Historians often use the 1890 census to mark the end of westward expansion—the year in which the dream of Manifest Destiny was fulfilled, and the United States ceded no additional land to homesteaders. However, in The Worst Hard Time, Timothy Egan notes that historians often forget about the settlement of the southern Great Plains—the region comprised of what are now the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandles, western Kansas, southwestern Nebraska, southeastern Colorado, and northeastern New Mexico. For the first thirty years of the twentieth-century, “Southern families, field hands, Scots-Irish and Welsh,” as well as Russo-Germans, arrived in the southern Great Plains looking to take advantage of the U.S. government’s invitations to settle and farm the land. Unlike the northern Great Plains, where temperatures could reach forty degrees below zero Fahrenheit, the Southern Plains were warmer, though arid. It was a last frontier, largely settled by those who had been driven out of their homes by war, unemployment, or regime change. Overall, Egan illustrates how westward expansion and the southern Great Plains were, for many settlers, synonymous with new beginnings.
The largest group of new settlers in the Southern Plains were ethnic Germans from a region in Russia, near the Volga River. During their westward migration, the Russo-Germans passed through Kansas, staying with relatives who had already acquired farmland, and then settled permanently in the Cherokee Outlet of Oklahoma. The Russo-Germans were experienced farmers fleeing persecution and looking for a place where they could live and be left alone. However, Oklahoma, like Russia, was not always peaceful. Egan portrays the Russo-German migrants as a people who had the blessing of creating successful farm settlements wherever they went, but also the curse of always being outsiders.
Previously, the Russo-Germans had left their original homelands in southern Germany to settle near the Volga around 1763, after the German-born empress Catherine the Great issued a manifesto offering them “homestead land, tax breaks, cultural autonomy, and no military conscription.” The promise was broken 110 years later by Czar Alexander II, prompting many Russo-Germans to leave their adopted home in Russia to escape conscription into the czar’s army, as well as increased taxes and the revocation of “exclusive licenses to brew beer.” The Germans had also incurred the resentment of ethnic Russians who regarded their “snug villages” and “big harvests” with envy. In the Southern Plains of the United States, where indigenous tribes had been killed or displaced, the newcomers saw an opportunity to start over, create communities, and dwell undisturbed. Reconnaissance groups of Germans had explored the Indian Territory of Oklahoma and returned to the Volga with stories about a land that “was treeless, windswept, and free,” like the land which they had settled in Russia. It was, for them, “The Promised Land—all over again.”
By the 1920s, 303,000 Germans populated the Great Plains. They had arrived in Oklahoma by train, and there observed a territory burned black by angry indigenous people, who had been betrayed by the U.S. government yet again. The Germans, however, sprang into action, reviving the land with seeds of turkey red— “a hard winter wheat”—that they had carried with them, “sewn into the pockets of their vests.” Egan portrays the German immigrants as hearty, practical people who had carefully prepared for their migration to Oklahoma, expecting to bend stubborn soil to their will.
Other Southern Plains settlers were less well-equipped than the Russo-German settlers. They included Scots-Irish migrants who had lost their small farms in Appalachia after the Civil War and Oklahomans who had lost jobs after oil prices dropped. They decided to try their hands at farming. Others had abandoned farms in the Northern Plains due to “the long winters and ruinous cycles of drought and freeze”—for them, and other members of the underclass, the Southern Plains were a last-ditch attempt to grab onto something they could call their own.
Potential nesters had been lured to the territory where it rained less than “twenty inches a year” with experimental farms that practiced wind farming. Syndicates working with the Department of Agriculture showed new settlers how to put in a windmill so that water would come up for “hogs, chickens, and [the] garden.” They encouraged the immigrants and migrants to plant dryland wheat, which would not need irrigation. Agents and speculators advertised a land that offered riches in its soil, despite its spare appearance. The advertising promised that “[a]ny three-toed fool” could farm the land, suggesting that, with a little hard work and dedication, anyone could turn the flatlands into profitable farm-land. The publicity was especially appealing to poor settlers who lacked education, money for farming tools, and, in some cases, experience in farming.
