A Note from Cottonwood Corners

At one time, students sitting in geography class were taught that all the land west of the Missouri River and east of the Rocky Mountains was barren and worthless.  It was also emphasized that it would remain this way forever.

At that time, it was known as the home for Indians, buffalo, and some “unknown” wild beasts.  The buffalo, which roamed over the entire plains was the main source of food, clothing, and shelter for various Indian tribes in the area.

Lewis and Clark, the leaders of “The Corps of Discovery,” were the first to explore, study, and write about the plains and mountains between St. Louis, Missouri, and the Pacific Ocean.  Thomas Jefferson had been planning an expedition to the Pacific for at least ten years before he became president of the United States.  With his announcement of the Louisiana Purchase on July 4, 1803, Jefferson was able to finalize the plans for a trip of nearly 8,000 miles and 27 months which had been funded by Congress.

In 1806, Zebulon Pike was sent on a trek by the newly appointed governor of the Louisiana Territory to the Spanish territory in the southwest.  Possibly to provoke a war with them or to spy on their activities.

The Spanish in the New Mexico territory became very frightened about American plans when Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark to the Pacific.  Spain still claimed parts of the Louisiana Territory as theirs.

On his way to the southwest, Pike came upon a Pawnee camp near present-day Guide Rock, Nebraska.  He discovered a lot of evidence of Spanish trade and influence; most notably the Spanish flag flying over the Pawnee village.  To Pike who was a thoroughly patriotic man, some even said too patriotic, this extremely disturbed him.

It bothered him to see foreign flags waving above the soil he thought belonged to his country.  Consequently, he convinced the Pawnee to replace the Spanish flag with an American flag and cautioned them that the Spanish would no longer be allowed to enter the newly acquired Louisiana Territory.  As far as Pike was concerned, he had dissolved the Spanish claims.

He kept a record of his experiences and his journal was published in 1810.  One of his more interesting comments concerned his thoughts on the Great Plains geography.  He agreed with the idea of the “Great American Desert” which some say slowed the movement of people onto the frontier.

He wrote in his journal:  “These vast plains of the Western Hemisphere may become in time equally celebrated as the sandy deserts of Africa.”

Ten years later, Stephen Long led an expedition up the Platte River in 1820.  A major and member of the Army Corps of Engineers, he led the first scientific exploration up the Platte to the Rockies and then back along the Spanish colonies to the south and southwest.  Exploring that border was important since the U. S. had just completed a treaty with Spain, which drew a new U. S. border to the Pacific.

In his report of the 1820 expedition, Long wrote that the Plains from Nebraska to Oklahoma were “unfit for cultivation and of course uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture.”  On the map which he made, the area was labeled as a “Great Desert.”

He felt this area would be better used as a barrier against the Spanish, British, and Russians, who shared the continent with the Americans.  He suggested that the eastern portion of the country be filled up before attempting any more movement westward.

He was against sending settlers to that area.  There was little timber for houses or fuel, little surface water, sandy soil, hard winters, huge herds of buffalo, numerous Indian tribes, and no easy way to communicate.  However, it is important to remember that Native Americans had been living there for centuries!

From this expedition Long published a map of the West.  It is this popular map that gave the area the label, “Great American Desert.”  It was an area from the Rockies to more than five hundred miles east and from the northern border to the Rio Grande.  This area suffered with this reputation for many years before railroad marketing changed the opinions of immigrants and citizens who were looking for their “El Dorado.”

To them, this was a good place for farmers, ranchers, and other settlers to build a home and start a family.  Gradually the boundaries of this desert were moved farther and farther westward through the determination, energy, and labor of the early pioneers.

The new, fertile, and rich country was quickly developed and became known as “The Great Plains.”  After this became known in the tickly populated eastern states, thousands of emigrants and fortune-seekers turned their faces toward the west.

It was the development of the railroad which made it profitable to raise cattle on the plains.  Soon cowboys began driving large herds of cattle north from Texas and the cowboy quickly became an important icon in America.  They recognized the fact that raising cattle would be the most important and most profitable industry in the West.

They remembered that on their journey, instead of a barren desert they saw continuous plains covered with and grass that went to waste.  By the end of the 19th century, the “Great American Desert” had become the nation’s breadbasket.

We have heard them all — “Great American Desert,” “Flyover Country,” “Middle of Nowhere,” and just recently “Buffalo Commons.”  They are all a myth and more importantly, it is our home.  We couldn’t be prouder!

 

Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on October 20, 2021

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