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Their Best Days Are Over

Most of the EuroAmerican heroes of generations past on the Great Plains have feet — or at least toes, and some of them whole legs! — of clay. This is to say, if we look at them closely, and especially if we look at them with twenty-first century lenses, we see things that make us uncomfortable.

The cowboy president Theodore Roosevelt, for instance: we like to claim him for his forthright manliness, his Square Deal, and his rhetorical prowess. We love to tell the story, full of both pathos and adventure, of his ranching days in the Dakota Territory. We overlook his rather racist ideas and utterances about American Indians.

Another of Teddy’s virtues was his sense of the Great Plains as a place — something I’ve been talking about lately. This feature is, after all, called Plains Folk. So, I’m trying to get a handle on how we came to acknowledge our regional sense of place.

Roosevelt wrote several books about his life in the West, two of which were combined in 1899 to form Big Game Hunting in the Rockies and on the Great Plains. There is that phrase, Great Plains, which according to my research, had been on the rise in print since the 1880s.

Writing from Sagamore Hill, Roosevelt embraces the Great Plains, but in the past tense. Life on the Great Plains was great, he intimates, but their best days are over, for “the wilderness has been conquered and the game killed off.”

As EuroAmericans were becoming conscious of the Great Plains as a region, they attached to it notions of wilderness and pristine grassland, preferably with just enough wild Indians around to give the experience a hazardous edge. By 1899, in Roosevelt’s sense, the region was hollowed out — the game was gone.

A few years later, the Great Plains boasted their first truly regional historian, Randall Parrish, author of The Great Plains, published in 1907. Subtitle: The Romance of Western American Exploration, Warfare and Settlement, 1527-1870.

Several of Parrish’s book titles contain the word, “romance.” A New Englander, Parrish came west for his health, followed a herd of cattle to New Mexico, and settled, sort of, into a law practice in Wichita, Kansas. He also was a minister, a newspaper editor, and the author of dime novels. An interesting guy, of whom I must write more in future, but for now, I’m interested in his sense of the Great Plains as a place.

Like Roosevelt, Parrish fixed the Great Plains in a rearview mirror. “Heretofore the romantic history of the Plains has never been condensed within the limits of a single volume,” Parrish begins. After 399 pages he concludes his work — in the 1870s.

The history of the Great Plains was over. “Civilization had laid its hand of power on all the hitherto wild scene,” Parrish concludes, “and contentment and prosperity were coming to the prairies.” The history of the Great Plains was over.

This leads me to wonder how Walter Prescott Webb thought he could reestablish the Great Plains with his pivotal work of 1931 and make the region a fixture in American life. I think I have the answer.

The writers who proliferated the idea of the Great Plains as a permanent region defined by its physical conditions were scientists — especially agricultural scientists. They concerned themselves every day with the problems of the very people writers like Roosevelt and Parrish said had destroyed the Great Plains. They freely used the phrase “Great Plains” in their bulletin titles. Scientists saved the idea of the Great Plains.

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