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  Texas : Features : Columns : "It's All Trew"

Myths of the South Plains

by Delbert Trew
Delbert Trew
Ever wonder why the Panhandle of Texas and the South Plains were among the last areas of the Great Plains to be settled? The book "Land of Bright Promise" by Jan Blodgett tells why and how it all happened. Here are a few excerpts from his excellent volume.
The Spanish explorers were the first non-Indian visitors to the Llano Estacado. Their journals were well-documented but were written in Spanish and mostly confined to the Mexican Republic. The first American explorers, Lewis and Clark, Zebulon Pike and Stephen Long, were more interested in finding a way to the Pacific Ocean and saw the Great Plains as being "an obstacle blocking the path of the explorers intent on what lay beyond."

Myths and images of the area had taken hold of the public imagination at the time. Government reports, travel journals, textbooks, articles and illustrations in magazines, newspapers and novels all introduced the Panhandle and South Plains as "a desert, a haven for desperate characters, heartless ranchers and renegade Indians."

In 1819, the Stephen Long Expedition christened the area as "the Great American Desert" and wrote the title across the map he drew of the area. By 1882, and for the next 50 years, map publishers copied the Long map for all publications. More than 180 textbooks and geographies used in schools, colleges and historical publications contained these illustrations. The maps were even colored "brown with speckled aspects that connotes Sahara or Arabia with camel, oasis' and sand dunes," certainly discouraging anyone from visiting.

In 1844, J.H. Beadle wrote and published the statement, "the area contains over one million square miles of mountains, desert and rock, with prevailing drought or complete sterility of dead volcanos and sand wastes, excessive chemicals, dust and gravel and inorganic matter."

A U.S. Government agency, The U.S. Boundary Commission, issued a map saying, "the entire area is sterile, barren, plain without water or timber, producing a few stunted shrubs which are insufficient to sustain animal life."

The famous traveler Josiah Gregg also wrote in this time, "the plains are naked and too isolated and remote to become the abode of civilized man." An absurd statement came from L.P. Brokett in his book, "Our Western Empire," published in 1881, which stated, "the roots of mesquite aid in bringing up moisture from below." How about that?

Strangely, about 1895 through 1905, these statements began to change. The Great American Desert became "a great meadow or pastoral domain." Another said "a garden in the grassland." The area known once as uninhabitable became "the great pasture of the Panhandle."

It could be said with the Indian and buffalo removed the area was safer. With better and more accurate reports available suddenly, the land looked habitable. Maybe with public lands fast disappearing, more was needed to take care of the tide of settlers.

To be honest, the truth of the matter is, in the good old American tradition, the land merchants, the railroads, the foreign investors and the ranchers smelled profit in the air.

Man-o-man! If only they could see the Panhandle and South Plains today.

Delbert Trew
"It's All Trew"

September 5 , 2007 Column
E-mail: trewblue@centramedia.net.

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