Great American Desert.This was the term used by the people east of the Mississippi river to express their idea of the country west of that river when it was an unknown land. Carey and Lee's Atlas of 1827 located the Great American Desert as an indefinite territory in what is now Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Indian Territory and Texas. Bradford's Atlas of 1838 indicates the great desert as extending from the Arkansas through into Colorado and Wyoming, including South Dakota, part of Nebraska and Kansas. Others thought the desert included an area 500 miles wide lying directly east of the Rocky mountains and extending from the northern boundary of the United States to the Rio Grande river. Its boundaries changed from period to period for Mitchell's Atlas of 1840, placed the Great American Desert west of the Rocky mountains. The section shown by the various geographies grew smaller every year until only sandy plains in Utah and Nevada bore the name desert.
The history of the development of this portion of the continent begins with the earliest explorations in the New World. The expeditions following Columbus were made by Spaniards from the South. Mexico and Florida having been discovered, one Alvar Nunez was sent from Spain to explore Florida. His journey took him to the mouth of the Mississippihere he suffered a wreck and only fifteen of his men survivedeleven of these were killed by the Indians. The four remaining were made prisoners and separated. Nunez, who was also known as Cabeca de Vaca, was carried by the Indians north into the great plains in sight of the Rocky mountains. He and his companions became reunited, escaped the Indians and working their way slowly, found the Spanish settlement in Mexico in 1836. In 1838 Hernando de Soto left Spain to explore Florida. About the same time Coronado, inspired by the tales of Cabeca de Vaca, started north to find seven golden cities. His search for Quivira took him to what is now central Kansas.
Early in the 19th century the United States government sent out exploring expeditions. One of these was under the command of Lieut. Zebulon Pike, who in 1806 went west from St. Louis to hunt the source of the Arkansas river. In description of the country he wrote, "From these immense prairies may arise one great advantage to the United States, viz: The restriction of our population to some certain limits, and thereby a continuation of the Union. Our citizens being so prone to rambling and extending themselves on the frontier will through necessity be constrained to limit their extent to the west to the borders of the Missouri and Mississippi, while they leave the prairies incapable of cultivation to the wandering and uncivilized aborigines of the country."
The report of Long's expedition in 1819 and 1820 verified the words of Pike. He considered a great part of the country unfit for cultivation, and uninhabitable by people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence. In speaking of the whole section from the Mississippi to the Rocky mountains he says, "From the minute account given in the narration of the particular features of this expedition, it will be perceived to be a manifest resemblance to the deserts of Siberia."
Washington Irving, in his Astoria, published in 1836 and founded on a brief tour he made on the prairies and into Missouri and Arkansas, said: "This region which resembles one of the ancient steppes of Asia has not inaptly been termed 'The Great American Desert.' It spreads forth into undulating and treeless plains and desolate sandy wastes, wearisome to the eye from their extent and monotony. It is a land where no man permanently abides, for at certain seasons of the year there is no food for the hunter or his steed."
The reports of Pike, Long and Irving did much to form public opinion in regard to this unknown land. The expeditions of Pike and Long were practically the last exploration work done by the government for several years. While the government was idle, private enterprise was working its way westward. (See Fur Traders.) The movement of westward travel was accelerated in 1849 when gold was discovered in California. Previously the overland travel had been very light, but in 1849 it is roughly estimated that 42,000 persons crossed the plains. The trip was full of every kind of danger. Caravans were attacked by Indians, storms and disease, but many returned to settle in some favored spot. The lands along the streams were the first to be taken by the settlers. Gradually the country has yielded to the influence of law and order. The most dismal spots are being developed into gardens of usefulness and beauty, by the work of irrigation; the government is doing much for the protection of forest and range; by feats of engineering a variety of rich mines have been opened; railroads have crossed seemingly impassable plains; manufactories of all kinds have sprung up; gases from underground have been controlled for light and fuel; educational institutions have opened their doors to millions of children, and churches of all denominations have erected imposing houses of worship. The free library, the telegraph, telephone, rural mail delivery, and all the complexities of modern times have in reality crowded the Great American Desert off the map into the land of fancy from which it came.Pages 784-785 from volume I of Kansas: a cyclopedia of state history, embracing events, institutions, industries, counties, cities, towns, prominent persons, etc. ... / with a supplementary volume devoted to selected personal history and reminiscence. Standard Pub. Co. Chicago : 1912. 3 v. in 4. : front., ill., ports.; 28 cm. Vols. I-II edited by Frank W. Blackmar. Transcribed May 2002 by Carolyn Ward.
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