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The True Character Of The Plains

One of the great promoters of western settlement in mid-nineteenth century was William Gilpin of Missouri — military officer, western explorer, first territorial governor of Colorado. In 1857 Gilpin was distressed about the still-prevailing notion that the country east of the Rockies was a Great American Desert. In 1857 he wrote,

There is a radical misapprehension in the popular mind as to the true character of the Great Plains of America. The plains are not deserts, but the opposite. . . . [They] form the Pastoral Garden of the world. Their position and area may be easily understood.

The Great Plains should be opened to settlement, Gilpin declared, beginning with pastoral occupation, that is, ranching. Gilpin was an intelligent man who had seen the western country, but the same could be said of Zebulon Pike and Stephen Long and the others who had labeled it a desert. How could they disagree so diametrically?

Customarily we have assumed that one party or the other must have been either mistaken or duplicitous. But I think now it is we second-guessers who have been mistaken. Pike and Long were right in their assessment. So was Gilpin, however.

Except for that part about the climate of the plains being “easily understood.” It was not the same yesterday, today, and forever. It was confusing, then and now, because it was, and is, a moving target. Yes, I am talking about climate change.

Recently I had the privilege of traveling to Stavanger, Norway, to present a paper at the annual conference of the Agricultural History Society. I had been nurturing and developing some ideas about the deep history of the influence of climate change on the the Great Plains, and this seemed like a good place to try them out. I mean, if you’re going to propound some half-baked ideas that upend the basic consensus as to the nature of the land and its history, it’s best to open off-Broadway.

To sweeten the argument a bit, I introduced some elements from my other current line of research, the history of balladry, folksong, on the prairies. I wanted to show how the ballads of the plains illustrated the confusion in thought about the nature of the country.

Exhibit A was “The Cattle King’s Prayer,” a recent discovery of mine in the Fort Benton (Montana) River Press, 22 September 1886. A stockman named John Lepley wrote the ballad in order to implore the help of the Almighty in the face of changing climate.

The cattle kings had brought their herds to the northern plains in good faith, guided by a previous generation’s knowledge. Walter Baron von Richthofen had bespoken the orthodox faith of the cattle kings when he declared that cattle would thrive on the plains like buffalo — “without shelter, and getting fat.” Snowfalls, he assured, were light: “a trifle of wind blows the snow off, and the sun melts it quickly … in consequence of the dry atmosphere.” The baron had described the Montana plains of the Little Ice Age, a desert-like land which was no more.

For when the cattle king Lepley penned his ballad, climate change in the form of modern warming was coming to roost like a buzzard. Counter-intuitively, warming meant worse conditions for cattle on the open range. It meant increased snowfall for a longer period of winter, because it was no longer too cold to snow. It meant wilder oscillations of weather on account of the increased energy in the system.

It meant the catastrophic winter of 1886-87 and the Great Die-Off of the cattle industry. They say the Lord hears and answers all prayers. John Lepley, in a great nineteenth-century phrase, asked the Lord for “Italian skies and little snow.” The answer to his prayer was not what he desired.

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