Domesticating the prairie: the United States Great Plains.

Prairie of mixed tall grass and short grass with forested areas replaced bison herds.


US Land System's impact on the Midwest landscape.


Sinuous river patterns mark the natural boundaries as the square grid pattern appears across the landscape of the great plains.

Western terrain is not square.

Despite the contours of the landscape's terrain, the United States survey system remained unchanged until 1888.


The irrigation fields here are round circles due to pivot irrigation systems that use underground water pumped to the surface by electricity to grow the crops raised on today's Great Plains. The river here meanders among the square checkerboard pattern of fields on this terrain – as if to remind surveyors and owners alike that natural forces, not settlement patterns, ultimately dictate the success or failure of people who endeavor to occupy and seek a living from the arid regions of these high plains.


The earlier settlement patterns beside the Chesapeake or Delaware Bays in the 17th and 18th centuries consisted of land grants. The boundaries of these landed estates did not follow the grid pattern, but instead the contours of the surrounding terrain as shown here in Maryland along the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the lower United States.

Land speculation

Francis William Edmonds's, The Speculator, the painting from 1852 shows the distracted, if not gullible, couple looking at the real-estate salesman's bill of particulars being used by him to entice them to invest their money in western lands.

According to the Smithsonian writers, "Francis William Edmonds's (1806-1863) comic genre scenes captured the rough-and-tumble of America's frontiers. Democracy meant opportunity for all, and there were plenty of opportunities to fleece the unwary in settlements governed by few laws. Land speculators" –like painted in the portrait– "flourished as the railroads raced West and small towns dreamed of growing into great cities."

The Metropolitan Museum of Art also explains that paintings such as this reveal "Edmonds at his finest, taking a common moment from the daily life of middle-class Americans and turning it into a moralizing and socially critical tableau."

The township is most obvious in the lower left hand side of this aerial photograph of Kansas.


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