Tag Archives: Walter Prescott Webb

Glenda Riley, “The Female Frontier” (1988)

Glenda Riley opened her 1988 work, The Female Frontier: A Comparative View of Women on the Prairie and the Plains, by lobbing a volley towards past Great Plains historians. Riley justified this volley by drawing from questionnaires she circulated to academics, students and lay people in the 1980s. (Riley, 1988: 14) She said that while academics were largely skeptical of the traditional myth and image of women on the Great Plains, it was students and laypeople that continued to accept these traditional images and myths. Within the first three paragraphs of chapter 1, she said Frederick Jackson Turner, George F. Parker, Everett Dick, Walter P. Webb, et al., were largely responsible for portraying frontierswomen as “one-dimensional stereotypes.” Women were often victimized as passive agents who were “gaunt and sad-faced… sitting on the front seat of the wagon, following” their “lord where he might lead” her. Or women were portrayed as “leathery, stooped, and lifeless figures who either begged to return home or persevered until they were broken entirely.” Riley uncovered a body of knowledge that undermined the “puerile stereotypes” ascribed to women on the Great Plains and in the American West, and she challenged a traditional way of looking at the past. (Riley, 1988: 1-2)

The historiographic crux of Riley’s argument elevated culture as the primary determinant of understanding how frontierswomen carried on their lives, and through this she discounted the environmental determinism Walter Webb advanced in his 1931 work, The Great Plains. (Riley, 1988: 12) Riley organized her work into two categories, and this included 1) women on the Prairie; and 2) women on the Plains. Women did much more than follow their lords. They managed households, preserved familial, religious and ethnic traditions by acting as local historians, Bible recorders, and genealogists, they shaped their domestic and local economy, and they participated in community and civics.

In this, Riley aptly accounted for the cultural roles of women, and also men. She said the socio-economic system of the nineteenth century required men to be “the primary breadwinners,” and this meant that women were expected to marry. (Riley, 1988: 15) If women wanted something else, they often would not marry, or they “forswore marriage entirely.” Instead, they could enroll in religious institutions that had missions dedicated to improving healthcare and education for the needy, unfortunate, or downtrodden. For example, in 1853 the Sisters of St. Joseph’s built the first hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota, and in 1872, the Sisters of Charity (or the Grey Nuns) came to Dakota Territory. Eight years later the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary arrived. Once in the territory and on the Great Plains, they set out with the progressive mission of improving educational and healthcare facilities for otherwise marginalized groups. (Riley, 1988: 19)

Several thoughts came to mind while reading Riley’s work. The first was how breaking into established cultural orders and institutions can take on at least two forms. One way to change tradition and reframe the conversation is to go through back channels within the established institution, and try to reform it from within. Another way is to publicly denounce the institution. In the sense that Riley published her work in an academic press, it appears that she utilized both courses. She networked and made contacts within academic publishing houses, and they eventually printed her scholarship. This in turn brought about change in the historiography of the Great Plains and the American West, and this is at least one broad roadmap for any historian to incorporate and follow.

Another thought was that in 2013, Riley’s 1988 volley toward the traditional historians of the Great Plains and American West might at first read a bit bombastic. It does not read bombastic in the sense that Riley was out of line. Not in the least. Rather, it is a reflection of pathfinders and scholar-activists who, in some ways, appropriated and used the type of academic rhetoric that was used to marginalize them in the first place. In other cases, Riley’s rhetorical flourishes ensured that women — her included — would not be ignored. For Riley to call foundational historians of the American West “puerile,” and in an academic press, almost guaranteed that historians would have to bring their attention to bear on her and her scholarship. In this sense, Riley could also have a different sub-title to her book that read something along the lines of, The Female Frontier: A Comparative View of our Grandmothers and Great Grandmothers on the Prairie and Plains. This alternative and fictional sub-title might speak a bit more to 21st-century heritage and Public Historians rather than to 1980s feminist history.

A final remark about the continued shift in women’s scholarship looks to how Euro- and Anglo-American women view themselves, and how Margaret D. Jacobs treats this group in her 2011 work, White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940. But that is easily a topic and point of consideration for another review.


