What are common stereotypes/myths regarding the Great Plains?

Common Stereotypes

Examples of Great Plains Stereotypes:
Deb Fischer's Farm

A ranch in Valentine, Nebraska

  • Family-oriented
  • Staying close to one's roots
  • Bravery amidst adverse circumstances
  • Clever and resourceful
  • Ingenuity
  • Honesty
  • Conservative
  • Emphasis on tradition
  • High value on religion
  • Sociable
  • Hard-working/strong work ethic
  • Caring, compassionate, helpful
  • Simpleminded and innocent
  • Unpredictable weather extremes
  • Gullible
  • Uncultured
  • Unintelligent
  • Technologically-disadvantaged

Both positive and negative stereotypes exist for people of the Great Plains. Often perceived as being family-oriented, the "typical" person stays close to his/her roots of tradition. Living in a conservative society that places a high value on the morals of religion, this "representational figure" is additionally endowed with the traits of caring and compassion, sociability, and a strong work ethic. Such "positive" traits can be seen as reflective of the Midwestern values of freedom, widespread education, and tolerance for accepted norms.

Many of the roots of the "negative" traits originate from the strong Protestant/Christian background of many Great Plainsmen. To people on the East and West Coasts, the emphasis on religion often causes them to view Midwesterners as being "backward." This negative viewpoint perceives the "typical" person of this area as being gullible, uncultured, unintelligent, and technologically disadvantaged. However, the people of the Great Plains continue to cherish their valued heritage. [1]

Although simple mindedness and innocence may be thought of as being negative traits by a majority of the non-indigenous  population, the inhabitants of the Great Plains view these labels in a different light. They often prize themselves for being "pure of heart," being able to avoid the "corruptive "influences of mainstream society. Turning away from a life complicated with materialistic desires/ambitions enables Great Plainsmen to focus upon people-to-people relationships.

While stereotypes are generally created upon fragments of truth, it is important to note that these "accepted-as-true facts" are not always applicable to every individual. Thus, although many people in the Great Plains region may showcase these stereotypes (both positive and negative), these stereotypes are not representative of 100% of the general population.

On the other hand, some believe that Great Plains stereotypes are --nowadays-- generally innaccurate. James Shortridge (in The American Midwest: Its Meaning in American Culture) argues that the myth of the Great Plains disintegrated during the 1920s:

The degeneration and simplication of the regional image occurred [during the 1920s], characterized by mixed judgments from outsiders and by an air of smug self-righteousness within the region. People in the Middle West still had faith in the pastoral-technological fusion and were working to perfect the traditional pastoral vision of a moral society. The goal was noble in a way, but it was out of touch with prevailing national interests in materialism and sophistication. The economic depression after 1929 temporarily aided the moralists by removing the glamour from Eastern urban life and even fostering a "back-to-the-land" movement. However, hard times also eroded cherished rural ideas, particularly claims for self-sufficiency and natural nobility. [2]

Different Regional Labels

Great Plains

Map of the Great Plains (graphic courtesy of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln's Center for Great Plains Studies)

Throughout the years, various regional labels have been applied to the Great Plains; these include "the Midwest" and "the Heartland."

The term Midwestern has been used since the 1880s to refer to portions of the central United States. [3] According to the United States Census Bureau, the Midwest (one of the four U.S. geographic regions--the others being the West, the South, and the Northeast) consists of the following 12 states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. [4]

The "Heartland" is described by Merrian-Webster Online as being "the central geographical region of the United States in which mainstream or traditional values predominate." [5]

The term Great Plains refers to the region west of the 96th/98th meridian (west of the Mississippi River) and east of the Rocky Mountains; this term was brought into use through Nevin Fenneman's 1916 study titled Physiographic Subdivision of the United States. [6] Prior to this work, the area was commonly known as the "High Plains." The area of the Great Plains covers parts of Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming, as well as the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. [7] According to the North American Environmental Atlas (a publication of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation --an agency made up of the geographical agencies of the Mexican, American, and Canadian governments), the Great Plains is an "ecoregion synonymous with prairies and grasslands rather than as physiographic region defined by topography." [8]

Common Myths

Examples of Great Plains Myths:

  • Midwest Meme

    The "rural" stereotype of the Midwest

    The "Garden of the World"
  • The "Great American Desert"
  • Manifest Destiny
  • The Closed Frontier
  • The Safety Value
  • A Democratic Utopia

The "Garden of the World":

The first Europeans to explore the Great Plains envisioned a "garden of the world" that combined aspects of "Virgil's pastorals, Europe's carefully cultivated gardens, God's kingdom, Moore's Utopia, and the Edenic garden." [9] Through their literary efforts, eastern American writers such as Emerson and Thoreau transformed the "savageness" of the wilderness into an inspirational refuge from the stresses of everyday society.

