Lecture 3:  The Great American Desert


This lecture recounts Euro-American and Euro-Canadian encounters with the Great Plains landscape and peoples during the era of exploration.  It goes beyond the narrative of explorers’ travels and takes up the values they represented, along with the images and evaluations they offered of the Great Plains.


Outline of Lecture

Introduction: William Gilpin vs. the Great American Desert

Exploring the Explorers

Exploration travels on mixed motives.  First, it does comprise the adventure and romance implicit in traversing the Great Plains landscape.  There is that, but second, exploration also is driven by mission.  Explorers were not free agents.  They acted on the agenda of some power.  At the same time, third, these agents of empire also were cultural beings, bringing their own personal lenses and perceptions to the prairies.

The Spanish

The first European explorers of the Great Plains were Spanish coming from New Spain, or Mexico.  Beginning with Coronado in 1541 and continuing through the 18th century, the Spanish reconnoitered the land, finding no reason to seize and settle it, but establishing a claim to it as a matter of security.  Often overlooked is the affinity the Spanish exhibited for the Great Plains landscape.

The French

The French impulse in exploration of the plains was commercial—pursuit of trade with the Indians and other partners. French explorers ascending to the plains from the Mississippi River Valley traversed the central plains repeatedly.  French explorers extending west from the Great Lakes defined the geography of the northern plains.  The brothers Verendrye made the most notable explorations of the northern plains in the 18th century.

The Americans

After American purchase of Louisiana in 1803, the republic’s explorers reconnoitered the territory.  Their mission was assessment of the resources of the region.  They also represented the era and ideals of Thomas Jefferson, who had purchased Louisiana.  An agrarian philosopher, Jefferson believed that farming was the only virtuous occupation and that the republic could survive only if its people remained farmers.  Thus explorers were much concerned about agricultural potential.  They also represented agriculturalists operating in an area of relatively humid climate. These things would shape their impressions of the Great Plains.

The British Canadians

It was not until the 1850s and 1860s that British and British Canadian explorers commenced assessment of the plains with an eye to development of the country.  When they did, two explorers were important in shaping the image of the area.  They were Henry Hind and John Palliser.  In sum, their reports confirmed that the Great American Desert extended north of the Forty-Ninth Parallel.

Epilogue:  Max, Ben, & the Verendrye Plate




I've posted two map pages to go with this lecture.

         Spanish and French Explorers

         American and British-Canadian Explorers


Also check out this link having to do with the Hudson's Bay Company explorer, Henry Kelsey.

         Kelsey's report (in verse)


Since Lewis and Clark are of particular interest in this part of the country, here are a couple of good links having to do with the Corps of Discovery.

         Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation

         Lewis and Clark on PBS


And here's a page at my HIST 103 site that deals with one of the X Files of the Corps of Discovery.

         Jefferson's Salt Mountain


Thinking About the Great Plains

Wedel, Waldo R. “Prehistory and Environment in the Central Great Plains,” Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science 50 (June 1947): 1-18.

The Great Plains at the Grassroots

Secret Message to Congress Regarding the Lewis & Clark Expedition

Selected Bibliography

Spry, The Palliser Expedition—for an introduction to exploration north of the 49th Parallel

Ronda, Lewis and Clark Among the Indians—the best book yet about the Corps of Discovery

Crouse, La Verendrye—the most notable French explorer of the northern plains of the U.S.


Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery


HIST 431 Home Page