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Great American Desert: Arid Lands, Federal Exploration, and the Construction of a Continental United States


This dissertation examines how the Great American Desert of the pre-Civil War era ceased to be a desert and how the modern American desert became American. The project begins after the Louisiana Purchase with the advent of the Great American Desert, the historical geography that framed the Great Plains as an American Sahara and thus as a foreign land unfit for agricultural occupation. Modern historians and historical geographers have largely dismissed the Great American Desert as a geographic myth. This work takes a different approach. One of the central contentions here is that it is impossible to know precisely what nineteenth-century Americans meant when they used the word desert because they used the word desert in a variety of ways that do not conform to modern usage. Sometimes they used it reference to arid landscapes; other times they used it—without climatic specificity—to describe any tract of land deemed foreign, barren, waste, or unreclaimed (including forests and wetlands). All of which explains why roughly half of the conterminous United States—the Great Plains, eastern California, Oregon, and Washington, and much of everything in between—has, at time or another, been mapped or described as desert.

An environmental and cultural history of US territorial exploration and expansion from Lewis and Clark to the operations of the U.S. Geological Survey at the end of the nineteenth century, the larger arc of the study plots how the old territorial regime of desert as foreign wasteland eventually gave way, or at least came to coincide, with a new territorial regime—a territorial regime that not only framed deserts as arid lands, but converted deserts from foreign into domestic territory through expressions of affection for the desert West. The principal aim here is not develop an operative definition of the word desert, or determine whether or not nineteenth-century Americans actually believed the Great Plains were comparable to the Great Desert of North Africa, but rather to track changes in the socio-cultural meaning of deserts in American territorial discourse and how those changes in meaning informed the larger project of American continentalism.

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