Sunday, March 12, 2017

Visions of the American West (Part 1)

Introduction & the Great Plains

By James T. Carney

Some of us grew up in the era of Crockett mania, with the chorus of the frontiersman sounding in our ears:
He’s ahead of us all
meetin’ the test
Followin’ his legend
into the West.
    From Cooper’s Natty Bumppo to Twain’s Huckleberry Finn to Disney’s Davy Crockett, the urge to light out to the territory of the West is a dominant theme not just in American literature but also in American culture. What is the West of legend? The reality is that the American West is not a monolithic territory; indeed, there are several American Wests.

Probably the largest part of the West – and the realm of cowboys and Indians, not that the two of them ever mixed – is the Great Plains, which is the area between the end of the Eastern Forest (the western borders of the states along whose eastern borders the Mississippi lies) and the Rocky Mountains (including the Chisos Mountains) to the west. It includes the Dakotas, eastern Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado, as well as Kansas and Nebraska and most parts of Texas and Oklahoma.
    The Great Plains are flat, arid, and boring. I have made two ventures there. Years ago – when my son was in the Border Patrol Academy in Artesia, New Mexico – my wife and I flew into Albuquerque and drove east over the Rockies and through two hundred miles of grassland to see him. I think we saw two small collections of houses during the trip. Another time, a group of business people and I took a private plane to fly from Pittsburgh to Albuquerque, on the theory that it would be less expensive and more comfortable to travel that way. This theory was mistaken on both counts. The plane stopped for refueling in Salinas, Kansas. I got off the plane, looked around, and got back on. One of my college friends from Kansas remarked that this action was the most intelligent steps he had ever heard of me taking.
    The Great Plains were the home of the cowboys and their trail drives from Texas up to the rail heads in Kansas. In addition, they were the home of the great buffalo herds and the Horse, or Plains, Indians – the destruction of the first leading to the downfall of the second. Ironically, the Horse Indians – the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Comanche – were created by the white man, since – until the Spanish introduced horses into the New World – the Plains Indians were relatively powerless, having no way to move over the vast spaces. Although Coronado in 1540 touched on the Great Plains, they too had sense enough to leave the land to the Indians – and finally to the Americans who settled the area. Much of the area – absent irrigation – is suitable for grazing only; it is too arid for farming. Buffalo have been replaced by cattle and sheep – to the extent that they have been replaced by anything other than oil drilling rigs.

[Tomorrow: The Southwest]

Copyright © 2017 by James T. Carney


  1. We lived in Wyoming back in 1950/1951. My mother wouldn't let me go outside because the wind would blow me away.

  2. I've lived most of my adult life on the Colorado Front Range, and have ventured east into the plains only a couple of times. Their beginning in eastern Colorado is short grass prairie, a one inch dry stubble which looks more barren than many deserts- but is full of birds. It doesn't improve much until Kansas. A driving trip through the small towns of western Kansas showed that there is some attractive country in the Sand Hills - but that it is becoming depopulated. Every town I visited was full of abandoned houses and empty storefronts, a trend I've also watched in Wyoming and Utah.