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Prelude to the Dust Bowl: Drought in the Nineteenth-Century Southern Plains

Author(s):Sweeney, Kevin Z.
Reviewer(s):Arthi, Vellore

Published by EH.Net (January 2017)

Kevin Z. Sweeney, Prelude to the Dust Bowl: Drought in the Nineteenth-Century Southern Plains. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016. xv + 283 pp. $35 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-8061-5340-7.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Vellore Arthi, Department of Economics, University of Essex.

In Prelude to the Dust Bowl, an engaging new narrative history of the U.S.’s Southern Plains, Kevin Z. Sweeney adds to a growing literature that confronts the popular view that the Dust Bowl of the 1930s represented a moment unique in its devastation and unprecedented in the environmental history of the United States. Sweeney sets about overturning this persistent myth by casting his focus backward to a series of oft-overlooked nineteenth-century droughts. Having established a pattern of disaster and response that predates the 1930s, he then uses these events as lenses by which to examine the interaction between human populations, the environment, and politics more broadly.

The book is at its most compelling when it explores how the region’s popular image — which alternated between that of the “Great American Desert” and the land of milk and honey — came to be. Sweeney shows that which version of the Plains captured the public’s imagination at a given moment largely came down to chance timing and politics.

To start, notions about the environmental character of the Great Plains were formed in the midst of a drought more severe than that experienced during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Indeed, following the first official expedition to the recently-purchased territory in 1819-20, Major Stephen H. Long’s team famously pronounced the region a Great American Desert “uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence” (Long and James, 1823, p. 361). The expedition’s key mistake was to assume that their brief experience of the region’s climate represented its permanent state. This pessimistic assessment was intensified by happenstance: a series of delays and budget shortfalls led to privations which, Sweeney suggests, unduly exaggerated the expedition’s perceptions of the region’s inhospitability. These perceptions in turn became enshrined in the popular understanding of the region, one which has persisted even to this day — particularly as the usage of the word “desert” has evolved from that in Long’s time (a grassy region absent trees and humans; see, e.g. Sweeney, p. 17) to mean an arid or sandy region.

Although it would soon become verdant again, the cyclicality of the Plains’ climate was largely lost on early observers: amateur geographer Josiah Gregg, who traveled the Santa Fe Trail in the much wetter 1830s, described a Plains so lush, welcoming, and thoroughly at odds with that of the Long expedition “that it is hard to imagine that they [were] describing the same region” (p. 33). As with Long, Gregg appears not to have questioned the representativeness of his experience. Comparing these and other contemporary reports to systematic, long-run paleoclimatological evidence, however, Sweeney finds both views of the Southern Plains to be dangerously incomplete. Here, he rightly emphasizes the danger of extrapolation, particularly in a region so characterized by extreme weather cycles.

Nineteenth-century discussions of the region’s climate and natural resources were politicized, further biasing assessments of the environmental conditions there. Accordingly, and whatever their accuracy, each of these conflicting strains of contemporary assessment would prove politically convenient at one time or another in the century that followed — for instance, when justifying the forcible relocation of eastern Native American tribes to Plains lands deemed too treacherous for white settlers, or when eventually trying to entice these same settlers to the region, where they could act as human bulwarks to the spread of slavery while simultaneously raising the return to railway construction. Indeed, America’s short and selective memory is a theme Sweeney returns to throughout the book, although some readers may leave hungry for more in-depth explanations of related issues — such as why the government’s knowledge of the region’s environment remained poor despite extensive contact with the Plains’ long-standing native residents, or why prospective Boomers failed to incorporate new information into their assessments of the feasibility and economic returns to settlement.

Sweeney goes on to offer several chapters which detail the negotiations between the U.S. government, the newly relocated Native American tribes of the Eastern United States, and the long-standing Native American tribes of the Southern Plains. In this section, which may be of greater interest to political historians of the American West than to environmental and economic historians, climate plays only an incidental role: severe periodic droughts intensify the conflict, deprivation, and environmental degradation brought about by the constraints Federal Indian Policy placed on the traditionally sustainable and land-intensive lifestyles of the Great Plains.

Sweeney ends his story of the Southern Plains on the eve of the Dust Bowl. Along the way, he draws occasional comparisons and contrasts between the droughts of the nineteenth century and their more famous 1930s counterpart. Sweeney notes, for instance, that although the droughts of the mid-to-late 1800s shared many of the same features as the Dust Bowl (e.g., dust storms, insect infestations, livestock wasting, conflict over property rights and down-river externalities), these droughts were far more severe than that during the 1930s. What’s more, they prompted even larger migratory responses — perhaps because earlier Plains residents may not have owned or sentimentalized farms in quite the way subsequent Homesteaders would go on to do. Despite causing widespread suffering, however, the nineteenth-century droughts failed to inspire massive relief efforts of the like documented by Fishback (2016) in the 1930s. Instead, nineteenth-century policymakers largely declined to respond (in part because of Civil War-era resource constraints, in part because of fears that relief given to slave-holding Plains tribes would fall into Confederate hands, and in part to downplay the sort of destitution that would dissuade Plains settlement). This left any piecemeal attempts at relief efforts largely in private hands.

Although there is some discussion of these historical parallels, it should be noted that the book offers perhaps less systematic and substantive engagement with the literature on the environmental history of the 1930s than one might expect from its title. Themes of continuity and change could be made more explicit, and a more prominent link to the 1930s as a point of comparison would be a welcome addition, thus more firmly linking this work to ongoing debates on the degree to which human actions over the preceding century of intensive settlement and cultivation may have contributed to the Dust Bowl. At many points, Sweeney makes tantalizing allusions to the ongoing process of adaptation between humans and the environment, but there is less in-depth treatment of this rather central issue here than in other recent works of economic history (see, e.g., Cunfer (2005); Hornbeck and Keskin (2014); and Hansen and Libecap (2004)). To this end, Geoff Cunfer’s On the Great Plains (2005), which centers on precisely this man-nature arms race, would make an excellent technical, quantitative companion to this qualitative work of history — one in which Sweeney’s talents at coaxing nuance and historical richness from a wealth of disparate contemporary sources are on full display.

The droughts of the nineteenth-century Plains — and the lessons learned from them — have long been overshadowed by the environmental events of the 1930s. Prelude to the Dust Bowl should be commended for helping to raise these events from relative obscurity, and in so doing, enriching our understanding of even later processes of conservation, land management, and technological adaptation.

References:

Geoff Cunfer (2005). On the Great Plains: Agriculture and Environment. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.

Price V. Fishback (2016). “How Successful Was the New Deal? The Microeconomic Impact of New Deal Spending and Lending Policies in the 1930s,” NBER Working Paper 21925.

Zeynep Hansen and Gary Libecap (2004). “Small Farms, Externalities, and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.” Journal of Political Economy, 112 (3), 665–694.

Richard Hornbeck and Pinar Keskin (2014). “The Historically Evolving Impact of the Ogallala Aquifer: Agricultural Adaptation to Groundwater and Drought.” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 6 (1), 190-219.

Stephen H. Long and Edwin James (1823). An Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains Performed in the Years 1819 and ’20, Volume II. Philadelphia: H.C. Carey and L. Lea.

Vellore Arthi is a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Economics at the University of Essex. Her work focuses on human capital formation, public health, and intra-household allocation in developing-country and historical settings, with particular attention to the impact of climate and environmental shocks on a range of outcomes including health and early-childhood development.

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII