The Grassland of North America by James C. Malin




     The beginnings of American geological work were largely in the hands of self-trained, or largely self-trained, amateurs. Such normal training as many of them had as background for their invasion of this field was often medicine or chemistry. Among the early great names were William Maclure, and Amos Eaton, but more important was Benjamin Silliman, professor of chemistry and natural science at Yale College, and founder (1818) of the American Journal of Science.

     As the continent was new to white men, the first work was exploration, collection of specimens, description, classification, and determination of stratigraphy. Little of such work had been done west of the Mississippi river prior to the middle of the nineteenth century and most of that had been incidental to military, geographical, and railroad reconnaissance. Among the leading men associated with the first geological surveys in the area were G. W. Featherstonhaugh, D. D. Owen, James Hall, G. C. Swallow, the Shumard brothers (G. G. and B. F.), Jules Marcou, and L. Lesquereux. After the Civil War, although each of the western states set up its own geological survey, the major projects in the west, upon which public interest centered, were those sponsored by the federal government; F. V. Hayden, "Geographical surveys of the territories," Clarence King, "Geographical survey of the fortieth parallel," J. W. Powell, "United States geological and geographical survey of the Rocky Mountain region," and G. N. Wheeler, "Geographical surveys west of the One Hundredth Meridian." All of such work was finally consolidated in 1879 into one organization, the Geological Survey, Department of the Interior, with Clarence King as the first director, and J. W. Powell succeeding to the headship the second year.

     Geology was the first of the sciences to establish itself in public confidence sufficiently to secure government aid in a large way. Geological surveys were authorized first by the states and later by the federal government. Such support was motivated, of course, by practical applications of the science. The first objectives apparently were the discovery of mineral resources and the manner of their occurrence; iron, lead, copper, and other metals, and coal, salt, gypsum, and other non-metallic minerals. Some of these subjects were considered systematically in such major works as J. D. Whiting, Metallic wealth of the United States (1854), and J. P. Lesley, Manual of coal (1856), and Iron manufacturers guide (1859). In Mississippi, the geological survey (1858 - ) was turned to agricultural objectives by E. W. Hilgard who quickly realized that the state did not possess great mineral wealth.

     The Pacific railroad surveys authorized in 1853, as well as others both before and after, which were associated with railroad projects, included a combination of objectives; geographical, geological, and agricultural. In the western mountain states, the discoveries of gold and silver influenced largely the direction of most of their state surveys, iron and coal and other minerals being given a minor consideration in all early survey work. The problem of water supplies in the low rainfall and desert areas, which intervened as a barrier to be crossed in maintaining communications between the east and the west, directed attention during the 1850s to water resources and their relation to geological formations. After the successful completion of the first drilled oil well in 1859 in Pennsylvania, oil and gas became major objectives, and near the close of the nineteenth century came to dominate geological thinking in those mid-continent states not largely favored with other mineral resources.

     The glacial problem was of particular interest to the upper Mississippi river and Great Lakes drainage basins. The first definite suggestion of the glacial hypothesis came in 1825 from Peter Dobson, a New England cotton manufacturer, but did not receive recognition of scientific men until the French and English geologists Louis Agassiz (1840), and Sir Roderick Murchison (1842) championed the idea, and Agassiz, after establishing himself in the United States (1846) led in giving it a substantial confirmation based on field work (Merrill, 1924). Maps showing continental evolution in relation to glaciation are conveniently arranged in the Schuchert-Dunbar, Historical Geology (1942). The oldest and lowest in position of the glacial deposits was the Nebraskan, then the Kansan, the Illinoisan, and lastly the Wisconsin.

     As already pointed out (Ch. 2) these periods of glaciation exerted important influences on the distribution of plant and animal life, as well as laying down materials for soil formation, and contributing largely to the physiography of the area concerned. The glacial hypothesis was important also in explanation of the great plains. In this area the rock formations were covered to various depths with the outwash of debris from the Rocky Mountains, the streams being fed with enormous quantities of water from melting glaciers. The loess was attributed to the blowing of these outwash deposits by the winds (Elias and Bryan 1945). The high points of the underlying rocks either were not covered fully or the subsequent erosion exposed them. In this manner may be explained the relative scarcity of rock outcrops in the plains country, most of the area remaining covered, often to great depths (Frye, 1946). These general facts are essential to an understanding of the grassland which is largely an area characterized by porous transported soil materials, the product of glaciers, water and wind.

