Great American Desert

Great American Desert

The Great American Desert is a term that was used in the 19th century to describe the High Plains east of the Rocky Mountains.


In colonial times, the term "desert" was often used to describe treeless or uninhabited lands whether they were arid or not. By the 19th century, the term had begun to take on its modern meaning. It was long thought that treeless lands were not good for agriculture; thus the term "desert" also had the connotations of "unfit for farming". While the High Plains are not a desert in the modern sense, in this older sense of the word they were. The region is mostly semi-arid grassland and steppe. Today much of the region supports agriculture through the use of aquifer water irrigation. But in the 19th century, the area's relative lack of water and wood made it seem unfit for farming and uninhabitable by an agriculturally-based people.

When the region was purchased by the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, President Jefferson wrote of the "immense and trackless deserts" of the region. Zebulon Pike wrote "these vast plains of the western hemisphere, may become in time equally celebrated as the sandy deserts of Africa". His map included a comment in the region, "not a stick of timber" [Meinig, D.W. (1993). "The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History, Volume 2: Continental America, 1800-1867." New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-05658-3; pg. 76] . In 1823, Stephen Long, a government surveyor and leader of the next official exploration expedition, produced a map labeling the area the Great American Desert. In the report that accompanied the map, the party's geographer, Edwin James, wrote of the region, "I do not hesitate in giving the opinion, that it is almost wholly unfit for cultivation, and of course, uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence. Although tracts of fertile land considerably extensive are occasionally to be met with, yet the scarcity of wood and water, almost uniformly prevalent, will prove an insuperable obstacle in the way of settling the country" [Meining (1993:76)] .

While many other travelers reported similar conditions and conclusions, there were problems in the interpretation and the use of the word "desert". By the 19th century, the word had begun to assume its modern sense, evoking images of sandy wastelands. Yet descriptions of the American High Plains almost always included comments about "Innumerable Herds of Buffaloes" (which was written on Pike's map just above "not a stick of timber"). The giant herds and teeming wildlife of the Great Plains were famous by the time the term Great American Desert came into common use, undermining the idea of a sandy wasteland. The important idea contained in the reports of the region was not whether it was sandy or not, but whether it could be farmed. Reports were generally in agreement on concluding that it could not be farmed. By the middle of the 19th century, as settlers migrated across the plains to Oregon and California, the "sandy waste" connotation of "desert" was seen to be false, but the sense of the region as uninhabitable remained until irrigation, railroad transportation, and barbed wire made up for the lack of surface water and wood.

The region's relative lack of water and wood affected the development of the United States. Settlers heading westward often attempted to pass through the region as quickly as possible en route to better land farther west. These early settlers gave telling names to the various streams of the region, such as "Sweetwater Creek" or "Poison Creek".

The area became one of the last strongholds of independent American Indians. Railroad interests seeking right of ways through the region also benefited from the belief that the land was commercially valueless.

By the mid-19th century, people had begun settling in the region despite its poor reputation. The local inhabitants came to realize the area was at the time well suited for farming, due in part to the fact that large portions of the region sit atop one of the world's largest underground reservoirs, the Ogallala Aquifer. Experts of the era proposed theories that maintained the earlier reports had been accurate and the climate had changed. Some even credited the settlers themselves as having caused the change by planting crops and trees. The slogan "rain follows the plow" was created to describe this belief. Today these theories are discredited.

Additionally, it has been demonstrated that while there is an abundant amount of water in the Ogallala Aquifer, this aquifer is in fact slow to replenish itself, with most of the water in the Aquifer having been there since the last Ice Age. Some current estimates predict the usefulness of the Aquifer for agriculture to subside and be useless in as early as 25 years, leading current farmers to turn away from irrigated agriculture using the aquifer [ cite news | title=Ogallala aquifer - Water hot spots | publisher=BBC News | date=? | url=] , giving credence to the initial accounts by early settlers of the area as unsuitable for farming (at least in the mid- to long term).

The area once called the Great American Desert is now usually called the Great Plains or the High Plains. The original term is now sometimes used to describe the arid region of the Southwest, which includes parts of northern Mexico and the four deserts of North America.


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