Digital History

Closing the Western Frontier

The Great American Desert Previous Next
Digital History ID 3148



When he explored the area that was to become Nebraska and Oklahoma in 1820, Major Stephen H. Long called the region "the Great American Desert." He considered the area "almost wholly unfit for cultivation, and of course uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence." It was flat, treeless, and arid.

Half a century later, the "Great American Desert" received a new name, the Great Plains. This region consists of the area east of the Rockies and just west of the 100th meridian: the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, a significant part of Texas, and New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. Instead of being viewed as an obstacle to America's westward expansion, the plains were quickly transformed into America's breadbasket and the site of many of the country's richest mines.

Americans surged westward after 1860 for many reasons. The discovery of mineral deposits brought thousands of people into the region, causing towns to spring up overnight. By opening up eastern markets to farmers and ranchers, railroad construction also stimulated population growth on the plains.

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