The Great Plains exists today as an uncertain space that overlaps with the Middle West and the West, but also stands as a “Grasslands” region on its own terms with a uniquely geographic historiography. Historically, the Great Plains actually gave rise to the label Middle West. In the late 1870s and 1880s, according to James R. Shortridge, Americans called Kansas (1861) and Nebraska (1867) the “Middle West” to distinguish these new states from both Dakota Territory, then thought of as the “North West,” and the “South West,” made up then of Indian Territory and Texas.1 With Civil War tensions still very much a part of the national culture, “Middle West” acted as a north–south ordering device for the elongated, lobed swath of grasslands at the center of North America—what settlers moving into the region called “prairies” and “plains.” This “middle-third”-of-the-Grasslands West conception quickly shifted into today’s familiar meaning of a region in between the nation’s “East” and “West.”2 Since that general cognitive shift, the continent’s Great Plains region has maintained a twinned relationship with the Middle West, both regions located somewhere in “Middle America.”3
The environmental concerns that founded and continuously frame the historiography of the Great Plains offer the field of Middle West history the most to ponder as the latter moves beyond the call to scholars to self-identify with regionalism and to define the contours of “Middle West.”4 The study of the Great Plains has been shaped by perspectives from numerous disciplines; a long attention to the historiography and life of neighboring regions; a habit of mapping external boundaries and internal lines of zonal transition; and a clear transnational reach to Mexico and Canada.5 All these characteristic features of Great Plains historiography offer models, methods, [End Page 71] questions, and cautions with which to understand the Middle West anew. The primary value of Great Plains regionalism for that of the Middle West flows from continuous wrangling with determinism in all its forms, especially environmental, and the field’s constant engagement with cultural geography.6 After referencing foundational works, this essay explores major threads of historiographic trajectory that hold importance for historians of the Middle West and suggests the richness of the Great Plains tradition with discussions of sample works that illustrate major themes.
The two predominant Great Plains regional ideas, first, grasslands torn asunder and parceled out to the West and Middle West and second, grasslands marked by “uniformity of vegetation,”7 both find their roots in the foundational 1931 The Great Plains by the Texan Walter Prescott Webb. As he phrased it, “The history of the Plains is the history of the grasslands.”8 Initiating an interdisciplinary style (referencing geology, ecology, geography, meteorology, agricultural science, and literature), Webb argued the level, treeless, and sub-humid landscape central to his study represented a distinct region called the “Great Plains.” This large swath of grasslands had two major interrelated divisions east of the Rocky Mountains: the “Great Plains” and the “Prairie Plains.” Treelessness united these two divisions and challenged the agricultural vision of settler colonials, in Webb’s opinion. Webb also made popular the problem of aridity by drawing attention to the 98th and 100th meridians, together a dividing line beyond which rainfall ceased to be adequate for (unaided) agriculture.9 Aridity divided Webb’s larger “Great Plains-Prairie Plains” grasslands region, and eventually attached the western shortgrass “Great Plains” to the modern “West,” while leaving the eastern tallgrass “Prairie Plains” open to the by-then (1931) established, but culturally growing, Middle West. Though ostensibly about the “plains,” Webb’s The Great Plains charted a methodological path with multidisciplinary, especially environmental, thought as one base for regional study. A second foundation located regional understanding in relation to neighbor and nation, the contexts in which regional cultures emerge.10
Foundational studies by James C. Malin, Carl Frederick Kraenzel, Mary W. M. Hargreaves, and Paul F. Sharp continued Webb’s analysis of a population in the process of adapting to an always uncertainly bound environment. These scholars continued to note internal grasslands divisions, some north and south, to understand (and even still...