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.

| May 2014

  • 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
  • “The Last Days of the Rainbelt” by David J. Wishart vivifies the drought in the late nineteenth century and makes it possible to imagine what life was like during the last days of the Rainbelt on the western High Plains.
    Cover courtesy University of Nebraska Press

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.”

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