The Last Days of the Rainbelt


The Last Days of the Rainbelt

David J. Wishart

224 pages
16 illustrations, 19 maps, 10 graphs


November 2013


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eBook (EPUB)
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April 2020


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eBook (PDF)
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November 2013


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About the Book

Looking over the vast open plains of eastern Colorado, western Kansas, and southwestern Nebraska, where one can travel miles without seeing a town or even a house, it is hard to imagine the crowded landscape of the last decades of the nineteenth century. In those days farmers, speculators, and town builders flooded the region, believing that rain would follow the plow and that the “Rainbelt” would become their agricultural Eden. It took a mere decade for drought and economic turmoil to drive these dreaming thousands from the land, turning farmland back to rangeland and reducing settlements to ghost towns.

David J. Wishart’s The Last Days of the Rainbelt is the sobering tale of the rapid rise and decline of the settlement of the western Great Plains. History finds its voice in interviews with elderly residents of the region by Civil Works Administration employees in 1933 and 1934. Evidence similarly emerges from land records, climate reports, census records, and diaries, as Wishart deftly tracks the expansion of westward settlement across the central plains and into the Rainbelt. Through an examination of migration patterns, land laws, town-building, and agricultural practices, Wishart re-creates the often-difficult life of settlers in a semiarid region who undertook the daunting task of adapting to a new environment. His book brings this era of American settlement and failure on the western Great Plains fully into the scope of historical memory.

Author Bio

David J. Wishart is a professor of geography at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. He is the editor of the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains and Encyclopedia of the Great Plains Indians and the author of An Unspeakable Sadness: The Dispossession of the Nebraska Indians, all available from the University of Nebraska Press.


"The Last Days of the Rainbelt offers countless insights into frontier settlement."—Environmental History

"By combining previously overlooked archival material with an informed understanding of the region, Wishart makes an important time and place come alive."—James R. Shortridge, Kansas History

"Wishart has constructed an account that, page for page, may provide as good a portrait of the region as those produced by authors such as Walter Webb, Donald Worster, or Mari Sandoz. Thanks to scholars such as David Wishart, this volume also shows that the New Deal is the gift that keeps on giving."—Richard D. Loosbrock, Nebraska History

"[The Last Days of the Rainbelt] is highly useful, well written, and an important addition to Great Plains historiography."—Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, Western Historical Quarterly

"Wishart's sobering moral is clear. The parable of the Rainbelt reveals a great deal about the human capacity to misunderstand the environment and our role within it. We also need to heed the past as we contemplate the future, especially in the High Plains, and make these historical geographies more legible to twenty-first-century residents of the region. Wishart's fine book is a reminder of how that is done."—William Wyckoff, AAG Review of Books

"The Last Days of the Rainbelt will appeal to many whose interests lay in the Great Plains (i.e., the Rainbelt) whether the interest is limited to Nebraska, Kansas, and Colorado or to the Great Plains region as a whole."—Brad Tennant, Middle West Review

"Wishart, who clearly has zeal for the subject, has skillfully fashioned the results of his research into a narrative that will appeal both to students of the era and to lovers of American western lore."—Barbara Scott, Foreword Reviews

Table of Contents


Introduction: A Ruined Land

Chapter 1. The Approach from the East, 1854-1885

Chapter 2. Into the Rainbelt, 1886-1890

Chapter 3. Life in the Rainbelt, circa 1890

Chapter 4. The Last Days of the Rainbelt, 1890-1896

Epilogue: After the Rainbelt





 2014 Nebraska Book Award in Nonfiction/History from Nebraska Center for the Book

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