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These Changing Borders

Kansas Memory, Kansas Historical Society

HPPR listeners thinking about the theme of this year’s book club--Borders and Becoming--need to keep in mind that borders change to meet the needs of those who live within them. Over the last two and a half centuries, the parameters of the United States changed repeatedly. A modern day description of the contiguous states would include Folksinger Woody Guthrie’s first stanza of “This Land Is Your Land.”

America didn’t begin as a land that stretched from one ocean to another, nor was it as culturally diverse as it is now. Anyone who’s studied 8th grade history recalls our nation’s beginning. Important names like Paul Revere, George Washington, Daniel Boone, and Thomas Jefferson are seared into our collective memory. We recall the guy who built and lived at Monticello is credited with the Louisiana Purchase, a real estate deal that more than doubled the size of the new country and included what is known now as the Great Plains.

Along with this investment came complications. Native tribes claimed regions of the territory as traditional hunting and ceremonial grounds. In addition, Spaniards maintained a presence in the Plains. At different times, speaking Comanche, Apache, Kiowa, Cheyenne, or Spanish would serve a traveler through the region better than a command of English did.

Initially, Jefferson’s bargain came into the Union as an unincorporated region. It eventually ended up divided into states. Of the Plains states, Texas came in as the 28th state in 1845. Kansas entered the union after a bloody beginning as the 34th state in 1861, Nebraska followed in 1867, Colorado in 1876, North and South Dakota in 1889, and Oklahoma in 1907. Looking at those statehood anniversaries, it’s clear that shifting populations redefined borders before the 20th century. 

In time, new technology effected more change. Government supported transcontinental railways made travel available to many who wouldn’t have consider moving  to the Plains. Federally subsidized land grants created affordable opportunities for business people and agriculturalists who rapidly established homes and communities. Railroad sponsored Boosterism flooded newspapers with optimistic promises that delivered both native born and foreign migrants to the prairie. Droves of dreamers arrived in response to cheap railroad property and free land promised by the 1862 Homestead Act.

Suddenly, a place that had been home to nomadic tribes or a route to somewhere else became an affordable possibility for those willing to improve 160 usually treeless acres. By the time Guthrie wrote his 1940 people’s anthem, his description of waving wheat fields and rolling dust clouds told the truth about those plowed the heartland.

The combination of rail travel, opening markets, successful advertising, and individuals hankering to own land led to boiling pot of different cultures, languages, and values arriving in this region for over 60 years. During this time, Willa Cather grew up in a prairie town populated by Americans, cowboys, Swedes, Norwegians, and Bohemians. Her sharp mind captured their stories that we can read toda and discover where Plains people came from and how we fit into this great land that also inspired Wood Guthrie’s imagination.