University Studies of the University of Nebraska


Date of this Version



University of Nebraska Studies : New Series no. 46


Published by The University at Lincoln


Historians have concluded that two conceptions of the West were held during the incipient stages of settlement of the plains region of the Western Interior (sensu latu). They have labeled these conceptions the "myth of the desert," supposedly prevalent during the first half of the nineteenth century,l and the "myth of the garden," a notion widely held during the latter decades of that century.

It has been assumed by students of the American frontier that the former-in its extreme form the concept of the Great American Desert-was derived from the notions of a few men rather than from the probable reality of the environmental conditions.

In a sense the reality of the desert has not concerned western historians. Some have undoubtedly assumed that the environment was described accurately by first-hand observers before 1850. Others have assumed that plains of the past environment was no different from that of recent time. Others would seem to feel that the geographic reality is identical to man's contemporary conception, agreeing with Morton that "geography ... is man's concept of his environment at any given time."4 While others may assume that the geographic reality of the plains before 1880 is unknowable, these and other assumptions about the past reality of the plains environment have rarely been questioned by the writers who hold them. They have been the building blocks for most, if not all, interpretations of plains history and past geography. And yet each of these assumptions appears to be false.