The Ocean and the Great Plains

“Much evidence of the immediate effects may be found in the reaction of men who came to the Plains. If we again visualize a migrating host suddenly emerging from the forests on an open and boundless plain, we are in position to understand the startled expressions of wonder which involuntarily escaped those who the first time beheld such scenes. The Anglo-American had in his experience no background to prepare him for such a far vision. His momentary surprise and wonder were what we might expect of a person fitted with powerful glasses which opened to him a new and hitherto unseen world. . . .

Such quotations could be increased to hundreds. They have these things in common: men expressed surprise, pleasure, and elation, and with one accord they compared the Plains to the sea. This comparison runs throughout the literature from Coronado on. In his Commerce of the Prairies Josiah Gregg speaks of the “grand prairie ocean,” of the caravans “making port”; he proposed a law based upon maritime law for control of the prairie caravan, and gave the wagons the name of “prairie schooners,” which they have borne ever since. Marcy described the Llano Estacado as an “ocean of desert prairie.” Van Tramp said of the prairies:

There is no describing them. They are like the ocean, in more than one particular; but in none more than in this: the utter impossibility of producing any just impression of them by description. They inspire feelings so unique, so distinct from anything else, so powerful, yet vague and indefinite, as to defy description, while they invite the attempt.”