As Frederick Jackson Turner wrote, and countless Hollywood westerns have confirmed, the frontier always repeats the same story. "It begins with the Indian and the hunter; it goes on to tell of the disintegration of savagery by the entrance of the trader…we read the annals of the pastoral stage in ranch life; the exploitation of the soil by…sparsely settled farming communities; the intensive culture of the denser farm settlement; and finally the…city and factory system." Little of the West has lived up to this plot—farms remain scarce in Nevada and Utah, cities and factories are few and far between—but we forgive it. And why not? So much of the region is desert, and we want to flatter ourselves for protecting all those mountain ranges and forests.
Of the Great Plains we expected better, and the Plains failed us. This is a fact we prefer to forget. No less perceptive a reader of nineteenth-century American history than Marilynne Robinson has called the Homestead Act, passed in 1862, "all in all the most poetical piece of legislation since Deuteronomy." Today the basic rhythms of this poetry remain familiar: the yeoman farmers "staking out" (literally with stakes) 160-acre plots of land, free for the taking to anyone willing to stay for five years and "prove up" on a claim; the inevitable conflicts between the newly arrived "fence builders" and the old "open range" cattle barons. But given how the Homestead Act worked in practice, with only a third of settlers gaining title to their claims, and most of these "stickers" driven off by drought within a generation, a better analogy might be the book of Exodus.
Willa Cather, the Plains’ best-known novelist, chronicled the region’s settling, which she lived through. She largely ignored its unsettling, even though homesteaders began quitting the Plains well before she started writing in the early 1900s, and continued to clear out during her most productive years, the 1910s and 1920s. According to a recent report from the Census Bureau, almost 60 percent "of Great Plains counties reached their maximum population before 1950, with most of those peaking between 1900 and 1920." A few counties reached their peak population not in 1930, as anyone familiar with the Dust Bowl might expect, but in 1890. The reason: too little rain falls on most of the Plains to permit unirrigated agriculture. Homesteaders learned this the hard way, and many of them hit the road to try their luck in yet another promised land, California. Those who remained, especially on the groundwater-scarce northern Plains, bought up the land, tore down the fences and tried to piece together ranches large enough to run cattle.
Many writers and artists have focused on the Dust Bowl, but few have attended to this more gradual ebbing of people away from the Plains. The past fifty years of "revisionist" westerns, for example, rarely question the basic premise of the genre—that the cowboys were driven off the Plains by the arrival of "civilization" in the form of the homesteaders. If anything, by choosing so many desert and mountain settings for their stories and films, Clint Eastwood, Sam Peckinpah, Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx have made the Plains, the place where the cowboy myth originated, appear less western than ever.
As for the two nonfiction bestsellers about the Plains from the past two decades, Ian Frazier’s Great Plains (1989) and Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time (2006), neither dwells on the long-term failures of the Homestead Act. Frazier focuses on the region’s distant past and sparsely populated present; Egan examines the Dust Bowl, a disaster that, as he correctly emphasizes, drove off a surprisingly small number of homesteaders. Unlike a series of less well-known but far more perceptive books, including Wallace Stegner’s Wolf Willow (1955), Donald Worster’s Dust Bowl (1979) and Jonathan Raban’s Bad Land (1996), Frazier and Egan pay little attention to the decades when the Plains was unsettled.