In West of Wichita: Settling the High Plains of Kansas, 1865-1890 (1986), the late Craig Miner has created a historical, cultural, and economic portrait of western Kansas in the mid to late 19th century. In the book, he explores the forces that shaped, and in many instances continue to shape, this region.
Miner’s writing style is lively and interesting. He brings the history of western Kansas alive through anecdotes and stories like this one: “Kansas has had an image problem ever since Coronado had the guide that brought him here strangled in 1541.” Miner’s subtle, dry humor is present throughout the work and provides a nice counterbalance to the sometimes disturbing history of our region. After all, western Kansas includes Pratt and all of Pratt County, with several citations in the book
Anyone who seeks a deeper appreciation of what it took to settle this region—particularly what the settlers (aka pioneers) had to put up with—should read this book.
What are some factors that shaped the settlement of western Kansas in the mid to late 19th century? The native American Indian population was none too pleased that white settlers were encroaching upon their traditional hunting grounds and made life difficult for these interlopers. You should be forewarned that some of the stories he shares may be difficult to read. These events did happen, though, and Miner makes no attempt to gloss over the troubled history between whites and Indians.
Perhaps the biggest factor in settlement of western Kansas—and one which we still struggle with today—is lack of consistent precipitation. Miner shares statistics from the 1870s and 1880s showing annual precipitation varying by as much as 20 inches or more in communities less than 100 miles apart. Sound familiar? The rise and fall of population in western Kansas has definitely been tied to this factor. As the skies dry up, the dust flies, and the grasshoppers or locusts descend upon the land, people left. For most western Kansas communities today, population continues to decline. Many counties west of Wichita saw their population reach its apex in the 1910s and 1920s.
Another factor which we might not think of often—but which definitely made it a challenge for pioneers--were fleas, bedbugs, and other pests. I can only imagine what it would have been like to have slept in a home with open, screenless windows, trying to catch a little night breeze on a calm, hot night like those we recently had at the end of August. What a blessing it is to have air-conditioning to control the climate in our homes and workplaces. Reading this book only made me more cognizant of and grateful for this modern wonder.
It is an interesting footnote that I read a portion of West of Wichita while traveling across the desert country of southeastern Oregon.
By adding a few more dry years and sprinkling in mountains like the illusory ones that are sometimes created by cloud formations on the horizon , western Kansas may not look so much different from the dry, yet strikingly beautiful landscape of the desert.
These are just a few impressions after reading Craig Miner’s excellent work. For any student of Kansas history, it’s well worth a read. Better yet, you don’t even have to buy it. It’s available at the Pratt Public Library, which has two copies, including the one I just returned.