Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 23, No. 2, Spring 2003, pp. 111-26.
Euro-American settlers poured into Kansas during the second half of the nineteenth century, and there they encountered a hostile and unpredictable climate. Rainfall patterns were erratic, and the extremes of temperature were both demanding and daunting. Countering these conditions, or at least tempering them, became a task for a variety of individuals and organizations. The work was straightforward: to transform the image of Kansas in order to attract prospective immigrants. As historian Carl Becker wrote, this was not easy: Until 1895 the whole history of the state was a series of disasters, and always something new, extreme, bizarre, until the name Kansas became a byword, a synonym, for the impossible and the ridiculous, inviting laughter, furnishing occasion for jest and hilarity. "In God we trusted, in Kansas we busted" became a favorite motto of immigrants worn out with the struggle, returning to more hospitable climes; and for many years it expressed well enough the popular opinion of that fated land.1
Many of the problems that beset nineteenth- century Kansans were common to settlers across the Great Plains. Not surprisingly, some of the solutions proposed to deal with the problems were common across the Plains as well, and readers may find echoes of their own states' experiences in those of Kansas.
Kansas, like other states, was eager for new settlers. Attracting them hinged on overcoming the many reports of adverse conditions that filtered out from the state. Promotional materials, which portrayed the Kansas climate, resources, and landscape in optimistic tones, were a common medium used to smooth the rough edges of the physical environment. In this essay I examine such promotional literature, evaluate the strategies pursued by the "climatic spin doctors" of the time, and discuss the continuous refashioning of the Kansas climatic image during a complex social and environmental history. Books, pamphlets, and folders from 1854 to 1900 were selected for examination from the extensive collection of the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka. These materials are representative of the Plains and particularly of Kansas promotional literature as a whole.
The essay is divided into three sections. The first describes the Kansas climate, provides an overview of the more popular of the nineteenth-century climate-change theories, and reviews nineteenth-century Kansas settlement. The second section presents accounts of the Kansas climate from the promotional literature and describes the different approaches used to make Kansas's climate attractive. The third section analyzes three general stages in the promotional literature and explains the ways in which the Kansas climate were discussed in each. The counties of Riley, Dickinson, Ellis, and Gray, and their county seats of Manhattan, Abilene, Hays, and Cimarron, were chosen as the focus of this essay because they represent different periods of initial settlement, different forms of the Kansas economy, and different physical environments.