(all rights to this material retained by author)
A Review of the Historic Oil Wells
of the Little Spokane River Valley
Wally Lee Parker
… the Great American Desert …
Though the high plains of the American west aren’t considered desert by modern standards, after 1803’s Louisiana Purchase the America expeditions sent into the territory often described these semi-arid grasslands as such. From colonial times through the middle years of the 19th century, the American public saw no inconsistency in applying the word ‘desert’ to most any stretch of treeless land not considered fit for farming. As the 1912 edition of Kansas: A Cyclopedia of State History explained, “The Great American Desert … was the term used by the people east of the Mississippi River to express their idea of the country west of that river when it was an unknown land. Carey and Lee’s Atlas of 1827 located the Great American Desert as an indefinite territory in what is now Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Indian territory, and Texas. Bradford’s Atlas of 1838 indicates the great desert as extending from the Arkansas, through into Colorado and Wyoming, including South Dakota, part of Nebraska and Kansas. Others thought the desert included an area 500 miles wide lying directly east of the Rocky Mountains and extending from the northern boundary of the United States to the Reo Grande River. Its boundaries changed from period to period for Mitchell’s Atlas of 1840 placed the Great American Desert west of the Rocky Mountains. The section shown by the various geographies grew smaller every year until only sandy plains in Utah and Nevada bore the name desert.”
During his 1806 expedition into the far western reaches of the Louisiana Purchase, Lieutenant Zebulon Pike thought so little of the area’s potential that he wrote, “… our citizens … will through necessity be constrained to limit their extent to the west to the borders of the Missouri and Mississippi while they leave the prairies incapable of cultivation to the wandering and uncivilized aborigines ...”
On a map published in 1822’s Historical, Chronological, and Geographical American Atlas, a notation from Major Stephen H. Long’s 1820 expedition into the then far western territory was printed over the area that would eventually become the State of Nebraska. This notation is often cited as the original application of the phrase “the Great Desert” to the region. The map’s overprint goes on to describe the area as “frequented by roaming bands of Indians who have no fixed place of residence but roam from place to place in quest of game.” Long’s meaning can better be understood when observing that in other writings he characterized the western grasslands of the Great Plains as having “a manifest resemblance to the deserts of Siberia.”
In 1836, American novelist, essayist, and historian Washington Irving further embedded the term ‘desert’ into America’s visualization of these western territories when he wrote, “This region which resembles one of the ancient steppes of Asia has not inaptly been termed ‘The Great American Desert.’ It spreads forth into undulating and treeless plains and desolate sandy wastes, wearisome to the eye from their extent and monotony. It is a land where no man permanently abides, for at certain seasons of the year there is not food for the hunter or his steed.”
This then was the impression Professor Samuel Aughey and his associates had to overcome in order to sell the western Great Plains to potential settlers as an agricultural paradise just waiting for the plow. After all, for the most part there were no forests to clear away as farmers east of the Mississippi often had to do. No stumps needing to be ripped from the ground. No vast reaches of hefty stones needing to be gathered and stacked into windrows. It should have just been a matter of turning the wild grasses under, dropping in the seeds, and waiting for rain.
In other words, the only thing of residual concern for settlers intent on putting a plow to the prairie was the weather.
Among the first in America to seriously investigate weather as a natural phenomenon was founding father Benjamin Franklin. Franklin advanced a number of weather related hypothesis based on his observations. He also carried out scientific experiments — perhaps the most spectacular being his investigations into the nature of lightning.
Regarding Franklin, an article by John Coleman Adams in the October, 1892, issue of Popular Science Monthly states that a set of observations Franklin recorded in the late 1740’s were “... probably the earliest literature on the subject of North American Storms … the first documents of scientific value in the long series of observations and of studies which have brought us to our present … knowledge.” Adams also noted that “Undoubtedly” (the usual direction of storms over the colonies) “had been observed before by fishermen, by mariners, and others accustom to the practical observation of the weather. But this is the initial point of its treatment as a scientific phenomenon.”
