Wishart to discuss 1890s drought on the Western High Plains

Dec 4th, 2008 | By | Category: Campus News, December 4, 2008

The Great Plains have been settled in a series of advances and retreats, with people’s optimism and ambitions running up against the grim reality of drought, says historical geographer David Wishart. He will present “The Drought of the 1890s on the Western High Plains” at 7 p.m. Dec. 9, in the Hardin Hall auditorium.

Wishart cited geographer Harlan Barrows, who called the drought of the 1890s  “the first great crushing defeat of the American farmer.” Settlers were lured to the land under the pretext that “rain follows the plow,” which was bad science backed by railroad companies. Their hopes were dashed as most counties on the western Great Plains lost more than one-third of their populations over the course of the decade. Towns, once numerous, disappeared from the maps and faded from the land.

Wishart’s talk will focus on some of the people of the late 1800s, including George Washington Franklin, an unsuccessful farmer, and Melbourne the Rain Wizard, a con man who promised he could deliver rain.


“More realistic solutions, such as irrigation and dry farming, were implemented after the drought, but the lessons weren’t learned until the 1930s,” Wishart said.

After the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, government policy began converting vast swaths of land that is too dry to farm into national grasslands, limiting agricultural production and promoting conservation.

Wishart edited “The Encyclopedia of the Great Plains,” published in 2004, and is also the author of “An Unspeakable Sadness: The Disposession of the Nebraska Indians.”

The talk is the final seminar in the School of Natural Resources Outreach lecture series for fall.

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