     During the early nineteenth century American geologists depended for theory largely upon the two competing European schools of thought. The German geologist A. G. Werner (1749-1817) explained the rocks of the earth's crust as formed by sedimentation from a great ocean that covered the earth, the Neptunian theory. The Scotch geologist, James Hutton (1726-1797) found his explanation in heat as well as water, the Plutonian theory. The latter body of theory came to predominate during the mid-nineteenth century.Although Americans made relatively little contribution to theory, there were several examples of independent thinking. G. W. Featherstonhaugh's proposal (to measure the silt load of the Mississippi river), growing out of his Ozark expedition of 1834, was important as suggesting a basis for estimates of geological time and as presenting a significant approach to physiography. Edward Hitchcock presented a beginning of the systematic study of physiography in America in his book Surface Features (1856). He had been studying the problem of rivers and was uncertain as between theories; whether to explain river gorges and canyons as arising from fractures in the earth's crust through which rivers flowed as offering least resistance, or to assume that the rivers cut their own channels by the erosive power of water. Hayden is probably entitled to the credit for advancing, as late as 1872, an adequate theory of canyons by showing the capacity of a river to cut through its rock bed during a period when movement of the earth's crust was elevating the plateau through which the river flowed (Merrill, 1924). Applied originally to the Montana area by Hayden, this idea was elaborated by Powell (1875), G. K. Gilbert (1877), C. E. Dutton (1880), and W. M. Davis (1889).

     It is clear from this brief sketch that when the grassland was first being occupied there was no body of scientific knowledge which might serve as a guide to the occupation of the area. The tall grass prairie was largely occupied, at least by the first wave of pioneers, prior to the Civil War. More permanent establishments as far west as the 100 meridian, or mixed grass region, occurred in the 1870s. The high plains boom and collapse was the experience of the 1880s and 1890s. The geologists, botanists, zoologists, or other branches of science were little, if any, in advance of the settler in the search for understanding of this strange region.

     At the close of the nineteenth century, geological thought was dominated by the concept of the earth as a cooling, shrinking, dying world, a point of view derived from the tentative suggestions of Laplace, in the eighteenth century in respect to the origin of the solar system. In the minds of nineteenth century geologists, the nebular hypothesis was transformed into a rigid system of scientific orthodoxy, as something substantially proved. This was illustrated clearly by the standard American textbook on geology (six editions, 1866-1897) of James D. Dana. The opening of the twentieth century brought a challenge to the pessimism of the dying earth theory in the work of T. C. Chamberlin and F. R. Moulton (1902 -), and T. J. J. See (1896-1910). These new theories, the planetesimal and the capture theories, instead of assuming that the planets were formed by separation from a central molten body, cooling rapidly to their present form, proposed that they had formed in spiral nebulae by the consolidation or capture of smaller bodies by larger bodies acting as nuclei (Willis, 1942; Chamberlin, 1929; See, 1896-1910). In England, Sedgwick, and Jeans independently offered similar theories (Jeans, 1944). According to these hypotheses it was not necessary to assume that the earth was a molten mass or relatively very hot, and in consequence there was necessity of revising assumptions in respect to a rapidly cooling, dying world. In 1916, Jeans (1944) proposed the tidal theory which assumed that a passing star drew off a filament of gaseous matter which consolidated. To the various theories offered in the field of cosmogony, radium, radio-activity, and the atomic theory, unfolding in the course of the twentieth century, continued on new lines the procession of revisions of cosmic hypotheses and revealed sources of energy undreamed of by nineteenth century scientists. Whatever the ultimate destiny of the universe, temperature changes that would influence in any substantial way the course of modern civilization would require possibly ten thousand million years, and that prospect should not cause alarm to the twentieth or any nearby century.


