Lecture 2: The Great American Desert

The Great Plains were the frontier of Euro-American settlement in the late 19th century, the time under study here; then they emerged, after settlement, as a distinct region in American life. This lecture describes how the Great Plains were opened to settlement and then occupied by ranchers and farmers.



The Great Plains are important in American history as both frontier and region. Thus here we introduce the ideas of frontier historian Frederick Jackson Turner and regional historian Walter P. Webb.

Illustrating the Webb Thesis

This series of images illustrates the Webb thesis of adaptation to the Great Plains environment. It focuses on material things, things you can see and touch, showing adaptation in the Great Plains landscape.


Unlike in the rest of the country, railroads preceded settlement on the Great Plains.  The impetus for construction came from government subsidies.  The railroads across the plains determined how towns were laid out, opened the land to settlers, and were important in the conquest of the Plains Indians.

Plains Indians

There were stages in the policy by which the US treated with Plains Indians: one big reservation, concentration, reservation, and assimilation.  The intent of policy in the end was to ensure that Indians would cease to exist as distinct peoples.  This raises uncomfortable questions around issues of genocide.  A footnote to this section of the lecture: What happened to the great buffalo herds?

The Cattle Kingdom

The long drive from Texas, beginning in the 1860s, not only opened eastern markets to western cattle but also spread the open-range cattle industry up and down the Great Plains.  This was but an interlude in regional history, but it was important to the region’s mythic image.  The beginning of the end of the open range came in the 1880s, and the Cattle Kingdom gave way to farming settlement.

Farming the Plains

Homesteading was just one of several ways settlers could acquire land on the plains.  They were inspired to do so by new myths emphasizing the productivity of the land. To succeed, however, they had to adapt their ways and methods to the semiarid land.  They persisted in the American dream of the family farm, but on the plains, they became disillusioned, as the dream often remained unfulfilled.

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“Why the Americans Are More Addicted to Practical Than to Theoretical Science”

This chapter is important to us here in a land-grant university, founded under the authority of the Morrill Act of 1862. It is of particular importance here in North Dakota, on the Great Plains, the last frontier—because F.J. Turner tells us that Americans, with their frontier heritage, are practical people.


·         In universities we often speak of "pure research" and "applied research." What are Tocqueville's words and categories to make the same sort of distinction in science?

·         What effect does democracy have on the practice of science?

·         What would Tocqueville say about the sort of science we do at land-grant universities?


“How Democracy Renders the Habitual Intercourse of the Americans Simple and Easy”

This chapter also has particular pertinence to life on the plains. We take it for granted that in this part of the country we value plain speaking, informal ways, and egalitarian manners—we don't put on airs.


·         Why, according to Tocqueville, are the English stuck up?

·         Why, on the other hand, are Americans easy-going and friendly?

·         Does what Tocqueville says have any special importance or application to this part of the country?


·         Plains Folk Map of the Great Plains

·         The Turner Theses (at HIST 103 site)

·         The Webb Thesis (at HIST 431 site)

·         Cattle Trails of the Great Plains (at HIST 431 site)

·         Railroads Across the Great Plains (at HIST 431 site)

·         Sod Houses in the Fred Hulstrand Collection

·         Homestead Shanties on the Move (Bowman County, North Dakota)

Film Review

Red River

John Wayne in an early role as a deranged drover.


Alan Ladd plays a key role in the passing of the frontier in this classic.

Powwow Highway

Some people love this one, some hate it; take it with a grain of salt.

Book Review

Webb, The Great Plains

Much of the lecture hinges on the thesis argued by Webb in this classic work.

Adams, Log of a Cowboy

A classic narrative of trail-driving.

Dick, The Sod-House Frontier

A wonderfully readable treatment of the homesteading experience.

Custer, My Life on the Plains

An under-rated autobiography by an over-rated soldier.

West, The Contested Plains

The best in recent scholarship on the rise and fall of plains Indian culture.

Cather, My Antonia

A sublime work, the best novel ever written about life on the plains.