Abstract – John Harley Gow

John Harley Gow, “Persistent Mirage:  How the ‘Great American Desert’ Buries Great Plains Indian Environmental History,” Ph.D. dissertation, Department of History, University of Saskatchewan, 2011.  Supervisor:  Geoff Cunfer.


In the winter of 1819 the United States shook under the first Great Depression, and on the Missouri River at Engineer Cantonment a 1000 strong military/scientific enterprise sent to secure Missouri Territory shivered and died from cholera and scurvy. In 1820 Maj. Stephen Long and a poorly equipped expedition of twenty-three soldiers, amateur scientists, and landscape painters, set out from Engineer Cantonment to circumnavigate the unknown Central Great Plains during the height of summer, and rescue something from the debacle. After weathering endless rain and hallucinating waves of Comanche, they divided into two groups at the Arkansas, and then either starved and endured weeks of rain on the lower Arkansas, or ate rancid skunk and endured blistering sun on the ‘Red River.’ On return they found Long had ‘mistaken’ the Canadian River for the Red, and they were yet another failed expedition to know the Louisiana Purchase. Unsurprisingly, Long labeled the whole place a “great desert.” An editor improved the phrase to Great American Desert, and emblazoned the phrase on history.

A Persistent Mirage is both an exegesis of the GAD myth and an HGIS study of the groups and biomes the desert mirage occludes. Desert was a cultural term meaning beyond the pale that beached with the Puritans. Like Turner’s frontier, it stayed a step ahead of settlement, moving west to the tall grass prairies before crossing the Mississippi to colonize the Great Plains. Once there it did calculable damage to the writing of Plains Aboriginal history. After all, who lives upon deserts but wandering beasts and savages? Beneath the mirage was an aboriginal network of agricardos, or agricultural and trading centers, growing enough food to support large populations, and produce tradable surpluses, undergirded by bison protein. Euroamericans from Cabeza de Vaca on were drawn to agricardos which helped broker the passages of horses to the Northern Plains and of firearms to the Southwest. While some withstood epidemic disease, the escalation of inter-group violence and environmental degradation due to the adoption of the horse by agricardo groups proved their undoing. Beneath the Great American Desert lies the great Indian Agricardo Complex, with its history just begun.