The 100th Meridian West (I gave this talk as an introduction to the September 15th Out of Our Minds Chamber series concert, Wild & Western.

This evening we are listening to music that depicts two different views of the American West, two contrasting visions:  The Romantic legend of the cowboy and the heroic endurance of immigrant settlers. The Romance of settling the west is part of the continuing promise of the American Dream. But, as always, the Dream has a price.

The 100th meridian runs from pole to pole, 100 degrees longitude west of the prime meridian in Greenwich, England.  It cuts through six U.S. states forming a partial boundary between Oklahoma and Texas. Moving west from the Mississippi, one leaves the  lushness of the great river valley and enters the west, the land of the arid and dry prairie.

In the late 1860s after the Civil War was over, the Union Pacific Railroad succeeded in connecting the two coasts by rail.  What a better way to ensure ridership and use of the rail than to have the US government encourage settlement. The Homestead Act of 1862 was providing settlers with 160 acres of public land. This act led to a massive influx of new and inexperienced farmers across the Great Plains.

Two men of this era, William Gilpin and John Wesley Powell had opposite views of how the settlement of the west would unfold.

What began as the Great American Desert evolved into a golden promised land from the oratory of Gilpin and the broadsides of land companies and the railroad companies who would profit from the influx of settlers. The scene was set.  The Indian Wars had been won and the land was safe to occupy.    

“Indian Land for Sale, Get a Home of Your Own, Easy Payments, Fine Lands in the West, Irrigated,  Grazing, Agricultural Dairy Farming.”

“Nebraska, The Garden of the West, 50 Million Acres Grain and Grazing Land”

John Wesley Powell, the famous explorer who successfully navigated through the Grand Canyon, on the other hand, made the most significant contribution in understanding the geology of the west. He was opposite in character than Gilpin.  He was an unassuming  scientist. Trained as a U.S. soldier and geologist, he was an explorer of the American West,, The most important document was Powell’s Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States. Powell was successful because he studied the science of the land and contemplated the best possible use of the resources in the west. 

Because he knew that access to water was important, he proposed that regions of the west  be designated a “commonwealth” for the purpose of regulating its water usage, which would remain under federal control without regard to state lines.

In contrast, William Gilpin,   interpreted the idea of a Manifest Destiny with a passionate vision. He resisted methodical factual investigation and introduced fantasy into geography and his influence in the American government’s inter policy ultimate had a negative effect.

Well there isn’t much rain out west.  There is not enough rain to grow crops and so additional water has to be brought in.     So, the odds were strongly in favor of failure for the homesteader that borrowed money to farm.  It took a super man to survive and two thirds failed and because the homestead act provided no government loans, often the banks and large corporations ultimately owned the land and controlled the water.  Now fast forward to the 1930’s: 

By 1934, an estimated 35 million acres of formerly cultivated land had been rendered useless for farming.

The Dust Bowl was the name given to the drought-stricken Southern Plains region of the United States, which suffered severe dust storms during a dry period in the 1930s. As high winds and choking dust swept the region from Texas to Nebraska, people and livestock were killed and crops failed across the entire region and many farming families left on a desperate migration in search of work and better conditions.

The worst dust storm occurred on April 14, 1935. News reports called the event Black Sunday. A wall of blowing sand and dust started in the Oklahoma Panhandle and spread east. As many as three million tons of topsoil were estimated to have blown off the Great Plains during Black Sunday.

Roughly 2.5 million people left the Dust Bowl states during the 1930s. It was the largest migration in American history.  So, what began as a land rush resulted in many defeated people leaving. 

But who stayed and toughed it out? 

The immigrants:  We know they were a from diverse ethic groups.  Just listen this list of towns in Kansas alone. 

French Swiss  Neuchatel

German Swiss  Bern

Swiss    Geneva

German  Humboldt & Berlin to name a few

Swedish Stotler

Norwegian  Norway

Italian  Arma

English   Victoria

Bohemian/Czech   Prag & Pilsen

Irish   Emerald

African-American  Nicodemus

Danish  Denmark

Austrian   Everest

Most had come so far and journeyed for so long that there was no going back.

They had to adopt to new agricultural methods and crops, to survive and they probably attended a church that duplicated ones they left behind in Europe.   So, their flexibility and faith sustained them.

And what a better way to sing the praises of these survivors than through art.  Libby Larsen’s piece,  My Antoina, brings Willa Cather’s novel and the experience of the  Nebraska prairie to life.  It was published in 1918 and was considered one of Cather’s best works and quickly became a fitting elegy to those whose persistence and strength helped build the American frontier and tame the Wild West.