     In discussing the nature of geography as a discipline, Barrows (1923) presented it as the mother of sciences; of astronomy, botany, zoology, geology, meteorology, and anthropology. As these children became separate branches, geography found itself obligated to redefine its jurisdiction. Irrespective of whether this view was altogether correct historically, the development of scientific specialization during the later nineteenth century imposed upon the geographers the problem of a restatement of scope and objectives, The so-called modern geography was launched in the universities of Europe during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, but for the most part did not gain general recognition until the twentieth century. In the United States, the modern geography was fostered by geology, growing out of physiography or physical geography and the work of Hayden, Powell, Dutton, and Shaler, and more particularly that of W. M. Davis, who in 1889 formulated his theory of the erosion cycle.

     From this point there was a two-fold differentiation in the United States; the separation of geography from geology and physiography, and the search for a definition of geography in terms of the relation of man and the earth, human geography. At first geographical determinism was conspicuous in human geography (F. Ratzel in Germany, and Ellen Semple in America), was gradually modified, and eventually, by the early 1920s, was largely repudiated but not very successfully eliminated in practice. Peculiarly, however, American geographers were slow in responding favorably to the concept of possibilism - Vidal de la Blache and Lucien Febvre - that always there is more than one solution in any environmental situation, and therefore choices are always possible. The position of the geographers was weak to the degree that they failed to provide an adequate positive alternative to determinism. People are more important than the physical environment. People can make choices. Even submission to determinism is a matter of choice. Physical environment provides certain limiting factors which people must recognize, but Liebig's law of the minimum should not be confused with determinism - the element of choice remains within any particular framework of limiting conditions.

     In spite of the uncertainty concerning the scope of geography, a number of fields were cultivated which extended into or across borderlands of other disciplines: economics, sociology, anthropology, soil science, botany, zoology, political science, and history. Economic geography was developed most fully as it seemed to possess the most immediate utility, and therefore, justification of geography in its own right, as a discipline separate from geology. When Barrows defined geography as human ecology, this approach found itself in competition with sociology defined as human ecology which was also invading the borderlands. Barrows (1923) proposed to limit geography by defining it as human ecology, taking over into geography much of the thought of the plant and animal ecologists.Sauer (1925, 1927, 1941) led in challenging the trends of the day to limit the scope of geography, characterizing the period 1923-1939 as the Great Retreat. In restating his views of geography, he urged a return to the study of land forms as an essential factor, and a study of historical geography (1941) as well as the present, which would introduce an adequate recognition of the factor of time and the genetic development of areas of the earth. To accomplish this he would invade the borderlands of both anthropology and history. The extensive literature of the period between World Wars I and II on the scope and methodology of geography not only challenged environmentalism, but emphasized the weakness of the concept of natural regions, especially where associated with the idea of organism. The region was not a fixed entity, but depended upon the factor chosen as a standard of measurement, and the boundaries stubbornly refused to conform to theories even for single factors, and attempts to combine several factors proved even more conflicting. It was the same problem met by the plant and animal ecologists, the climatologists, the soil scientists, and the agronomists.

     Some of the outstanding characteristics of American geographical thought were summarized in a review article by the English geographer E. G. R. Taylor (1937) dealing with an accumulation of American college text-books. In contrast with English books, he emphasized that these were general rather than specialized, and conspicuously subjective rather than objective; "they seek to establish particular theses or to present particular points of view rather than provide a detached record of observed facts." Taylor was sound and severe in his analysis of the misuses of social theory - drawing conclusions "beyond the facts," which were not geography, social science, or history. Hartshorne (1939) made the most comprehensive analysis of the trends of geographical thought, and one of his points was in line with Taylor's in emphasizing that geographers had been much better trained in geology than in the social sciences and that they felt that they would be held to account from the geological point of view but were free to speculate in the social field. Hartshorne's study made clear also that regionalism and environmentalism as they had been practiced, both in Europe and America, were substantially discredited and that the sound aspects of those points of view could be protected only by restatement and the application of a more scientific methodology. The disturbing aspect of Hartshorne's analysis of methodology was in the weakness of the case in defense of the existing procedures, and in the confusion of views, although he made a definite attempt to bring his discussion to a conclusion that would avoid mere frustration and defeatism.

