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45  Finding the Water Boom and Bust, 1870–1940 From the 98th meridian west to the Rocky Mountains there is a stretch of country whose history is filled with more tragedy and whose future is pregnant with greater promise than perhaps any other equal expanse of territory within the confines of the Western Hemisphere. | Farm historian A. M. Simons, 1906 Extensive areas of the Great Plains . . . must be classed as unsuited to sustained cultivated crops, and should therefore never have been plowed. | National Resources Planning Board, Public Works Administration, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1936 If the Atlantic coastline of North America had been dry prairie instead of an extended forest, settlement might never have taken place. Europeans might have contented themselves with fishing its shores. Ingrained Old World opinion told settlers that treeless open land could not be turned into fertile farmland. The “best poor man’s country” was hewed from forest: no trees, no crop. After the eastern forestland had been cleared and settled and Americans again looked westward, they were not happy with what they saw. The midcontinent grasslands seemed no more than a worthless rangeland in the distant western backcountry.¹ The plains stood primarily as an obstacle—America’s empty quarter— for migrants headed for the garden spots in Oregon and California. “A Forever Dangerous and Useless Place, Deserving Only to Be Passed By” If, in the heart of the Oklahoma panhandle, Roger and Betty Trescott had looked up from hoeing their backyard garden, and if they had started up their wheat farm not in the 1940s but in the 1540s, they 46 finding the water would have seen Coronado and his Spanish expeditionary force marching along within spitting distance (with a good wind behind them). The plains were bad news from the first. When Coronado began his surprisingly deep venture below the Rio Grande and tramped as far north and east as the wild Kansas country, he reported that the grassy sea called the High Plains had “no more landmarks than as if we had been swallowed up in the sea . . . because there was not a stone, nor a bit of rising ground, nor a tree, nor a shrub, nor anything to go by.”² The expedition had to navigate by sun and stars as if they were on the open ocean. Coronado had difficulty finding water. The adventurers found neither gold nor clues to a passage to Cathay; instead they were forced to halt for endless roaming herds of massive buffalo as awesome as the land itself. Five soldiers on Zaldivar’s 1598 expedition deserted in panic when they entered the endless plains; they were more willing to risk capture by Indians than penetrate the lonely land. Historic doubts continued. About 1787 James Monroe set the stage when he flatly told Thomas Jefferson that the entire United States west of the Appalachians was no bargain: “A great part of the territory is miserably poor [and] consists of extensive plains which have not had from appearances, and will not have, a single bush upon them for ages. . . . The districts therefore within which these fall will perhaps never contain a sufficient number of inhabitants to entitle them to membership in the Confederacy.”³ Based on experience in Europe, the British Isles, and east of the Appalachians, the only land worth farming was land cleared from forests. No wonder Jefferson concluded that it would take a hundred generations before Americans would settle the continent to the western sea. (The actual total would be less than five generations.) The plains were too remote and inaccessible, devoid of the major rivers that had opened up so many other American regions. One early advantage of this empty, trackless geography was that no attacking army could sustain itself to invade the weak United States at its vulnerable back side. Even with major logistical support, a largescale military force would disappear into the vastness. However, Jefferson , always the optimist, rushed in 1803 to accept Napoleon’s offer to sell the 830,000-square-mile Louisiana Purchase wasteland at $15 million, or three cents an acre. finding the water 47 The problem was that the American grassland could not be compared with any part of western Europe, while the Atlantic coast was forested like Europe. Like the distant steppes of central Asia, the American grassland might as well have been a moonscape to the first European visitors. The visible scene was a minimalist landscape of unbounded grasses...


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