Some of those who arrived at the flatlands had no better options than what the speculators offered. Dick Coon, for example, had grown up in “corrosive poverty,” then lost everything in the Galveston hurricane of 1900. He passed through Dalhart, Texas looking to get a train to Houston, but stayed in Dalhart, lured by one of “the syndicate’s real estate agents” to buy his own piece of the old XIT ranch. Others, such as Bam White, were marooned with their families, but looked at the growing town on the Southern Plains and saw potential. For all of them, it was “the last best chance to do something right, to get a small piece of the world and make it work.” Thus, the Southern Plains offered safe harbor and hope to those who, it seemed, had consistently run into bad luck.
The population on the Southern Plains consisted of a motley crew of ethnic German refugees, unemployed workers in the oil industry, and Scots-Irish who remained displaced by the Civil War. What they all had in common was that they had nowhere else to go but westward, hoping to make homes and livings in a place where those possibilities had seemed least feasible to others before them. Egan’s portraits of these migrants illustrate how they all embodied a vision of the frontier that was less about a particular landscape and more about an idea that one could always start over. They believed that the soil would always be bountiful.
Westward Expansion and the Settlement of the Southern Plains ThemeTracker
Westward Expansion and the Settlement of the Southern Plains Quotes in The Worst Hard Time
On those days when the wind stops blowing across the face of the southern plains, the land falls into a silence that scares people in the way that a big house can haunt after the lights go out and no one else is there. It scares them because the land is too much, too empty, claustrophobic in its immensity. It scares them because they feel lost, with nothing to cling to, disoriented. Not a tree, anywhere. Not a slice of shade. Not a river dancing away, life in its blood [….] It scared Coronado, looking for cities of gold in 1541. It scared the Anglo traders who cut a trail from Independence to Santa Fe […] It even scared some of the Comanche as they chased bison over the grass. It scared the Germans from Russia and the Scots-Irish from Alabama—the Last Chancers, exiled twice over […]
The C-note was Uncle Dick’s heater, his blanket. As a child, Dick Coon’s family was often broke. The corrosive poverty hurt so much it defined the rest of his life. As long as Uncle Dick could touch his C-note, he had no fear in life. And he had certainly known fear. Dick Coon was fortunate to live through the Galveston hurricane of 1900, the worst single natural disaster in American history. He lost everything in Galveston but was never bitter. His life had been spared, while six thousand people lost theirs. Dick Coon didn’t plan on getting rich in Dalhart; didn’t even plan on staying in the High Plains. In 1902, he had been passing through Dalhart, making a train connection to Houston, when he fell under the spell of one of the syndicate’s real estate agents. He heard enough to buy his own piece of the old XIT […] but the real money was in town building.
“The soil is the one indestructible, immutable asset that the nation possesses,” the Federal Bureau of Soils proclaimed as the grasslands were transformed. “It is the one resource that cannot be exhausted, that cannot be used up.”
Of the roughly two hundred million acres homesteaded on the Great Plains between 1880 and 1925, nearly half was considered marginal for farming[...] people who had descended from a beaten-down part of the world, people whose daddy had been a serf, a sharecropper, a tenant, and even slaves, castaways, rejects, white trash, and Mexicans could own a piece of earth. “Every man a landlord” meant something. Historians had been herded into thinking the American frontier was closed after the 1890 census, that western movement had effectively ended just before the close of the last century, that settlement had been tried and failed in the Great American Desert. But they overlooked the southern plains, the pass-through country. In the first thirty years of the twentieth century, it got a second look.
“Americans are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of the land,” said the new president, Herbert Hoover, who took office in 1929. He had won in a landslide, breaking the Democratic hold on the solid South, taking the prairie states with him. The tractors rolled on, the grass yanked up, a million acres a year, turned and pulverized; in just five years, 1925 to 1930, another 5.2 million acres of native sod went under the plow in the southern plains—an area the size of two Yellowstone National Parks.
In the German settlements on the High Plains, there was no more defiant celebration of group survival than a wedding. The rest of the year, the Anglos could make fun of their clothes, the sheriff could call them in for questioning, the merchants could refuse them entry into stores, the children could mock their accents, the farmers could laugh at their planting methods, and other immigrants could deride them as “Rooshians.” But the wedding day on this Sunday in September 1929 belonged to the Germans from Russia. Through an improbable journey of 166 years, they had bounced from southern Germany to the Volga River region of Russia to the Cherokee Outlet of Oklahoma. The Russlanddeutschen were not Russian nor were they fully German. Hardened by long exile, state cruelty, and official ridicule, they wanted only to be left alone. The treeless expanse of the southern plains was one of the few places in the United States that looked like home.
