Life in the Old West

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Great American Desert label shaped American expansion for decades

The label “Great American Desert” was given to what we now call the Plains or Great Plains in 1820 and shaped westward expansion for decades after that. Even today, some tourists from outside the United States are surprised that the midsection of the country is not geologically or geographically an empty desert region.

While the Plains states have a much less dense population than the Coastal States, there is little “desert” to the region, and much more grassy prairie topography. That Great American Desert misnomer slowed American expansion considerably.

This misleading moniker for the middle third of the continent came about courtesy of Major Stephen H. Long, a U.S. Army officer sent out with a small exploration party by War Secretary John Calhoun in 1819-20 with the purpose of exploring the West and to ultimately begin building a network of forts across the region. One source I have suggests that Long’s entire adventure was “characterized by a series of misjudgments and minor disasters.”

Among other difficulties, Long’s expedition was seeking to find the headwaters of the Arkansas, Platte, and Red rivers — but a series of missteps and confusion led him to fail to find the source of the Arkansas, and he mistook the Canadian for the Red river. Part way through the expedition, Long discovered that appropriations had been cut severely, meaning they had much less time and had to limit the scope of the whole trip. The river debacles and lack of funds pretty much ended their journey. After wandering around awhile, the adventurers finally made their way back to the Mississippi River and then home.

But the hindsight of history proves his single biggest mistake was writing down his opinion of the entire Plains region, labeling it useless and unprofitable for expansion and settlement. His journal of the expedition contained this now famous quote with the infamous label:

“In regard to this extensive section of the country, 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.”

To be fair, there may be some doubt that this was actually Long’s statement. At least one source I was reading suggested the expedition’s journal that saw public light was actually being kept by Edwin James, the party’s geographer. So were those James’s words instead of Long’s? Along with the mix up about the Rivers, the expedition also suffered the loss of all their scientific records when deserters ran off with them. Perhaps Long’s personal notes went with the deserters? I was unable to find that out.

Nevertheless, the term “Great American Desert” has been popularly attributed to the trouble-plagued major, not his geographer.

Whoever actually coined the phrase and worded the famous description, they had a profound impact on U.S. expansion into and across the Plains. On the official map of the Long expedition, thousands of square miles in the center of the continent were marked “Great American Desert,” impeding efforts to venture westward for most of a generation. Indeed, President James Monroe and Secretary Calhoun used this bad press to cook up a fascinating idea: Such a desolate region might be just the place to relocate Native American tribes which were becoming a problem in the East.

There are probably scholarly history dissertations waiting to be written about the influence of the “Great American Desert” label and imagery on early 19th Century policy on Indian relocation. Just as many papers could probably be done on the reshaping of the Plains geography and population patterns caused by the region’s designation.

But for now, I’ll leave that up to interested readers.

As for me, I spent a number of happy years of my life living in and around “the Great American Desert,” enjoying the stories that were told and the friendships I made with descendants of the hearty pioneers who ventured out into the Plains to live successful lives and pass along a great heritage to their families. Thanks for that!

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