West Is West

July 1999By Comments

I WAS SITTING WITH A GROUP OF TEXAS HISTORIANS who had come together to discuss some obscure issues concerning a painting of Davy Crockett when someone mentioned Walter Prescott Webb. Fifty years ago this name resounded across Texas. Webb was the one great intellectual we had. Born in Texas, nurtured here, educated here, and focused on Texas and the West in his work, Webb rose from true obscurity to international acclaim. He produced more than twenty books. In addition to his post at the University of Texas he was the Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford. His work was the subject of an international symposium in 1958 and again in 1972. He was the director of the Texas State Historical Association and the president of the American Historical Association. In 1950 a poll of professional historians chose Webb’s The Great Plains as the most significant book by a living historian. Webb was even nominated for a Nobel prize. Great historians are as rare as great novelists, and the world seemed to agree that Walter Prescott Webb was a great historian.

But that was then. The historians who had invited me along to the meeting about the Crockett painting, all published and active and aware of themselves as the contemporary guardians of Texas’ historical flame, spoke of Webb with an uneasy air that was not exactly dismissive, but almost. Each one’s comments made it clear that Webb was not a model for his career. One, in a reluctant and backhanded defense, even suggested that in the months before Webb was killed in an automobile accident in 1963 he had come close to repudiating his own work, or at least his most popular book, The Texas Rangers.

Myself, I had not read a single word by Webb, except for a few pages of The Texas Rangers, the book responsible for Webb’s decline in influence. He was so awed by the Rangers that he treated even their plunder, torture, and murder along the Mexican border with such equanimity and even admiration that the book becomes unreadable. So that was all I knew of Webb. But spurred by the condescension of the contemporary historians and made curious by this month’s cover story [“High Plains Drifting,”], I read Webb’s first book, The Great Plains, published in 1931. I was completely unprepared for what I found. From the first paragraphs it is apparent that this is the work of a magisterial intellect. Webb wrote with simple dignity in a style that is fresh and unpretentious and transforms potentially dull subjects such as the development of the windmill into absorbing narratives. Ignoring political history almost entirely—going so far as to say that “in the Plains country there existed no serious political problems”— Webb instead chronicles how the environment influences the habits and necessities of daily life, which themselves create the important historical themes. He took information about geology, farming methods, barbed wire, warfare on horseback, and much else, and synthesized it all into a grand thesis of how The Great Plains affected the history of America and indeed the world.

Webb identified The Great Plains as that part of the United States beginning approximately at the 98th meridian (which cuts through Texas just west of Austin) and extending west to the Rocky Mountains. The Plains are different from the lands to the east in three fundamental ways: They are level, treeless, and semi-arid. “For two centuries,” Webb wrote, “American pioneers had been working out a technique for the utilization of the humid regions east of the Mississippi River. They had found solutions for their problems and were conquering the frontier at a steadily accelerating rate. Then in the early nineteenth century they crossed the Mississippi and came out on The Great Plains, an environment with which they had had no experience.…The ways of life and living changed. Practically every institution that was carried across [the 98th meridian] was either broken and remade or else greatly altered. The ways of travel, the weapons, the method of tilling the soil, the plows and other agricultural implements, and even the laws themselves were modified.…East of the Mississippi civilization stood on three legs—land, water, and timber; west of the Mississippi not one but two of these legs were withdrawn,—water and timber,—and civilization was left on one leg—land. It is small wonder that it toppled over in temporary failure.”

Those last two sentences show the master’s touch. Why did a nation of yeoman farmers on foot change in the West to a nation of herders on horseback? Why did guns replace the law? Why did a thousand other changes occur? There in two sentences is the answer.

