After the monumental Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the United States government sought to expand the country westward, sending various explorers and surveyors to make sense of the enormous, uncharted territory. While names like Lewis, Clark and Pike are generally the first to come to mind, one particular surveyor had an important stake in the lasting perception of Kansas.
Despite the numerous accounts of “treeless wastelands” or plains showing “not a stick of timber,” Stephen Long’s 1823 map labeling Kansas and it’s surroundings ‘The Great American Desert’ had far more drastic implications. Although the term desert could sometimes simply mean a region unfit for agriculture, much of the population took this claim far more literally. With settlers seeking sustainable living situations in the west, maps and reports like Stephen Long’s shape dthe reputation of Kansas during crucial immigration years, implying that what was actually fertile ground (largely due to one of the world’s largest underground aquifers, the Ogallala Aquifer) reeling with wild buffalo was somehow a sandy, desert comparable to the Sahara.
As the reports and rumors spread that Kansas was inhabitable, settlers responded overwhelmingly. Settlers heading westward often attempted to pass through the region as quickly as possible en route to better land farther west. Railroads benefitted from the belief that the land was commercially valueless. Also, the area became one of the last strongholds of independent American Indians.
Despite the reputation, people began settling the region by the mid 19th century and soon came to realize its agricultural possibilities. Still, the implications of Kansas being labeled ‘The Great American Desert’ will always bring up the question of how differently our state would look today had settlers known of it’s fertility.