Historical Happenings

Rain Follows the Plow

The number of humans on Earth has septupled in the last 130 years, and the population continues to increase exponentially. It won’t be long before there are more people than the planet can handle. Back in the mid-1800s, however, this wasn’t so much of an issue. The number of people in the New World was increasing but there was space for them to spread out and explore. The government, railroad tycoons, and mass real estate influencers were more than happy to encourage as many people as possible to move out West into the Great American Desert.

“Spokesmen for the American West read an inspiriting message in the world of Nature. Their imaginations were filled with symbols of fertility, of waxing vigor, of abundant harvests, of endlessly increasing wealth and happiness.” –Henry Nash Smith

The allegedly marvelous opportunity for agriculture was a treat used to entice settlers. Despite surveys returning results of arid or even desert conditions in the Plains region, infinite wealth and happiness could be found if only one was determined to succeed. The biggest issue, according to some, was the lack of rainfall. The solution was found in a claim that ‘rain follows the plow’. By plowing and cultivating the dry expanses of the Great Plains, more water would evaporate and in turn, more water would be available to precipitate back down as rain.

There were a few big names in this game. Ferdinand V. Hayden was an instrumental surveyor of the region up until the founding of the U.S. Geological survey who believed that planting trees could bring more rain. Richard Smith Elliot assisted Hayden for a few years, included cereal grains in his list of crops that could thrive on the plains and suggested that building railroads could also contribute to rainfall. Samuel Aughey and Charles Dana Wilber wrote pages upon pages about how rainfall was already increasing and the land to the west was characterized by unmatched fertility.

On the other hand, John Wesley Powell argued that this was all bologna. There may have been some cyclical changes going on, but there was no big increase in rainfall and any increase had nothing to do with human activity. Powell had the right idea, but the power of those in favor of rain follows the plow did a number on his reputation. But until dry-farming techniques could be perfected, the rise of civilization in the wild west would eventually lead the way into the Dust Bowl.

Featured photo courtesy of U.S. National Archive:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/35740357@N03/7495746734/

See the following sources for more info:

Smith, Henry. “Rain Follows the Plow: The Notion of Increased Rainfall for the Great Plains, 1844-1880.” Huntington Library Quarterly 10, no. 1 (1946): 169.

Current Earth Science

The Great American Desert

What exactly are the Great Plains? Everyone has heard the name, at least in a history class at some point. Definitions of the region have changed over time, and continue to be murky even today. Officially, the Great Plains cover parts of 10 U.S. states, the Canadian provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and bits of the Northwest Territories. Most people will consider the area west of the 100th meridian line to the Rocky Mountains to be a part of the Great Plains—a space taking up nearly a third of the country.

The Great Plains are not as flat and boring as you may imagine. It is crisscrossed and mixed with rolling hills and valleys carved by raging rivers. Even mountains make an appearance, most famously in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Most of the area is characterized by the typical semi-arid grasslands one might expect, though there was a time that the Great Plains were considered a full out desert.

This worked both for and against people from all walks of life. The Great American Desert was a concept that settlers used to become heroes—only the bravest and most awesome people could drop everything to move out farther west and thrive as farmers in the desert. Obviously, those parties interested in selling the land for profit also used the desert label as a mark of success, hinging on the idea that ‘rainfall follows the plow’. By settling and plowing the earth of this mighty desert, people could increase rainfall and enjoy the fertility of this harsh environment.

While humans have been inhabiting the Great Plains Region for over 15,000 years, it wasn’t until the last couple of hundred years that attempts were made to survey the area. Boy, were they fascinated. In 1817, Lewis and Clark considered the area an incredible garden, ripe with agricultural prospects. Not everyone agreed, and just three years later, a scientific expedition led by Stephen H. Long observed the hot, dry expanses and expressed doubts whether people could ever settle the area. Both saw the wilderness differently, with very different motivations.

Regardless, flora and fauna have thrived in the Great Plains for longer than humans have even existed, from sagebrush and cacti and trees, to bison and rattlesnakes and wolves. People were eager to spread, despite the hesitance of explorer and scientists, egged on by naturalists and a heck of a lot of hope. Even today, residents embrace the desert culture, echoing the hardiness of their pioneer forerunners.

This blog will cover a brief timeline of events, even before humans enter the picture, deep into geologic time when prehistoric life roamed the Earth. Later, it will discuss the elephant in the room, and such big-name influencers like Charles Dana Wilber, Ferdinand Hayden, and others.

 

See the following sources for more info:

https://www.britannica.com/place/Great-Plains

Baltensperger, B. H. “Plains Boomers and the Creation of the Great American Desert Myth.” Journal of Historical Geography18, no. 1 (1992): 59-73. doi:10.1016/0305-7488(92)90276-f.

Dillon, Richard H. “Stephen Long’s Great American Desert.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 111, no. 2 (April 14, 1967): 93-108.

Samson, Fred B., Fritz L. Knopf, and Wayne R. Ostlie. “Great Plains Ecosystems: Past, Present, and Future.” Wildlife Society Bulletin 32, no. 1 (2004): 6-15.