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


imagination it was therefore necessary that the settler's battlewith 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, thearidity 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 theplains 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.ó 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 ourselves, of these western regions being like the rest of the United States, susceptible of cultivation, and affording endless outlets to settlements, is certainly erroneous. The [Indian] nations will continue to wander over those plains, and the wild animals, the elk, the buffaloe, will long be found there; for until our country becomes supercharged with population, there is scarcely any probability of settlers venturing far into these regions. A different mode of life, habits altogether new, would have to be developed.8

The existence of the desert was confirmed by the narrative of the Stephen H. Long expedition, published in 1823 9 and it was


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 un broken as far as the eye could reach. Sometimes it glared in the sun an expanse of hot, bare sand, sometimes it was veiled by long coarse grass. Huge skulls and whitening bones of buffalo were scattered every where. . . .11

Such travelers, coming from the familiar wellwatered 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 shortgrass 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


analogues were often mentionedthe Bedouins of the Arabian desert, the Tartars of Asiatic steppes.13 Even if American fron tiersmen 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 eighteenthcentury 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 govern ment tried to prevent settlement in the transAllegheny, 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 des peradoes 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 wouid 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 com pany 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


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 halfcivilized, pastoral nomadic tribes, aA 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 halfliterary fantasies, the settled conviction that an uninhabitable desert stretched for hundreds of miles east of the Rockies was a matter of course in offlcial 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 as serted, they would have to lead a life similar to that of the Indian, depending upon their herds and flocks for support.20 A substan tially 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


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 F. 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 produce timber; yet might not the vicissitudes of nature operate a change likewise upon the seasons? Why may we not suppose that the genial infuences of civilizationthat extensive cultivation of the earth might contribute to the multiplication of showers, as it certainly does of fountains? Or that the shady groves, as they advance upon the prairies, may have some effect upon the seasons? At least, many old settlers maintain that the droughts are becoming less oppressive in the West. The people of New Mexico also assure us that the rains have much increased of latter years, a phenomenon which the vulgar superstitiously attribute to the arrival of the Missouri traders. Then may we not hope that these sterile regions might yet be thus revived and fertilized, and their surface covered one day by flourishing settle ments to the Rocky Mountains?'23

It was superstition to attribute the increase of rain to the arrival of the Missouri traders, but the folk belief of the New Mexicans


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 or fifteen acres of foresttrees on each quartersection will have a most important effect on the climate, equalizing and increasing the moisture and adding greatly to the fertility of the soil. The settlement of the country and the increase of the timber has already changed for the better the climate of that portion of Nebraska lying along the Missouri, so that within the last twelve or fourteen years the rain has gradually in creased in quantity and is more equally distributed through the year. I am confident that this change will continue to extend across the dry belt to the foot of the Rocky Mountains as the settlements extend and the foresttrees are planted in proper quantities.25


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 [beyond the Mississippi] year by year, from the first rude cabin of the squatter to the beautiful villages and cities which we now see scattered so thickly over that country.... Never has my faith in the grand future that awaits the entire West been so strong as it is at the present time, and it is my earnest desire to devote the remainder of the working days of my life to the development of its scientific and material interests, until I shall see every Territory, which is now organized, a State in the Union.26

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 appren ticeship 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



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 shortgrass 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 lifegiving 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 the unerring prophet the procuring cause. Not by any magic or enchant ment, not by incantations or offerings, but, instead, in the sweat of his face, toiling with his hands, man can persuade the heavens to yield their treasures of dew and rain upon the land he has chosen for his dwelling place. It is indeed a grand consent, or, rather, concert of forcesthe human energy or toil, the vital seed, and the polished raindrop that never fails to fall in answer to the imploring power or prayer of labor.29

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 quarter section of land. It is a museum of wonder and value.... Its surface was covered with fields of grain, whose market proceeds would more than pay for the land; and near the center was a spring and a grove which encircled a happy home filled with many tokens of prosperity and the merry music of children. Half concealed from view were barns, pens, coops, granary, shed for wagons, plows and machinery, all in good order, while farther away and central in a grass plat shaded by two friendly elms was a white school house. In the distance it looked like a pearl in an emerald setting.30

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 people in Nebraska in the future? We have a right to expect that our school system will reach the highest possible stage of advancementthat the great mass of the people will become remarkable for their intellec tual brightness and quickness. Along with this natural development and synchronizing with it, there will be developed a healthy, vigorous and beautiful race of men and women. Art culture will then receive the attention which it deserves. Music, painting, and sculpture will be cherished and cultivated for their own sake. The marvelous rich ness of our soils will give a true and lasting basis for prosperity and wealth. For be it remembered that agriculture in all its branches, endures the tests of time better than any other industry. It is also the best school of virtue for a nation. Happy the children that are trained to industry on a farm. More men and women of high character and endowments come from the farm, than from any other station. It is nearest to the heart of nature and nature's God. Though yet in its infancy, all these agencies for the prosperity and wellbeing of Nebraska are steadily at work, and in fulness of time will blossom into fullfilment of its early promise.31

Such is the society with which the myth of the garden filled the plains, in place of the adventurers and desperadoes, the brigands and robber chieftains whom the myth of the desert had placed there. The transformation had taken approximately thirty years. It was to endure less than a decade before the angry protest of the Populist movement brought a wholly different conception of the agricultural West before the public.