The Great Plains’ Effect on American Institutions

“The purpose of this book is to show how this area, with its three dominant characteristics [plane, or level surface; treeless; sub-humid], affected the various peoples, nations as well as individuals, who came to take and occupy it, and was affected by them; for this land, with the unity given it by its three dominant characteristics, has from the beginning worked its inexorable effect upon nature’s children. The historical truth that becomes apparent in the end is that the Great Plains have bent and molded Anglo-American life, have destroyed traditions, and have influenced institutions in a most singular manner. . . .

As one contrasts the civilization of the Great Plains with that of the eastern timberland, one sees what may be called an institutional fault (comparable to a geological fault) running from middle Texas to Illinois or Dakota, roughly following the ninety-eighth meridian. At this fault the ways of life and of living changed. Practically every institution that was carried across it was either broken and remade or else greatly altered. The ways of travel, the weapons, the method of tilling the soil, the plows and other agricultural implements, and even the laws themselves were modified. When people first crossed this line they did not immediately realize the imperceptible change that had taken place in their environment, nor, more is the tragedy, did they foresee the full consequences which that change was to bring in their own characters and in their modes of life. In the new region – level, timberless, and semi-arid – they were thrown by Mother Necessity into the clutch of new circumstances. Their plight has been stated in this way : east of the Mississippi civilization stood on three legs – land, water, and timber; west of the Mississippi not one but two of these legs were withdrawn, – water and timber, – and civilization was left on one leg – land. It is small wonder that it toppled over in temporary failure.”