Early nineteenth century Army explorers Zebulon Pike and Stephen H. Long conceptualized the Great Plains east of the Rocky Mountains as the “Great American Desert.” Long’s report called it “unfit for cultivation,” while Pike compared it to “the sandy deserts of Africa.” The myth of the Great American Desert deterred the settlement of the Great Plains, as migrants heading west typically passed through the uninviting region as quickly as possible. The myth also intensified antebellum sectional politics, as the North and the South struggled over congressional representation by seeking to control the admission of new states, such as Colorado, into the Union.
Birth of a Myth
Edwin James, chronicler of Long’s 1820 expedition, established the image of the Great American Desert when he described the Great Plains as “uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence.” An 1823 map produced by Long labeled the region the Great American Desert, which permanently fixed the term in the minds of westward migrants, eastern and western boosters, and politicians.
Geographies published in New England from 1820 to 1835 perpetuated the myth. Elite New Englanders, fearing that new western states would diminish northeastern political power, pointed to the foreboding description of the area as a reason for halting westward expansion. During the middle third of the nineteenth century, the desert myth held little appeal among southerners or citizens in the interior, especially on the frontier and eastern margins of the Great Plains. The Mormons were an exception: from 1855 onward, the Great American Desert had become an invented tradition for a majority of their faithful. From the pulpit, Mormon leaders transformed the Mormon’s relatively easy crossing of the Great Plains into a neo-Mosaic traverse of an American Sinai. The Mormons’ crossing of the Great American Desert east of the Rockies proved to be the crucible of the Latter-day Saints, proof that Mormons were God’s chosen people.
Dispelling and Embracing the Myth
By the mid-nineteenth century, Great Plains boosters, writers for railroads, and chambers of commerce in Colorado, Nebraska, and Kansas began publishing hundreds of pamphlets and books promoting the region. The 1890s discovery of the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the world’s largest freshwater aquifers, further eroded the desert myth.
In addition, the late nineteenth century brought higher-than-average rainfall to the Great Plains. Multiple theories emerged to explain the increased precipitation. Some attributed it to Manifest Destiny—a reward from a benevolent God for settling a promised land. Others held that “rain followed the plow”—that is, plowing the soil and planting trees brought desirable climatic changes. In promoting the Great Plains, boosters touted the “conquest” of the Great American Desert and challenged potential migrants to go west and further the change. The boosters, local historians, and Great Plains newspaper editors of the period between 1870 and 1900 effectively erased the memory of the arid land encountered by the pioneers.
After 1880, Great Plains pioneers adopted the New England boosters’ concept of the desert in interviews for state historical societies and local history publications. Predominantly Midwesterners who had not read about the Great American Desert during the 1850s and 1860s, these pioneers nonetheless talked themselves into believing that they had either conquered or disproved the existence of a desert. In effect, by claiming to have conquered it, the pioneers revived the concept of the Great American Desert; thus, the romantic Great Plains historians, drawing confidently and uncritically from the pioneers’ embellished accounts, further propagated the concept in their work between 1885 and 1910.
In The Great Plains (1931), Walter Prescott Webb cites references to the Great American Desert in school geography texts from the 1840s and 1850s to argue that the idea of a Great American Desert did exist in the American mind from 1820 to 1870. Webb maintained that the idea was at the height of its popularity in the 1850s and that it halted the expansion of the American frontier. The nation’s textbooks and students followed Webb’s interpretation for decades. However, with the exception of the Mormons after 1855 and a well-educated minority in the northeast before 1855, practically nobody between 1820 and 1870 believed in the existence of a desert west of the Missouri River. Ironically, the only period that such a belief existed consensually in the American mind was between 1920 to 1970—courtesy of Webb.
But while eastern Colorado is not technically a desert, it is prone to harsh droughts, such as the one during the 1930s that helped cause the Dust Bowl. More recently, recurring droughts in the 2010s have brought back some of the Dust Bowl–like conditions in parts of southeastern Colorado. Given the realities of episodic but searing drought and the difficulties humans have faced in forcing this semi-arid region to bloom, Pike, Long and their disciples perhaps chose an apt metaphor in comparing the region to a desert.
Adapted from Martyn J. Bowden, “Great American Desert,” Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, ed. David J. Wishart (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004).