Driving Away Settlers: Drought on the Western High Plains

Before the Dust Bowl, in the last decade of the nineteenth century, the semiarid western High Plains saw a drought that virtually wiped out the settlement.

Semiarid High Plains and a Rainbow

In the 1890s there was no Farm Security Administration to sponsor notable photographers to record the misery, as they did so vividly in the 1930s. The drought and associated settlement failure of the 1890s have been overshadowed by the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, which confirmed the reputation of the Great Plains as America’s problem region.

Photo by Fotolia/romitas

Content Tools

It’s hard to imagine the vast, open plains of eastern Colorado, western Kansas and southwestern Nebraska crowded with people as it was when settlers occupied the land in the last decades of the nineteenth century. As told in The Last Days of the Rainbelt (University of Nebraska Press, 2013) by David J. Wishart, in those days, farmers, speculators and town builders flooded the region believing that rain would follow the plow and the “Rainbelt” would become their agricultural Eden. It took a mere decade for drought and economic turmoil to drive these dreaming thousands from the land, turning farmland back to rangeland and reducing settlements to ghost towns. The following excerpt from the introduction touches on the history of the settlement.

You can purchase this book from the GRIT store: The Last Days of the Rainbelt.

The Western High Plains: A Ruined Land

In 1899, at the end of a decade blighted by severe drought and economic hardship, J. E. Payne, superintendent of the Agricultural Experiment Station at Cheyenne Wells, made a fact-finding tour of the surrounding plains of eastern Colorado. Payne, a recent graduate of Kansas Agricultural College in Manhattan, drove his spring wagon across thirteen hundred dusty miles of Kit Carson County and what was then Arapahoe County, now Yuma and Washington Counties. He interviewed settlers, located the few orchards that had survived the drought, noted the small-scale well and ditch irrigation, and assessed agricultural prospects. Everywhere he traveled, he saw the ruins of towns and an emptied-out countryside.

The semiarid shortgrass plains of eastern Colorado and adjacent southwestern Nebraska and western Kansas, which had been used as open range by cattlemen and sheepherders for decades and as hunting grounds by Native Americans for thousands of years, was rapidly and thickly settled by American farmers, speculators, and town builders from 1885 to 1889. This was (and is), at best, marginal farming land, with annual precipitation totaling less than fifteen inches, and in many years much less than that. It is an austere country of flat uplands reaching to distant horizons, with few trees, and streams that run dry for most of the year, a country of climatic extremes, from smothering blizzards to desiccating summers

But the settlers were not deterred: for decades they had been assured by scholars, railroad companies, agricultural journals, and state immigration boards that rainfall would increase as farmers planted trees, which would still the hot winds and reduce evaporation, while at the same time returning moisture to the atmosphere through transpiration, causing saturation, and more rain. More plausibly, but still to a degree a fantasy, plowing up the dense prairie sod would allow rainfall to penetrate deeply, so avoiding rapid run-off and evaporation. The stored moisture would be available for the settlers’ crops of wheat and corn and would again be slowly returned to the atmosphere, causing more rain. It was only a matter of time, it was reasoned — and widely believed — before the semiarid western plains would be fully farmed without any need for irrigation. The fact that this was the only remaining free, or cheap, land on the central Great Plains only made the apocryphal theories more enticing.

In accordance with this theory, in the second half of the 1880s the plains of eastern Colorado and nearby Kansas and southwestern Nebraska became known as the Rainbelt. This was not in the sense of a natural surplus of rain, the way that Cornbelt denotes a surplus of corn, but in the sense of a deficit just waiting to be corrected. The expectation was that rainfall would be increased through the farmers’ own efforts and the land would yield crops as abundantly as the more humid plains to the east. “If we don’t have a continuous deluge,” the Denver-based agricultural journal Field and Farm gushed in 1886, “we will at least have enough rain to get along comfortably.”

The settlers trickled into the Rainbelt before the railroads were in place, and flooded in thereafter. The plains of western Kansas and southwestern Nebraska were fully settled by 1886, leaving new arrivals — the “Rainbelters” — to push into eastern Colorado during the last three years of the decade. Because the cattlemen, anticipating the land rush and the end of the open range, had already secured the valleys, the homesteaders were left with the vast uplands, and the dream that rainfall would come to them through their own actions.

The settlers hardly had time to get established before drought and economic turmoil descended and, lacking roots and resources, they blew away like tumbleweeds. An entire layer of settlement was peeled off the land. Many counties lost more than one-third of their population from 1890 to 1900; some lost as much as two-thirds. The 1890 U.S. census population density map had shown continuous settlement across the central Great Plains from the Missouri River to the Rocky Mountains; the 1900 census map showed extensive areas of eastern Colorado designated once again as “unsettled.”

The evidence of abandonment was written on the landscape. Payne recalled that eastern Colorado towns like Lansing, Cope, Arikaree City, Thurman, Linden, and Harrisburg had “all aspired to be large cities, county seats, and railroad centers.” But without a surrounding farm population to sustain their banks, businesses, and schools, by 1899 they had been reduced to virtual ghost towns. Payne observed that Lansing had “only four cellars to mark its site.” Idalia had done a little better, retaining “two stores, two blacksmith shops, a school house, and a few dwellings.” At Friend, only one building, a school, was still standing. Cope had kept a store, a school, and a couple of houses. At Arikaree City, the one surviving building was home to a family of four. All that remained of Linden were “a few heaps of earth and a few holes in the ground.” There was still a family living at Harrisburg, and also at Thurman, a town that only recently had been the site of two banks and had attracted the interest of two railroads. Payne drove eighteen miles between Cope and Linden, on the divide between the North Fork of the Republican and the Arikaree Rivers, without seeing a single home. Over vast areas, the country was reverting to open range, and the evidence of homesteading was being effaced.

