To the early emigrants moving westward across America, seeking to fulfill their Manifest Destiny, the Pacific Coast was the goal. Between the frontier towns of America and the two promised lands of Oregon and California lay a number of obstacles. The Rocky Mountains were one of the most obvious difficulties to be overcome. But even on the relatively level Great Plains was a formidable barrier—the 100th meridian.
The 100th meridian was one of the reasons that pioneers rushed across the country to stake claims on the coast instead of gradually pushing the frontier westward. Zebulon Pike had already crossed that invisible obstacle and had informed Americans that the uninhabitable Great American Desert lay beyond.
There was an element of truth behind the settlers’ fears of the 100th meridian. The portion of the Great Plains lying west of the meridian is covered by the rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains. The normal precipitation in this area plummets below 24 inches annually, creating a hostile environment for prospective homesteaders.
The eastern part of Kansas was settled fairly rapidly in the outburst of moral enthusiasm leading up to the Civil War. Settlers later ventured into central Kansas thanks to railroad promotion efforts. But the High Plains resisted settlement efforts into the early 1900s. In 1895, editor William Allen White wrote:
Eastern Kansas has proven herself good for agriculture; central Kansas is proving herself worthy; western Kansas is a dead failure in everything except the herd.
This failure was not due to lack of effort. Settlers, investors, and railroad companies tried to populate the lands beyond the 100th meridian as early as the 1880s. However, drought and economic depression conspired against the prospective homesteaders. Most of the settlers across the meridian were destined to be ranchers.
As it turned out, a long-term shift in weather patterns encouraged settlers to finally overlook the stigma of the 100th meridian. Around 1901, unusually wet weather came to the High Plains. Farmers tentatively moved westward and, to their amazement, met with success. Eager land promoters began to exclaim, “Rain follows the plow!” Authors wrote a plethora of books outlining the dry-farming techniques that they were confident would transform the West.
Then came World War I. Farming became a patriotic duty, with the motto, “Food will win the war,” shaping agricultural practice. All suitable grasslands were plowed up, and the crops flourished beautifully. More than one farmer was convinced that God was blessing his efforts to help settle the West.
The war was won late in 1918, and still the rains continued to fall, all the way into the mid-1920s. Over two decades of favorable weather had emboldened the settlers, and no one remembered the perils of living out in the Great American Desert, beyond the 100th meridian. Of course, they could not see the Dust Bowl coming.
Farmers can tell you today that life out past the 100th meridian is still challenging. The Ogallala Aquifer now supports agriculture in the region, but a threat is still present. With the water in the aquifer being used faster than it is replaced, many across the Great Plains wonder what the future may hold.