- Prelude to the Dust Bowl: Drought in the Nineteenth-Century Southern Plains by Kevin Z. Sweeney
American histories of drought often begin with the 1930s. Scholars have long profiled farmers, ranchers, scientists, and rural communities that endured the ecological disasters of that decade. First-hand accounts, such as the one by F. A. Wagner—superintendent of the Branch Extension Station in Garden City, Kansas—capture the region’s plight: “The Drought of 1934 . . . coupled with unwise land use and tillage practices, gave rise in the Spring of 1935 to the most severe and widespread dust storms this country has ever witnessed. Occasionally a ‘Black Blizzard’ in the form of a rapidly moving billowy cloud of dust would move in from the north, at which times visibility was reduced to zero . . . . During such storms, midday was plunged into jet black darkness and it was impossible to see one’s own hand when extended in front at arm’s length.”1 But, how did deadly fluctuations of rainfall shape the region before the 1930s?
Sweeney expands this work by looking at numerous droughts a century before the “dirty thirties.” He argues in Prelude to the Dust Bowl that arid landscapes, dust storms, and prolonged drought has a much longer regional history. Although “the cyclical nature of climate was narrowly perceived and often severely misunderstood, . . . these repetitive climatic patterns and the misperceptions of them were not the only factors affecting the development of the region, but they helped shape the economic, social and political forces that evolved there” (xiii). Sweeney begins with Stephen H. Long’s expedition report “The Great American Desert.” Well-known to his contemporaries, Long’s designation of drought and desert described the region as “obviously unfit for any people attempting to establish an agricultural society” (27). Through a variety climatic, cultural, and environmental sources, Sweeney confirms that Long selected this designation for the region because his expedition happened to encounter one of the region’s lethal droughts. Although future accounts, such as Josiah Gregg’s Commerce of the Prairies (Carlisle, Mass., 1844), [End Page 99] revealed a region of fertile grasses as much as futile climates, the desert moniker stuck.
Additional chapters trace how cultural views and environmental episodes of drought intersected to encourage resettlements of peoples and animals. From the bison migrations and the plight of Native peoples during severe droughts of the 1850s to crime, violence, and “boomer bust,” the nineteenth-century southern plains were plagued by drought. Strong harvests, healthy cattle, and successful military strategies succeeded or failed because of these conditions. Even so, Great Plains residents (and federal policies) abounded in a faith that agricultural thinking and federal economic subsidies could conquer intractable climates and destructive environments (224).
Prelude to the Dust Bowl considers numerous interdisciplinary sources—scientific experiments, diary accounts, expedition records, and government reports—to offer crucial insight into how climatic shifts, ecological relationships, and cultural visions made and remade the southern Great Plains. One of the most powerful narratives in Sweeny’s telling is the drought-related plight of Native Americans—their technological and cultural innovations in response to drought as well as its influence on their dispossession. Further research about the region’s drought-ridden past are needed to prepare for the climatic uncertainties that lie ahead.
1. F. A. Wagner, “Annual Report of the Garden City Branch” (Garden City, 1932–1937), in the Branch Reports Collection, Richard L. D. and Marjorie J. Morse Department of Special Collections, Agricultural Experiment Station, Kansas State University.