- Prelude to the Dust Bowl: Drought in the Nineteenth-Century Southern Plains by Kevin Z. Sweeney
In Prelude to the Dust Bowl, Kevin Sweeney examines the long history of drought on the southern Plains. Although many Americans are aware of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, considerably fewer know that the 130 years preceding that decade of drought and dust storms was filled with similar, if less intense and long-lasting, events. In a region extending from southeastern Colorado and southwestern Kansas in the north to the Texas Panhandle in the south, drought was a regular and unwanted visitor. In the early nineteenth century, drought shaped early explorers’ views of the region. At the end of the century, it greatly diminished the ability of participants in the Oklahoma land rush to make good on their claims. In between, it complicated the relationship between Texas settlers and the Comanche. A difficult and changeable environment complicated the already painful task of making homes and farms.
Sweeney begins with map making, exploration, and the labelling of the southern Plains. For example, explorers’ perceptions of the region would be influenced greatly by the period in the drought cycle during which they visited the region it was called the Great American Desert because of the year in which Stephen Long crossed the Plains. Later visitors would modify Long’s judgment, and eventually abandon it, after having seen the region at moments of sufficient rainfall. Sweeney follows the topic of mapmaking with discussion of Native American responses to the region. Their reaction to drought was movement. During dry times, they and the [End Page 528] game left, seeking greener pastures. When rainfall returned, so did the tribes and the animals they hunted. Sweeney also traces the path of buffalo herds as they moved about the region, heading farther to the east during times of environmental stress. Movement was a logical response to drought; unfortunately, growing white settlement made it increasingly difficult for Plains tribes to continue this practice.
Settlement by incoming farmers and ranchers created yet more problems. Their fields of wheat and herds of cattle could not be moved easily in times of stress. Cries for government action and rainmaking came in times of drought. Sweeney wraps up his discussion of events in the nineteenth century with a description of the last land rush of the century and the way in which drought complicated the rush itself, not to mention settlers’ attempts to survive after claiming land. The rush could not have been more poorly timed, with drought engulfing the Southern Plains from 1893–1896. Desperate people, seeking relief in land from a serious depression, landed themselves in an equally desperate situation, unable to overcome the drought.
Sweeney has written a highly useful book that should interest those in agricultural and environmental history, as well as those interested in the history of the Southern Plains states. Events in Texas provide a good bit of the material for the book, making it particularly useful for understanding the environmental history of the state. The book’s many maps make it easier to locate its various case studies. Sweeney’s discussion is also studded with nuggets of fun material, such as a “rain follows the plow” poem, written in 1895, yet another drought year. Well researched and nicely written, this is a book that persuasively makes the case for the importance of drought to all of the nineteenth century people of the Southern Plains.