KS History – Group D

blogs about KS history

The Great American Desert October 22, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — mselby13 @ 3:41 pm

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.


7 Responses to “The Great American Desert”

  1. David Johnson Says:

    This blog makes a very good point. Had settlers known that Kansas was actually a fertile ground, the population of the state today could be far greater than it is today. However, if people continually thought that Kansas was a desert and then an event such as the dust bowl happened, it would only reinforce their misguided views. In all honesty, I feel like lots of misinformation about Kansas is still spread around today. For example, my cousins in from California legitimately asked me if everyone is a farmer that lives here.

    • mselby13 Says:

      Great point. One thing I could have expanded on in this post is just how many of these rumors still have a strong foothold outside of the midwest.

      I spent the past summer in Washington D.C. and people are generally amazed that a Kansan a) isn’t a farmer b) has left the state and can succeed elsewhere c) is often just as informed and intelligent those on the coast. In the end, being from Kansas ended up working in my favor because it opened up people’s minds a bit and gave them something to remember me by.

  2. David Johnson Says:

    -David Johnson

  3. jtku89 Says:

    Great article. I wonder if Stephen Long only had a chance to look at western Kansas and western Nebraska and not southeastern Kansas? once you start entering the southeastern part of kansas, one starts entering into Ozark country. If Long had a chance to see this area, I wonder if his labeling of Kansas would have been different?

    John Thornton

  4. Molly McCoy Says:

    Very good post…for my digital narrative I came across some of Captain Zebulon Pike’s assessments of Kansas from his travels. In a nutshell, Pike said Kansas virtually inhabitable and it would be nearly impossible for a population to survive for an extended amount of time.

    -Molly McCoy

  5. Travis Jackson Says:

    I like this blog alot, after taking many geology classes here at KU I’ve learned much about the Ogallala Aquifier and how fertile it makes ground in the midwest. It is interesting how you point out that people skipped over Kansas without knowing how great the land was for farming. Hard to believe that the midwest is now know as the ‘breadbasket’ in the United States. Nice post.

    -Travis Jackson

  6. jmshull Says:

    Its interesting to think that Kansas was once free of trees when now there or thousands planted up and down the state. My question on Kansas being known as the great wasteland is if it would be more populated today if people knew how fertile the land is.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s