Meaning of the Plains in American Life

“This problem may best be approached through a brief resume. It has been pointed out that the ninety-eighth meridian separates the United States into two equal parts, that the Anglo-Americans who approached the Great Plains from the east came with an experience of more than two centuries of pioneering in the woodland environment, and that when they crossed over into the Plains their technique of pioneering broke down and they were compelled to make a radical readjustment in their way of life. The key to an understanding of the history of the West must be sought, therefore, in a comparative study of what was in the East and what came to be in the West. The salient truth, the essential truth, is that the West cannot be understood as a mere extension of things Eastern. Though “the roots of the present lie deep in the past,” it does not follow that the fruits of the present are the same or that the fruits of the West are identical with those of the East. Such a formula would destroy the variable quality in history and make of it an exact science. In history the differences are more important than the similarities. When one makes a comparative study of the sections, the dominant truth which emerges is expressed in the word contrast.

The contrast begins in geology and topography and is continued in climate, reflected in vegetation, apparent in wild animal life, obvious in anthropology, and not undiscernible in history. To the white man, with his forest culture, the Plains presented themselves as an obstacle, one which served to exercise and often defeat his ingenuity, to upset his calculations, to hinder his settlement, and to alter his weapons, tools, institutions, and social attitudes; in short, to throw his whole way of life out of gear. The history of the white man in the Great Plains is the history of adjustments and modifications, of giving up old things that would no longer function for new thinis that would, of giving up an old way of life for a new way in order that there might be a way. Here one must view the white man and his culture as a dynamic thing, moving from the forest-clad land into the treeless plain.”