At about the same time that Payne was making his reconnaissance, Willard Johnson, a topographer and geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, was mapping his way across the High Plains of Kansas and Colorado, clarifying the details of the subsurface reservoir of water that another field geologist, Nelson Horatio Darden, had just named the Ogallala Aquifer. Johnson was also an astute observer of the human landscape and, like Payne, he saw that the area had been the scene of a disaster, an “almost complete depopulation.” Johnson concluded that it had been “an agricultural experiment on a vast scale,” and it had ended in “total failure.”

The drama of the settlement failure was widely recognized. Frederick Jackson Turner, the preeminent western historian of the time (as it would turn out), called it the “first defeat” of the American farmer. Later, geographer Harlan Barrows embellished this epitaph, describing the settlement collapse as the “first great crushing defeat of the American farmer.” Coming as it did just after the U.S. Bureau of the Census had officially (and prematurely) declared the frontier closed — “the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line” — the failure on the western High Plains in the 1890s had national, not just regional, implications. It was part of a wider “frontier anxiety,” the uneasy perception that the era of free land was at an end, and with it everything that had made the United States exceptional, from democracy to social stability. And, of course, it was Turner who codified all this in his famous 1893 paper, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” a celebration of the frontier as the “crucible” of Americanization, and a lament for its passing.

Yet the drought and associated settlement failure of the 1890s have been overshadowed by the scale, impact, and notoriety of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, which confirmed the reputation of the Great Plains as America’s problem region. In the 1890s there was no Farm Security Administration to sponsor notable photographers to record the misery, as they did so vividly in the 1930s. There was no defining novel like John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (1939), or film like Pare Lorentz’s The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936), to give the drought of the 1890s a mythical dimension. There were no panels of experts like the Great Plains Committee (1936) to study the conditions and recommend future actions. And there was no federal aid, no Works Progress Administration (WPA) to put people to work, no emergency cattle purchases, no payments to list the soil against the prevailing winds, or to retire land from production. State aid and charity notwithstanding, settlers in the 1890s were mainly left to sink or swim by themselves. It’s easy to see how it could all be forgotten.

This book is an attempt to bring this period of American settlement and failure on the western Great Plains more fully into historical memory. The first chapter covers the distinctive geography of “frontier zones” and takes American settlement from the Missouri River in 1854 to the western High Plains of Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska in the mid-1880s. This chapter provides a backdrop to what followed in the late 1880s and 1890s, serving to introduce aspects of the settlement process, such as migration patterns, demography, land laws, speculation, farming adjustments, and persistent delusions that spurred on the westward movement. It also serves to show that continuity rather than change characterized the American settlement of the central Great Plains during the second half of the nineteenth century, even as the physical environment transitioned from almost humid to semiarid.

The focus then falls, more locally and more personally, on the conditions of pioneering in eastern Colorado and adjacent Kansas and Nebraska from the height of the boom in the second half of the 1880s through the depths of the drought and depression of the mid-1890s. This focus is made possible by the existence of a singular historical source. From November of 1933 through the early months of 1934, the short-lived New Deal program, the Civil Works Administration (CWA), operating through the Colorado Historical Society, hired local people to conduct interviews with hundreds of elderly residents of eastern Colorado who recalled their experiences as settlers during the last decades of the nineteenth century. Eight counties on the High Plains of eastern Colorado — Yuma, Prowers, Baca, Morgan, Kit Carson, Sedgwick, Logan, and Phillips — were included in the project. These interviews, which are much more comprehensive than the later WPA  interviews and only seem to have been conducted in Colorado, tell the stories of these settlers, revealing who they were, where they came from, how they lived and shaped their landscapes, and how they viewed the entire experience in retrospect.

The format of the interviews varied from one county to another. B. B. Guthrie’s interviews in Kit Carson County, for example, seem to have had a template, because the responses covered similar themes, such as the last buffalo, the search for water, the availability of reading material, and the establishment of schools and churches. Velma Hargrove, on the other hand, who conducted the interviews in Sedgwick County, and T. T. Kearns in Yuma County, allowed the old-timers to tell their stories in their own way and wrote them up more as narratives. For all the counties, to varying degrees, newspaper accounts, written reminiscences, biographical accounts, and local census data are interspersed among the interviews. The interviews have yet another advantage as a historical source because the thousands of pages of record include the voices of almost as many women as men.

Memory can be an unreliable source of historical evidence, because it is, by definition, in the present, always on the tip of the tongue, and it comes with the knowledge of outcomes. The past it evokes is far behind, its image dimmed by the passage of time, and sometimes romanticized into something entirely new. Moreover, in this case specifically, the elderly men and women who were interviewed in 1933–34 were not a representative sample of the settlers. They persisted through the hard times of the 1890s, whereas many settlers, maybe most, gave up and left, their stories gone forever. But in combination, the CWA interviews constitute a collective memory of overlapping recollections. Together with other primary sources — land office records, federal and state census returns, the exceptional (though biased) Kansas State Board of Agriculture reports, settlers’ journals (especially that of the southwestern Nebraska settler George Washington Franklin), newspapers, accounts of such contemporaries as J. E. Payne and Willard Johnson, historical atlases and photographs, and much more — they help to vivify the past and make it possible to imagine what life was like during the last days of the Rainbelt on the western High Plains in the late nineteenth century.

Excerpted from The Last Days of the Rainbelt by David Wishart by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. © 2013 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska Press. Available wherever books are sold or from the Univ. of Nebraska Press 800.848.6224 and at nebraskapress.unl.edu. Buy this book from our store: The Last Days of the Rainbelt.