Great American Desert

Great American Desert

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The term Great American Desert was used in the 19th century to describe the western part of the Great Plains
Great Plains
The Great Plains are a broad expanse of flat land, much of it covered in prairie, steppe and grassland, which lies west of the Mississippi River and east of the Rocky Mountains in the United States and Canada. This area covers parts of the U.S...

 east of the Rocky Mountains
Rocky Mountains
The Rocky Mountains are a major mountain range in western North America. The Rocky Mountains stretch more than from the northernmost part of British Columbia, in western Canada, to New Mexico, in the southwestern United States...

 in North America
North America
North America is a continent wholly within the Northern Hemisphere and almost wholly within the Western Hemisphere. It is also considered a northern subcontinent of the Americas...

.

The area is now usually referred to as the High Plains
High Plains (United States)
The High Plains are a subregion of the Great Plains mostly in the Western United States, but also partly in the Midwest states of Nebraska, Kansas, and South Dakota, generally encompassing the western part of the Great Plains before the region reaches the Rocky Mountains...

, and the original term is now sometimes used to describe the arid region of the Southwest
Southwestern United States
The Southwestern United States is a region defined in different ways by different sources. Broad definitions include nearly a quarter of the United States, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah...

, which includes parts of northern Mexico
Mexico
The United Mexican States , commonly known as Mexico , is a federal constitutional republic in North America. It is bordered on the north by the United States; on the south and west by the Pacific Ocean; on the southeast by Guatemala, Belize, and the Caribbean Sea; and on the east by the Gulf of...

 and the four deserts of North America.

The concept of "desert"


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
Agriculture
Agriculture is the cultivation of animals, plants, fungi and other life forms for food, fiber, and other products used to sustain life. Agriculture was the key implement in the rise of sedentary human civilization, whereby farming of domesticated species created food surpluses that nurtured the...

; thus the term "desert" also had the connotation 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
Grassland
Grasslands are areas where the vegetation is dominated by grasses and other herbaceous plants . However, sedge and rush families can also be found. Grasslands occur naturally on all continents except Antarctica...

 and steppe
Steppe
In physical geography, steppe is an ecoregion, in the montane grasslands and shrublands and temperate grasslands, savannas, and shrublands biomes, characterized by grassland plains without trees apart from those near rivers and lakes...

. Today much of the region supports agriculture through the use of aquifer
Aquifer
An aquifer is a wet underground layer of water-bearing permeable rock or unconsolidated materials from which groundwater can be usefully extracted using a water well. The study of water flow in aquifers and the characterization of aquifers is called hydrogeology...

 water irrigation
Irrigation
Irrigation may be defined as the science of artificial application of water to the land or soil. It is used to assist in the growing of agricultural crops, maintenance of landscapes, and revegetation of disturbed soils in dry areas and during periods of inadequate rainfall...

. 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 obtained by the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 as part of the Louisiana Purchase
Louisiana Purchase
The Louisiana Purchase was the acquisition by the United States of America of of France's claim to the territory of Louisiana in 1803. The U.S...

 in 1803, President Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson was the principal author of the United States Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom , the third President of the United States and founder of the University of Virginia...

 wrote of the "immense and trackless deserts" of the region. Zebulon Pike
Zebulon Pike
Zebulon Montgomery Pike Jr. was an American officer and explorer for whom Pikes Peak in Colorado is named. As a United States Army captain in 1806-1807, he led the Pike Expedition to explore and document the southern portion of the Louisiana Purchase and to find the headwaters of the Red River,...

 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". In 1823, Major Stephen Long
Stephen Harriman Long
Stephen Harriman Long was a U.S. army explorer, topographical engineer, and railway engineer. As an inventor, he is noted for his developments in the design of steam locomotives. He was also one of the most prolific explorers of the early 1800s, although his career as an explorer was relatively...

, 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
Edwin James (scientist)
Edwin James was a 19th-century American botanist, geographer and geologist who explored the American West. James completed the first recorded ascent of Pikes Peak....

 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.


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 Buffalo
Bison
Members of the genus Bison are large, even-toed ungulates within the subfamily Bovinae. Two extant and four extinct species are recognized...

es", 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 well-known by the time the term Great American Desert came into common use, undermining the idea of a wasteland; however, the relevant concept inherent in the reports of the region was that it could not be farmed, something the reports generally agreed on. By the middle of the 19th century, as settlers migrated across the plains to Oregon
Oregon
Oregon is a state in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. It is located on the Pacific coast, with Washington to the north, California to the south, Nevada on the southeast and Idaho to the east. The Columbia and Snake rivers delineate much of Oregon's northern and eastern...

 and California
California
California is a state located on the West Coast of the United States. It is by far the most populous U.S. state, and the third-largest by land area...

, the wasteland connotation of "desert" was seen to be false, but the sense of the region as uninhabitable remained until irrigation
Irrigation
Irrigation may be defined as the science of artificial application of water to the land or soil. It is used to assist in the growing of agricultural crops, maintenance of landscapes, and revegetation of disturbed soils in dry areas and during periods of inadequate rainfall...

, railroad transportation, and barbed wire
Barbed wire
Barbed wire, also known as barb wire , is a type of fencing wire constructed with sharp edges or points arranged at intervals along the strand. It is used to construct inexpensive fences and is used atop walls surrounding secured property...

 made up for the lack of surface water and wood.

Settlement and development


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 what was considered to be better land farther west. These early settlers gave telling names to the various streams of the region, such as "Sweetwater Creek" or "Poison Creek". Because it was not considered desirable, the area became one of the last strongholds of independent American Indians
Native Americans in the United States
Native Americans in the United States are the indigenous peoples in North America within the boundaries of the present-day continental United States, parts of Alaska, and the island state of Hawaii. They are composed of numerous, distinct tribes, states, and ethnic groups, many of which survive as...

. Railroad interests seeking rights-of-way through the region also benefited from the popular 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
Ogallala Aquifer
The Ogallala Aquifer, also known as the High Plains Aquifer, is a vast yet shallow underground water table aquifer located beneath the Great Plains in the United States...

. 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
Rain follows the plow
Rain follows the plow is the conventional name for a now-discredited theory of climatology that was popular throughout the American West and Australia during the late 19th century. The phrase was employed as a summation of the theory by Charles Dana Wilber:God speed 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, it is slow to replenish itself, with most of the water in the Aquifer having been there since the last Ice Age
Ice age
An ice age or, more precisely, glacial age, is a generic geological period of long-term reduction in the temperature of the Earth's surface and atmosphere, resulting in the presence or expansion of continental ice sheets, polar ice sheets and alpine glaciers...

. Some current estimates predict the usefulness of the Aquifer for agriculture to subside and be useless as soon as the early parts of the mid-21st century, leading current farmers to turn away from irrigated agriculture using the aquifer.