the South Plains
by Delbert Trew
wonder why the Panhandle
of Texas and the South Plains were among the last areas of the
Great Plains to be settled? The book "Land of Bright Promise" by Jan
Blodgett tells why and how it all happened. Here are a few excerpts
from his excellent volume.
Spanish explorers were the first non-Indian visitors to the Llano
Estacado. Their journals were well-documented but were written in
Spanish and mostly confined to the Mexican Republic. The first American
explorers, Lewis and Clark, Zebulon Pike and Stephen Long, were more
interested in finding a way to the Pacific Ocean and saw the Great
Plains as being "an obstacle blocking the path of the explorers intent
on what lay beyond."
and images of the area had taken hold of the public imagination at
the time. Government reports, travel journals, textbooks, articles
and illustrations in magazines, newspapers and novels all introduced
the Panhandle and South
Plains as "a desert, a haven for desperate characters, heartless
ranchers and renegade Indians."
In 1819, the Stephen Long Expedition christened the area as "the Great
American Desert" and wrote the title across the map he drew of the
area. By 1882, and for the next 50 years, map publishers copied the
Long map for all publications. More than 180 textbooks and geographies
used in schools, colleges and historical publications contained these
illustrations. The maps were even colored "brown with speckled aspects
that connotes Sahara or Arabia with camel, oasis' and sand dunes,"
certainly discouraging anyone from visiting.
In 1844, J.H. Beadle wrote and published the statement, "the area
contains over one million square miles of mountains, desert and rock,
with prevailing drought or complete sterility of dead volcanos and
sand wastes, excessive chemicals, dust and gravel and inorganic matter."
A U.S. Government agency, The U.S. Boundary Commission, issued a map
saying, "the entire area is sterile, barren, plain without water or
timber, producing a few stunted shrubs which are insufficient to sustain
The famous traveler Josiah Gregg also wrote in this time, "the plains
are naked and too isolated and remote to become the abode of civilized
man." An absurd statement came from L.P. Brokett in his book, "Our
Western Empire," published in 1881, which stated, "the roots of mesquite
aid in bringing up moisture from below." How about that?
about 1895 through 1905, these statements began to change. The Great
American Desert became "a great meadow or pastoral domain." Another
said "a garden in the grassland." The area known once as uninhabitable
became "the great pasture of the Panhandle."
It could be said with the Indian and buffalo removed the area was
safer. With better and more accurate reports available suddenly, the
land looked habitable. Maybe with public lands fast disappearing,
more was needed to take care of the tide of settlers.
To be honest, the truth of the matter is, in the good old American
tradition, the land merchants, the railroads, the foreign investors
and the ranchers smelled profit in the air.
Man-o-man! If only they could see the Panhandle
and South Plains today.
© Delbert Trew
"It's All Trew"
September 5 , 2007 Column
Texas | Features
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