Walter Prescott Webb, “The Great Plains” (1931)

WebbIn 1931, Walter Prescott Webb published The Great Plains, attributing the ideas in the book to two earlier works: Emerson Hough’s, The Way of the West, (1922) and Webb’s own piece, “The American Revolver and the West,” published in Scribner’s Magazine (1927). Webb tweaked or discounted some of Hough’s ideas about the west, or the Great Plains, and instead focused on three attributes. The definition of the Great Plains, according to Webb, necessitates 1) level land; 2) an area barren of timber, and; 3) a semi-arid place — somewhere in that proverbial rain-shadow just east of the Rocky Mountains. So long as two of these three elements remained, Webb said the region would have its “cultural character.” (Webb, 1931: 4)

Here in this early statement Webb makes a case to the reader that environment shapes culture. It is a little heavy-handed, though. Of course environment influences culture, but Webb is fairly aggressive in that he said environment determines culture. This determinism, or determinism light, is an outlook that denies historical actors any type of choice, or that individual cause-and-effect. This also denies historical actors a humanist reality: while environment nudges individuals one way and another, individuals are faced with an infinite number of choices, and they still make one localized decision after another based off an infinite number of variables.

Continuing along this deterministic trajectory, Webb focused on a particular ethnicity, and said that “the Great Plains have bent and molded Anglo-American life, have destroyed traditions, and have influenced institutions in a most singular manner.” Again, Webb would do better to have said that the Great Plains induced historical actors to cobble together a variety of solutions if something did not work the first time around. Willa Cather indirectly points this out in infinite ways in My Ántonia (1918), and Ernest Staples Osgood showed how cattlemen formed stockmen’s associations to bring order to ranching in Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas. Cultures are not destroyed, nor to they “rise” or “fall.” Humans tweak culture, and that culture slowly evolves over time, and turns into hybridized versions and variations.

In any case, Webb alluded to Cather twice in his 525 page study, referring to her novels as “farm literature” full of “ugliness,” “drudgery,” and “tragedy.” (Webb, 1931: 478) In this, Webb reveals his nostalgic and romantic outlook toward the Anglo-American gun-slinging cowboy (who was not a famer), and this is what he is really concerned with: the rise and fall of cowboy culture. He said cattle kingdom literature is filled with “nothing of protest,” nothing of “destructive criticism,” and nothing of “dissatisfaction” — Webb provided basic amplification to the later delusions intrinsic to Spaghetti Westerns in American cinema.

All of this is not said in a way that suggests Webb was conspiring to hide his fondness for the cowboy within his work. This simply means that when reading Webb, remember that he was a typical Texan of his times. His nostalgia for the past ought not to be taken any more or less seriously than anyone else’s nostalgia for the past.[i] One can understand his ideas without having to agree with them. Understanding how scholarship was framed throughout universities and publishing houses in the 1920s and 1930s might bring 21st century scholars to pause and contemplate what cultural baggage we bring to the evidence in otherwise “objective” studies of the past.


[i] For an exegesis on the typical Texan, see Joseph Leach, The Typical Texan: Biography of an American Myth (Dallas, Texas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1952).


Great Plains Blizzards Now and Then

Snow measurements from February 10, 2013, at 7:00PM (CST) in downtown Fargo, North Dakota.

Snow measurements from February 10, 2013, at 7:00PM (CST) in downtown Fargo, North Dakota.

Last week I revisited Walter P. Webb’s 1931 work, The Great Plains. In the coming days, I’ll blog a bit more on Webb’s work. For now, though, Blizzard Orko (as of 7:03PM [CST], February 10, 2013) induced several departments of transportation to close sections of Interstate 29 and Interstate 94 on the northern Great Plains: north-south from Grand Forks, North Dakota to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and east-west from Jamestown, North Dakota in to Minnesota (the MNDOT’s road condition map I found is more general than decisive about exactly what sections are closed). These closures, or specifically this blizzard, reminded me a bit about Webb’s remarks on Great Plains blizzards, or what he pulled from Clement A. Lounsberry, the Civil War veteran who started The Bismarck Tribune in the 1870s. Of blizzards, Lounsberry  (via Webb) referenced that historically they were known as a

…mad, rushing combination of wind and snow which neither man nor beast could face. The snow found its way through every crack and crevice. Barns and stacks were literally covered by drifting snow, and, when the storm was over, cattle fed from the tops of stacks. Persons lost upon the prairie were almost certain to meet with death, unless familiar with the nature of these storms… I learned of many instances where persons were lost in trying to go from the house to the barn, and of other instances where cords were fastened to the house so that, if the barn should be missed, by holding onto the cord the house could be found again (Webb, 1931: 25)

With this in mind, this evening I took some measurements of snowfall in downtown Fargo. At least 7 1/4″ of snow has fallen (it is now 7PM, CST). Tomorrow winds are expected to intensify, as is snow removal and book reading.