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What We Call This Place

George Armstrong Custer is not a source I ordinarily would cite as to geographical terminology, but let me draw attention to a hopeful distinction he makes early in his memoir, My Life on the Plains. He remarks how schoolchildren were being taught to refer to the midsection of the country as “the Great American Desert.”

This should stop, Custer says. He insists that the so-called “desert” has “no abiding place.” Instead, the region “is now known as ‘The Plains.’”

It is important what you call the place you claim as your own. To my Dakota and Lakota friends it is makoće, home country. Always has been. It is the EuroAmericans who disagree as to terminology.

Walter Prescott Webb, author of the 1931 classic, The Great Plains, attempted to brand the region once and for all. The level, treeless, subhumid middle of the country should be recognized, he says, as “the Great Plains.” And the name stuck.

I used to cite all sorts of anecdotal evidence about the prevalence of the term, Great Plains, that I use all the time in Plains Folk. I have theorized that Webb, by the power of his ideas, essentially created the named region in the public mind. So “Great Plains” became attached to highways, museums, research centers, implement companies, software firms, you name it — literally! — in order to declare such entities as being of this place.

Now it is possible to track this naming and branding exercise through the written evidence, beginning with the Google program it calls the Ngram Viewer. This allows you to chart the appearance of a particular phrase through the entire body of books digitized by Google. This is not all books, of course, but it is a mighty big sample.

So I ran the phrase, “the Great Plains,” through the Ngram Viewer, and the results were a little surprising. It turns out the rise in its currency pre-dates Walter Webb. Its use in books becomes significant in the 1880s and rises fairly steadily to 1920, when it increases markedly. Just about precisely in 1931 — the year of publication, remember, for The Great Plains — usage spikes sharply upward, to peak in 1938.

From this evidence I am inclined to conclude that Webb did not coin his titular term. Rather, he adopted it from rising popular usage. It does appear, however, Webb’s book spiked the rise of the phrase, “the Great Plains,” during its heyday.

Except — there was something else going on. Out of curiosity I also ran the phrase “the Dust Bowl” through the Ngram Viewer. “Dust Bowl” has a bullet in usage from 1931 to 1939.

So here’s my revised theory. Walter Webb was attempting, self-consciously, to establish a region, the Great Plains, through publication of his book, The Great Plains, in 1931. He adopted the phrase from rising popular usage and accentuated it in the popular mind. He got some unexpected and, I presume, unwelcome help from the advent of the environmental catastrophe known as the Dust Bowl — which afflicted, of course, the Great Plains. It was hard to talk about one without the other.

Here, then, are some takeaways for those of us who call ourselves plains folk and consider the Great Plains our place. When my great-grandparents arrived and took up farming in the 1870s, they did not call their land the Great Plains. (They did not call it the Midwest or the Middle West, either.) The generations of my grandparents and parents, they invoked the term, Great Plains, but also endured the Dust Bowl.

There are other terms to sort out — terms like Northwest, Midwest, and High Plains — but I think now I have a handle on “the Great Plains.”

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