Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version



Published in Great Plains Quarterly 6:2 (Spring 1986). Copyright © 1986 Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


One of the points of high drama in Walter Prescott Webb's The Great Plains is his description of forest man's entry into the grasslands: Let us visualize the American approach to the Great Plains by imagining ourselves standing on the dividing line between the timber and plain ... As we gaze northward we see on the right side the forested and well-watered country and on the left side the arid, treeless plain. On the right we see a nation of people coming slowly but persistently through the forests, felling trees, building cabins, making rail fences, ... advancing shoulder to shoulder, pushing the natives westward toward the open country. Similar descriptions of the moment of contact of settlers with the Plains are found elsewhere in the literature on grassland pioneering, and in each instance they convey the likely sense of awe that forest man felt when he first glimpsed the "unbroken sea of grass. "1 Webb exactly described his mythical observer's vantage point-the intersection of the 31st parallel and the much-maligned 98th meridian, which, by my calculation, affixes the moment of truth approximately fifty miles north of Austin, Texas. James Malin seems to have regarded Webb's description as applying to the Missouri-Kansas border. Other dramatizations of the first encounter are set against the wooded fringes of the Grand Prairie of Illinois or the entry into the grassy Pennyroyal uplands of Kentucky, where, lacking an English word to designate grasslands, settlers referred to the area as "the barrens."3 Still other stage settings for the first encounter would include a crossing of northwestern Minnesota's forested moraines; here, where the prairie-forest ecotone is narrowest, the traveler emerges suddenly upon the flat Red River valley, to remain in a largely grassland environment clear to the Rocky Mountains.