The movement toward compiling a nationwide meteorological database began in April of 1814 when then “Physician and Surgeon-General of the Army,” James Tilton, directed army surgeons to record the local weather at their hospitals. As for the rationale behind having doctors keep data on the weather; soon after his appointment to the office of Surgeon-General of the Army in 1818, Joseph Lovell submitted for approval this directive to the then Secretary of War, J. C. Calhoun. “Every physician who makes a science of his profession or arrives at eminence in it will keep a journal of this nature, as the influence of weather and climate upon diseases, especially epidemic, is perfectly well known. From the circumstances of the soldier, their effects upon diseases of the Army are peculiarly interesting, as by proper management they may in a great measure be obviated. To this end every surgeon should be furnished with a good thermometer, and in addition to a diary of the weather, should note everything relative to the topography of his station, the climate, complaints prevalent in the vicinity, etc., that may tend to discover the causes of diseases, to the promotion of health, and the improvement of medical science.”
A paper read to Chicago’s International Meteorological Congress of 1893 clearly stated, “Meteorological science in the United States was conceived and brought forth by the Army Medical Department. It was nurtured carefully as well in the then unknown West as in the East, and it gained strength year by year. … The Weather Service of the United States may well be said to be the child of the Army Medical Department.”
That paper’s presenter, Major Charles Smart, noted that the first results of the Army’s record keeping was published in 1826 in a volume titled, “Meteorological Register for the years 1822-’25.” This volume was only the first. Still, even by that early date the rationale for collection the data had already expanded far beyond epidemiology. And the tools the doctors used had expanded to include a barometer, wet-bulb hygrometer, rain gauge, and a set of detailed, standardized instructions for obtaining readings. As Smart’s 1893 paper went on to explain, “The meteorological tables in this (1826) volume were intended as a contribution and stimulus to the solution of the question whether, in a series of years, there is any material change in the climate of a country and, if so, how far it depends upon the cultivation of the soil, density of population, etc.; for at the time of publication contradictory opinions were held, some contending that as population increased and civilization extended the climate became warmer, others that it became colder, and others again that here was no change.”
For much of human history, all weather had been local. Observed changes in weather patterns from year to year was only a matter of personal recollection for the most part. As for the cause of those yearly changes, the tendency was to look locally as well. As large tracks of woodland in the eastern United States were being cleared for farming, yearly weather variations were often related to readily observable occurrences such as the smoke rising from burning slash or the increasing number of fireplaces. If the weather became warmer or colder, wetter or dryer, the actual reason for the change made little difference since some local event or chain of events was assumed to be the cause. Associating local temperatures, wind intensity and direction, or rainfall with the surface temperature of ocean water thousands of miles away was inconceivable to the average citizen — still, by the second quarter of the 19th century the thought that weather was global in causality had become a seedling hypothesis shared a small but growing cadre of the world's scientists.
But then, with the establishment of the first commercial telegraph in 1845, the idea held by the general public that all weather was local began to peel away. Professor Joseph Henry, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, noted in his 1847 proposal that the Smithsonian devote increased resources to meteorological research — “Of late years, in our country, more additions have been made to meteorology than to any other branch of physical science. Several important generalizations have been arrived at and definite theories proposed which now enable us to direct our attention with scientific precision to such points of observation as cannot fail to reward us with new and interesting results.” Professor Henry proposed the Smithsonian “… organize a system of …” observation stations “… which shall extend as far as possible over the North American continent. The present time appears to be peculiarly auspicious for commencing an enterprise of the proposed kind. The citizens of the United States are now scattered over every part of the southern and western portions of North America, and the extended lines of the telegraph will furnish a ready means of warning the more northern and eastern observers to be on the watch for the first appearance of advancing storm.”
The impact of adding electromagnetic communication technology to the meteorologist’s bag of tools was noted by Cleveland Abbe in an 1871 Journal of Science and Arts article on weather telegraphy, “It was … possible to study with advantage the progress of atmospheric changes only when the telegraph lines had become widely extended over the earth’s surface. It was through the public press — the daily newspapers — that it first became possible to watch the hourly progress of storms under one’s own eye, and to confirm the general laws independently deduced from the closet (— not generally seen —) studies of the professional meteorologist.”
By the mid 1870’s, when Professor Samuel Aughey began aggressively advancing his theories regarding the ability of local agriculture to impact local weather, enough progress had been made in the study of weather to make any theory postulating that increasing the local acreage under tillage could substantial increase the amount of rain falling over that local acreage highly suspect. Professor Aughey, apparently well connected to the Smithsonian and a number of other highly respected scientific institutions, should have been well aware of thinking within the meteorological community on such matters — mainstream thinking that had already by-in-large discarded the type of hypothesis Aughey was putting forth.
… to be continued …