     The decade 1935-1945 was particularly fruitful in productive emphasis on fields heretofore little cultivated: conservation, political, and historical geography. Sauer's (1941) plea for historical geography has already been mentioned in combination with his advocacy of a new emphasis on physiography, with a view to tracing the evolution of cultures in relation to geography.In much the same spirit Whitaker (1940) proposed the study of the conservation problem "viewed as world-wide in scope and prehistoric in origin." To this end he surveyed the history of conservation thought stemming from the work of the American, George P. Marsh (1801- 1882) and his monumental book, Man and Nature; or physical geography as modified by human action (1864), revised and translated into Italian 1870, and revised again for a second American edition in 1874. In spite of the fact of Marsh's influence on European thought, he was largely forgotten in the land of his birth and the credit for formulating conservation thought was assigned to others.

     Political geography received a new emphasis in Europe about the opening of the twentieth century which centered around the idea of closed space. As one outcome of the communications revolution of the last half of the nineteenth century (mechanical power applied to communications) a new impetus was given to the neo-mercantilist imperialism during the last quarter of the century. All the new land opened to occupation by the discovery period of the fifteenth century had been appropriated and occupied and man must order his living within the limits of a known world. This kind of geographical determinism was expressed in its most challenging form by Mackinder (1904), and it was utilized by the German geographers in combination with the organistic concept of the state advocated by the Swedish geographer Kjellen in their development of geopolitics. In the United States, Turner's frontier hypothesis (1893) was used, or more accurately stated, misused, during the 1930s in justification of the application to the American scene of policies grounded in the idea of closed space - i. e., the passing of the American frontier meant closed space (Malin, 1943, 1944, 1946).

     Among the principles or corollaries derived from the concept of closed space in the two-dimensional sense were the doctrines of the necessity of control of the most valuable world space; of a certain land mass area at the geographical pivot of history in the sense that in it was embodied the monopoly of world power; the shifting of the idea of the measure of national and imperial strength from accumulated wealth to the capacity to produce; and the reduction of human population to a status of mere units of manpower in the competition among totalitarian states as Going Concerns (Mackinder, 1904, 1905, 1919). The validity of these ideas came to be challenged in various quarters, but for the time being they dominated the thought of the World War II generation. From one point of view it was the historic sea-power interpretation of history (Mahan, 1890, etc.,) challenged by a new land-mass interpretation, with a still newer third-dimensional factor of air-power introduced as the final determinant. In another sense it was the antithesis of two ideas, the concentration of power in one place against the strategic dispersion of power, but again with air-power as the determining factor. The use made of his ideas by geopolitics under German leadership certainly was not anticipated by Mackinder, who through these years was thinking of the geographer, not only as a town and regional planner, but also as a participant in world planning (1931, 1943) for peace as the means of checkmating the consequences of struggle for power and world domination by the occupant of the heartland, the geographical pivot of history.

     In summarizing the status of political geography in 1935 Hartshorne emphasized the lack of interest by the geographers of English speaking countries. In Great Britain only two or three major works had appeared, and in the United States only one, Bowman, The New World (1921), a product of the World War I peace making period. Consequently, there was little discussion by Americans of the place of political geography in the general field. During the next decade, 1935-1945, American geographers produced substantial works on political geography, but they were influenced largely by German geopolitical thought. In other words, it was not yet clear that political geography was firmly and independently rooted in American soil.

     The idea of two-dimensional closed space in the sense of occupation of the earth's surface, together with all the unfortunate consequences of this idea for the world during the first half of the twentieth century, did not mean necessarily a closed world and the end of opportunity for man. There was a less pessimistic interpretation of the same body of facts. Science tended to introduce the idea of three-dimensional space and then air communications seemed to climax the process - in a sense reopening space. Instead of earth-bound man fronting on the oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific, air communications focused attention on a circumpolar world, all nations fronting to the north. This meant a major redistribution of power in the course of the twentieth century (Malin, 1944). Whittlesey (1945) traced brilliantly the history of man's sense of space and emphasized the term fourth dimension to describe the time factor as a function of space. To the three-fold aspect of this factor of time he gave the names, velocity, pace, and timing, all of which take a new significance in consequence of the realization of three-dimensional space through the several kinds of mechanization culminating in air communications.

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