Southern Quarterly Review in 1849, who predicted that the arid plains east of the Rocky Mountains would be inhabited only by trappers and miners, and those whom misanthropy or outlawry might lead into the remote desert.19 Entirely apart from such half-literary fantasies, the settled conviction that an uninhabitable desert stretched for hundreds of miles east of the Rockies was a matter of course in official circles until the eve of the Civil War. Lieutenant Gouverneur K. Warren, an explorer sent out upon the plains beyond the Missouri by the federal government, reported in the late 1850's that the ninety seventh meridian was the western limit of ordinary agriculture.
The people now on the extreme frontiers of Nebraska [he wrote] are near the western limit of the fertile portions of the prairie lands and a desert space separates them from the fertile and desirable region in the western mountains. They are, as it were, upon the shore of a sea, up to which population and agriculture may advance, and no further.
If white men tried to live beyond the line of aridity, Warren asserted, they would have to lead a life similar to that of the Indian, depending upon their herds and flocks for support.20 A substantially similar estimate of the plains was embodied in the elaborate reports of the Pacific Railway Surveys in the same decade;2l and when the Union Pacific was chartered in 1862 it was conceived as a means of connecting the agricultural settlements of the Mississippi Valley with the settled portions of the Pacific Coast by offer-
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ing a way through the imposing barrier of the desert and the mountains.22
The pressures of expansion, however, were certain to give rise eventually to an effort to occupy the plains. Such an undertaking would demand a revision of the forbidding image of an American Sahara. The imaginary figure of the wild horseman of the plains would have to be replaced by that of the stout yeoman who had for so long been the protagonist of the myth of the garden. As settlement moved up the valleys of the Platte and the Kansas rivers, the myth of the desert was destroyed and in its stead the myth of the garden of the world was projected out across the plains. The crux of the matter was rainfall, since it was rainfall alone that distinguished the abundantly fertile prairies of eastern Kansas and Iowa from the bleak uplands farther west. The imaginative conquest of the desert accordingly took the form of a proliferation of notions about an increase of rainfall on the plains. The first move toward a revision of the myth of the desert came with the earliest systematic penetration of the plains in the overland trade from Independence, Missouri, to Santa Fe. Josiah Gregg, a Missourian, was engaged in the trade from 1831 to 1840. His Commerce of the Prairies, published in 1844, contains a passage that perfectly illustrates how the imagination of the American frontiersman went to work transforming the image of the desert:
The high plains [wrote Gregg] seem too dry and lifeless to
It was superstition to attribute the increase of rain to the arrival of the Missouri traders, but the folk belief of the New Mexicans
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had a deep truth nevertheless. The traders announced the west ward movement of the frontier. Not they perhaps, but the more numerous settlers who were coming after them were bearers of a force that was committed to the occupation of all the West, and that in the end enacted its purpose. If the Americans could not cause more rain to fall, they could build irrigation systems, and devise the techniques of dry farming: and these were, function ally, equivalent to increasing the rainfall. The myth of the garden was contrary to empirical possibility on the plains but it was true to the course of history.
The folk belief recorded by Gregg received little notice outside remote and inarticulate frontier areas until the surge of westward advance following the Civil War. Then, when the attention of the nation was brought to bear upon the plains by the construction of the Union Pacific and the settlement of Kansas and Nebraska traveling journalists began picking up intimations that the rainfall might somehow be increased and sent back notices to newspapers in the East, especially to Horace Greeley's New York Tribune.24 The idea of an increase in rainfall was given further currency by the earliest continuing scientific survey of the plains under the auspices of the federal government. This was the Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, which began work in Nebraska in 1867 under the directorship of Ferdinand V. Hayden. In his first report to the Secretary of the Interior Hayden adopted a theory resembling that which Gregg had set down more than two decades earlier; namely, that settlement of the country would cause an increase in the timber through artificial planting and protection against prairie fires.
It is believed [wrote Hayden] . . . that the planting of ten
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Although Hayden professed to speak in the name of science, his writings about the plains also express a determination to further the course of empire. "It is my earnest wish at all times," he wrote in 1871, "to report that which will be most pleasing to the people of the West, providing there is any foundation for it in nature." And he voiced the faith that had sustained all American frontiers:
I have watched the growth of this portion of the West
From Hayden's seminal exploit of destroying the myth of the desert and legislating the myth of the garden in its stead proceeded a school of theorists localized along the eastern margin of the plains where the agricultural frontier was advancing in the 1870's out into the arid region. This group of writers developed their ideas mainly in the successive Reports of Hayden's survey, which he edited more or less as one might edit a journal forming the mouthpiece of a literary coterie. The most energetic member of the Hayden group was Samuel Aughey, who after an apprenticeship on Hayden's survey became Professor of Natural Sciences at the newly established University of Nebraska, and State Geologist. Aughey in turn was associated with a speculative town builder and amateur scientist named Charles Dana Wilber. Near the culmination of the great boom period of the eastern plains these two men joined forces in extending the myth of the garden beyond the Missouri.
The myth had behind it the momentum of fifteen hundred miles of frontier advance across the Mississippi Valley. In addition, it coincided with the economic interest of every landowner in Kansas and Nebraska, and of every business enterprise in these new states. In restating the myth and applying it to the newer West, Aughey and Wilber were speaking for their people on all
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the levels of imagination, ingrained habit, stereotyped response, and the most rigorous calculation of potential profit from unearned increment. Their task was first to nail down once and for all a "scientific" demonstration that rainfall was destined to increase on the plains and then to restate the myth of the garden with whatever revisions might be necessary to adapt it to the short-grass country. The first of these efforts, which happened to be furthered by a series of abnormally wet years after the Civil War, was carried through with an elaborate array of pseudoscientific notions 27 and eventually summarized ( by Wilber ) in the terse epigram, "Rain Follows the Plough" 28--an inspired slogan which makes the oldest and most sacred of agrarian symbols the instrument whose magical stroke calls down the life-giving waters upon the land. Although it was Aughey who furnished the technical dressing for the argument, it was Wilber who grasped its imaginative overtones:
in this miracle of progress, the plow was the avant courier
When Wilber says this is not an incantation, he means of course that it is.
After the plow and the prayer of labor have fertilized the plains, the agrarian utopia puts down its roots there. "The question is often asked of me," said Wilber in an address before a delegation sent out by a group of prospective immigrants from upstate New York, "what is the most important discovery you have made in Nebraska?" His answer is a summary of the agrarian tradition:
The most important of my discoveries in Nebraska is a
If the reader will compare this picture of the Nebraska plains with that of Francis Parkman, he will realize the power of the myth of the garden over men's perceptions and imaginations.
On the plains, as in the Ohio Valley, the economic security and independence of the yeoman society would offer a firm basis for upward development into cultural expression. Aughey was especially persuasive on this theme.
What then [he asked] may we legitimately expect of the