Great Plains Studies, Center for
Wither the Fruited Plain: The Long Expedition and the Description of the "Great American Desert"
Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly (Spring 2005) 25(2): 105-117.
The view from Pikes Peak is breathtaking. Situated where the Great Plains meets the Rocky Mountains, one feels as if the whole nation is laid out before you. It is the perfect vantage point from which to write an inspirational anthem to the environmental magnificence of the United States. In the summer of 1893, Katherine Lee Bates, a Wellesley College English professor, sat on the summit of Pikes Peak, inspired by the panorama to pen the words to "America the Beautiful." Her poem was set to the tune "Materna" by Samuel Augustus Ward two years later to become one of our nation's most beloved anthems. Today her words are so ingrained in the American mind that one is hard pressed to read them without recalling the accompanying tune: "O beautiful for spacious skies, / For amber waves of grain, / For purple mountain majesties / Above the fruited plain!"
Many educated Americans in the first half of the eighteenth century held an opinion that differed greatly from Bates's description of America's plains, considering the vast steppe between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains a Great American Desert that posed a barrier to westward expansion. The Stephen Long Expedition of 1820 did more to promulgate this idea than any other source. Thomas Say, the mission's zoologist, reported that the group dreaded the journey across "the trackless desert which still separated [them] from the utmost boundary of civilization." Dr. Edwin James, the official chronicler of the expedition, stated that the explorers passed through "a barren and desolate region." In his account, James claimed that beyond the ninety-sixth meridian travelers could expect a "wide sandy desert, stretching westward to the base of the Rocky Mountains."The official report was illustrated by a map labeling the Great Plains as the "Great American Desert." After the accounts and report of the expedition were made public, the number of textbook references to the Plains as a desert jumped dramatically. The debate over who accepted this description and how long it dominated geographical thought has been hotly contested. For this reason the Long Expedition will forever be known for its description of the Plains as a Great American Desert.
While modern scholars have taken an interest in Long's exploration, neither they nor earlier historians investigated the origins of the expedition's conclusions. When we consider the factors that influenced the journalists of this mission to label the Plains a "sandy waste," we get a more complete picture of the military exploration undertaken by Stephen Long and his men. Long's expedition greatly influenced the perception of the Plains in the nineteenth century. Culture, education, and experience influences how people perceive a region. These factors guided "the Long party's portrayal of the Southern Plains. My investigation explores the role that culture, education, and experience play in influencing how people perceive a region."
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Copyright 2005, Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.