As Webb develops this theme, he explains that the Plains were populated slowly because the environment was so difficult and so different from the East that the developments in technology and the changes in methods and materials necessary for sustaining life west of the 98th meridian took time. One such change occurred among the native tribes who lived along the edge of the Plains until the arrival of Europeans: “On the Plains there was a monotony of grassland shut in only by the horizon. In this desolation the Indians stalked their game or made a ‘surround,’ in an effort to secure enough food for subsistence. But everywhere they had to walk. The rivers were few and uninviting.…The Indians were dependent on game, and although game was not scarce, it was, with the single exception of the stupid buffalo, the wildest and most wary on the continent and could be approached only with the greatest difficulty.…Then came the horse.”

In The Great Plains Webb follows in chronological order the way successive groups of settlers adapted to life on the Plains. We learn about the native tribes before and after the horse, their intricate systems of communication across vast distances, their methods of making war, their daily lives. Then we see the Spanish arriving, failing to take hold, and leaving the tribes in control of more land than they had before the Spanish incursion. Then come settlers from the eastern United States. Webb shows how the Plains blocked the expansion of the South and slavery and doomed the South to be smaller and weaker than the North. He describes how the first Colt revolvers were eagerly taken up in Texas just before 1840 because they were the perfect weapon for men on horseback. Despite the orders from Texas, Colt’s factory in New Jersey went bankrupt in 1842 because “[t]he frontier line of settlement had not yet moved far west of the Mississippi. It was still in the timber. Therefore the American frontiersmen were not yet sufficiently in need of a horseman’s weapon to buy the revolvers in large quantities.” Then he gives us the saga of the cattle kingdom, brief as it was. Then we learn about the coming of railroads. He writes passages on the problems of building fences on the frontier where there were no trees and how the coming of barbed wire and the development of the windmill and irrigation permitted farming on the plains. We meet such important and fascinating yet forgotten people as J. F. Glidden, a farmer from Illinois who invented barbed wire and marketed it successfully; William E. Smythe, a journalist from Omaha whose intense proselytizing eventually brought irrigation to the plains, and Hardy W. Campbell, the originator of the Campbell method of dry-land agriculture. And never was Webb deaf to the romantic call of the Plains’ history. After quoting the sobering statistic that, even at the height of the cattle kingdom, the Plains produced only about one quarter of the cattle in the United States, he then wondered why we think of the Plains as the center of the cattle industry: “The thing that has identified the West in the popular mind with cattle is not the number raised, but the method of handling them. A thousand farms in the East will each have six or seven cows, with as many more calves and yearlings—ten thousand head. But they attract no attention. They are incidents of agriculture. In the West a ranch will cover the same area as the thousand farms, and will have perhaps ten thousand head, round-ups, rodeos, men on horseback, and all that goes with ranching. Hot days in the branding pen with bawling calves and the smell of burned hair and flesh on the wind! Men in boots and big hats, with the accompaniment of jingling spurs and frisky horses. Camp cook and horse wrangler! Profanity and huge appetites!…The East did a large business on a small scale; the West did a small business magnificently.”

The persistence and endurance that Webb recognized as necessary for settling The Great Plains marked his own life as well. Webb became a historian through sheer force of will, and he could never have earned his advanced academic degrees with the rules and customs as they are in the university today. He was born in 1888 on a farm in Panola County in far East Texas. He attended rural schools, but, always interested in books, he managed to get an undergraduate degree from the University of Texas in 1915. At the age of thirty he was teaching high school in San Antonio. Later, with a wife and child to support, he tried for a doctoral degree from the University of Chicago but failed his oral exams. He was almost forty, with no advanced degree, no job, and nothing published of any merit. He returned to Texas, and having at last managed to write and publish The Great Plains, he was awarded a doctorate by the University of Texas on the basis of that book alone.

By proving that the Plains environment forced new inventions, new methods, new habits, even new laws and beliefs on the people who settled it, Webb accounts for the differences between people living east and west of the 98th meridian. The rivalry, suspicion, and mistrust between the two regions persists to this day, and it was Webb alone among historians who was able to understand why. He made The Great Plains the single essential book for understanding Texas.

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