The Great Plains and “the West” as a Region 

ELLIOTT WEST. The Contested Plains: Indians, Gold Seekers, and the Rush to Colorado. Lawrence: The University of Kansas Press, 1998. Pp. 446. $18.95. Paperback. ISBN: 978-0-7006-1029-7.

DONALD WORSTER, “New West, True West: Interpreting the Region’s History,” Western Historical Quarterly 18, 2 (Apr. 1987): 141-156.

WALTER PRESCOTT WEBB. The Great Plains. Lincoln: The University of Nebraska Press, 1981. Pp. 525. $25.00. Paperback. ISBN: 0-8032-9702-5. Originally published by Boston: Ginn & Company, 1931. (Selected Excerpts)

The readings for this week discuss the topic of “The West” as regional history in the context of the American Great Plains. Worster’s 1987 article provides a theoretical basis. Worster revisits the concept of western history roughly one-hundred years after Frederick Jackson Turner popularized the field in the 1890s. His catalyst for reflection is a sense that western history in the twentieth-century has lost its focus. By following Turner’s idea that “The West” is an abstract process rather than any defined geographical place, scholars like Frederick Merk and Ray Allen Billington have taken the concept to absurd limits, suggesting “the West is to be found wherever there is optimism, a love of freedom and democracy, an indomitable will to overcome all obstacles, [and] a determination to make things better for the future.” This broad and nebulous definition of “the West” has included everything from Hong Kong, to Australia, to New England.[1]

Worster returns to the work of the historian Walter Prescott Webb to find a more concrete and workable definition of the American west. Borrowing an argument originally set forth by the explorer John Wesley Powell, Webb defined “the West” in 1957 as the arid, sub-humid regions of the American landscape west from the 100th meridian line to the Pacific Ocean. This line splits the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. This area met Worster’s definition for a region because its history was defined by peoples’ unique adaptations to its particular ecological diversity. In other words, the history of this area could not simply be written as an extension of prior practices or existing systems. The landscape fostered new modes of production and new historical processes that needed to be taken seriously in their own context.[2]

But what were these new modes of production and new historical processes? What was this unique, “western” ecology and what adaptations did it require? For answers to these questions we can turn to two iconic monographs on the region of the American Great Plains, written 67 years apart. Webb and Elliott West both describe the unique environment of the plains as a juxtaposition of vastness and scarceness. Sprawling grasslands in front of towering mountains suggest an enormous expanse of open land, but resources of that land are deceptively confined to small areas and narrow transportation routes. Most of the region does not produce enough rainfall or hold enough groundwater to sustain settlement; wood resources for construction and fuel are extremely scarce; and the landscape is prone to severe ecological conditions of drought, hail, hot winds, blizzards, famine, and plagues of insects. Additionally, the lack of natural resources has created a situation of dependency on external forces—private companies or the government—for anyone who wishes to make a living upon the land. This dependency has often resulted in capitalistic exploitation and political radicalization, such as with the Populist Movement and Women’s Suffrage.[3]

In excerpts from The Great Plains, Webb offers a detailed discussion of specific inventions that signal successful adaptations to the stark ecology of the plains. These are barbed wire, artesian wells and windmills with interchangeable parts, and the revolving pistol or six-shooter. All of these inventions found widespread use on the plains because they offered solutions to its unique ecological and historical problems. Barbed wire helped ranchers and farmers to enclose their land without relying upon wood; wells and windmills allowed settlers to collect from the water table without excessive energy; and the six-shooter allowed whites to compete with plains Indians in combat.[4]

In The Contested Plains, West narrates a longue durée history of the central plains of Eastern Colorado and Western Nebraska and Kansas. His story goes from the first indigenous inhabitants of the region, around 15,000 to 25,000 years ago, to a period of “virtually uncontested” existence of Euro-American settlement by 1870. The fulcrum of the book is a total re-conceptualization of the plains region by whites following their discovery of gold on the South Platte River (modern-day Denver) in 1858; as well as the twelve years of escalating violence between Cheyenne natives and white settlers that followed this Colorado Gold Rush, eventually culminating in the massacre at Sand Creek in 1865, and a last-stand-type of event at Summit Springs in 1869.[5]

Instead of a simple, progressive narrative about white settlers and their innovative adaptations to the west, The Contested Plains positions white arrivals as only the latest group in a long history of ecological adaptations by Indian peoples stemming back for millennia. West gives equal weight to the ecological adaptations of Native Americans tribes, particularly their adoption of the Spanish horse, to conquer the broad expanses of land yet isolated resources of the plains. Just like white settlers, native groups imagined themselves into the landscape and then adapted to its unique regional ecology in very specific ways. While the result of this long history was “at once horrifying and magnificently creative,” there is no doubt that it meets Worster’s definition of uniqueness and diversity. Indeed, if Elliott’s central plains is “the west” as Webb and Worster define the region, then the story of “the west” cannot be told as simply an extension of American or world history.[6]

Notes: 

[1] Donald Worster, “New West, True West: Interpreting the Region’s History,” Western Historical Quarterly 18, 2 (Apr. 1987): 142-143.

[2] Ibid. 145-148.

[3] Walter Prescott Webb, The Great Plains (Lincoln: The University of Nebraska Press, 1981), 502-505.

[4] Ibid. 290-301, 333-341, 167-179.

[5] Elliott West, The Contested Plains: Indians, Gold Seekers, and the Rush to Colorado (Lawrence: The University of Kansas Press, 1998), 319.

[6] Ibid. xxiii, xxiv.