Some people said Jews were to blame for the bad times—that they did not belong in this country, a place where the Texan had boasted that its citizens were “of the highest type of Anglo-Saxon ancestry.” In Nebraska, four thousand people gathered on the capitol steps, blaming the “Jewish system of banking” for the implosion of the economy. They held banners with rattlesnakes, labeled as Jews, coiled around the American farmer.
When the native sod of the Great Plains was in place, it did not matter if people looked twice at a piece of ground. Wind blew twenty, thirty, forty miles an hour, as always. Droughts came and went. Prairie fires, many of them started deliberately by Indians or cowboys trying to scare nesters off, took a great gulp of grass in a few days. Hailstorms pounded the land. Blue northers froze it so hard it was like broken glass to walk on. Through all of the seasonal tempests, man was inconsequential. As long as the weave of grass was stitched to the land, the prairie would flourish […] The grass could look brown and dead, but beneath the surface, the roots held the soil in place; it was alive and dormant […] When a farmer tore out the sod and walked away […] It could not revert to grass, because the roots were gone. It was empty, dead, and transient.
Most scientists did not take [Hugh Hammond] Bennett seriously. Some called him a crank. They blamed the withering of the Great Plains on weather, not on farming methods. Basic soil science was one thing but talking about the fragile web of life and slapping the face of nature—this kind of early ecology had yet to find a wide audience. Sure, Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir had made conservation an American value at the dawn of the new century, but it was usually applied to brawny, scenic wonders: mountains, rivers, megaflora. And in 1933, a game biologist in Wisconsin, Aldo Leopold, had published an essay that said man was part of the big organic whole and should treat his place with special care. But that essay, “The Conservation Ethic,” had yet to influence public policy. Raging dirt on a flat, ugly surface was not the focus of a poet’s praise or a politician’s call for restoration.
The sign at the edge of Dalhart— “Black Man Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on You Here”—was strictly enforced […] “Two Negroes Arrested”: the Dalhart Texan reported how the men, aged nineteen and twenty-three, had sniffed around the train station looking for food. They were cuffed, locked up in the county jail, and after a week brought out for arraignment before a justice of the peace, Hugh Edwards. The judge ordered the men to dance. The men hesitated; this was supposed to be a bond hearing. The railroad agent said these men were good for nothing but Negro toe-tapping […] The men started to dance, forced silly grins on their faces, reluctant. After the tap dance, the judge banged his gavel and ordered the men back to jail for another two months.
At the end of the year, she said goodbye to No Man’s Land. Hazel put on her white gloves and brushed back tears but said tomorrow would bring good things to the young family, so it was not worth a long cry. She planned to leave with her dignity intact, like a lady. In 1914, at the age of ten, she had first seen the grassland, rising on her toes on the driver’s seat of her daddy’s covered wagon to get a look at this country. She would hold to the good memories [….] There would be a place, always, in Hazel’s memory of the blackest days No Man’s Land. But it would shrink, because Hazel would force it down to size to allow her live.
A few days later, Uncle Dick was leaning against a rail in front of the DeSoto when he spotted a young cowboy and his family drifting through town. For five years now, Dick had watched a steady parade of jalopies and wagons float through Dalhart, the people staying only a night or two, and then moving on to some place where there might be work or stable land [….] The cowboy had wandered into town with the XIT reunion [….] Uncle Dick reached into his pocket and pulled out his hundred-dollar bill. He handed the money to the cowboy, told him to take it—it was his. The young man was stunned [….] Later, when the cowboy asked around about his benefactor, people told him it was Dick Coon, the richest man in town. He owned everything. But they were surprised to see him give up the C-note [….] Only Coon’s closest friends knew the truth: Uncle Dick was broke.
People were drilling deep and tapping into the main vein of that ancient, underground reservoir of the Ogallala Aquifer, as big as the grassland itself, they said. These new boomers, a handful of men in town, wanted no part of Bennett’s soil-conservation districts. They wanted money to pump up a river of water from the Ogallala, pass it through a tangle of pipes, and spit it out over the sandpapered land. They would grow wheat and corn and sorghum, and they would make a pile, using all the water they wanted, you just wait and see. They talked as if it were the dawn of the wheat boom, twenty years earlier. Melt thought they had not learned a thing from the last decade. The High Plains belonged to Indians and grass, but few people in Dalhart shared his feelings.