Over time, politics and economics turned the "Garden of the World" from an image of a garden paradise into a story of laborious reward. If people were willing to work the land, they would supposedly be rewarded with bountiful harvests. After the Civil War, railroad officials and land speculators attempted to attract new settlers to the Great Plains. To promote the supposedly "healthy" farmland, people interested in settling in the region were presented with crop statistics, personal testimonials, and lyrical promises. [10] In turn, these people developed a naive belief that the land could provide for all of their needs. The settling of the Great Plains brought the aspects of "civilization" to the garden in order to create a higher standard of living for all parties involved. Despite progressive technological innovations, the land of the Great Plains often demanded total commitment before it would fulfill its promise of fertility. [11]

As settlers attempted to farm the Great Plains, they began to realize that naive, wishful thinking alone --as promoted through deceptive advertising-- would not transform the area into a literal "Garden of Eden." The idea of the "Garden of the World" evolved into the idea that civilization must be established in the wilderness, leading to the creation of a refuge to close off space and time. [12]

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In this "humorous" cartoon about the U.S., the cosmopolitan view of Nebraska is that it is located "somewhere" in the middle of the country.

The "Great American Desert":

Unlike the accounts of Lewis and Clark, many explorers condemned the Great Plains as being desolate and uninhabitable. The Stephen Long expedition of 1823, as a result of poor preparation, experienced adverse circumstances and dissatisfaction with the land. Chronicling his adventures, Long described the region as being "almost wholly unfit for cultivation, and, of course, uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for subsistence." [13] Scrawling the words "Great Desert" across his map, the myth of hostile barrenness was born.

The concept of the "Great American Desert" was enhanced by discontentment with the "Garden of the World" myth. As the American edge of the frontier began moving further west, enterprising businessmen endeavored to combat the idea of sterility via misleading promotions. After being lured to the Great Plains by false and elaborate promises, many people realized that they were unprepared for the work it would take to establish farms or businesses on the plains. [14] Experiencing feelings of desolation, the exuberant dream of the "Promised Land" faded into wisps of desert sand.

Manifest Destiny:

Stereotype Map of the United States

Stereotypes can literally create a map of the United States.(Picture courtesy of

The idea of Manifest Destiny originated from the belief that America's borders were destined to expand across the continent, eventually stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean; settlement in the "wilderness" would catalyze unlimited growth of the nation. Many people, seeing Manifest Destiny as giving the United States the right to control the entire American continent, began to believe that it was their duty to establish civilization in the howling emptiness of the Great Plains. [15]

Americans began flocking to the Great Plains to settle after the finalization of the Louisiana Purchase. Although America did not have much of a toehold in its new territory, Native Americans had been inhabitants of the area for hundreds of years. Settlers, however, believed that Indians should vacate that which was "divinely intended for the white man's occupancy." [16]

The portrayal of Manifest Destiny in the arts ranges greatly in its diversity. From vast landscapes to biased portrayals of American Indians, artists sought to capture the optimistic spirit of expansion in a medium that would lend credibility to the myth itself. In addition, the nineteenth century saw the birth of the literary genre of Western fiction. These tales of the "Wild West" explored the subordination of the wilderness (with characters such as cowboys often serving as protagonists) and the effects of such conquest upon American civilization.


"Stereotypical" Nebraska (comic courtesy of

The Closed Frontier:

As writers began penning stories of the Great Plains (circa 1890), the myths of the "Garden of the West" and "Manifest Destiny" had already begun to fade into history. As officially stated in the U.S. Census of 1890, the frontier was at last closed. [17]

Increased settlement in the Midwest led to the constriction of the mythical "safety valve." By the early 1900s, new homesteaders found only marginal land or rented farms to be available. [18] As the Great Plains became more populated and developed, the people of "uncivilized" frontier life were gradually perceived as being "civilized" pioneers of the West.

According to Harold Simonson (author of The Closed Frontier), the image of the closed frontier acts as a metaphor for American tragedy; in this form of hearbreak, the finite nature of progress and possibilities is grudgingly recognized. In Simonson's words, "the existentialism symbolized by a closed frontier replaces the idealism engendered on an open frontier. Instead of a limitless frontier, there is a wall. The tension comes from the illusory prospect of the one and the certitude of the other." [19]

The Nation That Stereotypes Together...

The nation that stereotypes together...

The Safety Valve

The myth of the safety value was an appeal supported by Eastern philanthropists and businessmen in which they encouraged the poor and the less desirable --such as orphans, destitute children, members of lower social classes, and foreign immigrants-- to move to the Great Plains. [20] However, this myth operates under the assumption that free land in the Midwest will remain available infinitely and continously. By believing the Great Plains to act as a societal "safety valve," Easterners began to deride those who chose to settle in the West.

Immigrants found the West to act as a problematic safety valve. Acceptance was based on wealth, not social class; however, barriers of language and custom cut off new arrivals from familiar community and culture. [21] As immigrants became accustomed to the land, they also had to become familiar with the area's language, customs, religion, and prejudical beliefs. Many of these new settlers began to realize that it was difficult to preserve a native culture that does not conform to American society. [22]

The U.S. map according to Michiganders

The U.S. map according to Michiganders (picture courtesy of

A Democratic Utopia

Disillusioned by the ideas of the "Garden of the West," "Manifest Destiny," and "social valve," people began to transform their vision of the Great Plains. Rather than dreamers or social outcasts, they envisioned strong men and women willing to transform homesteads and farms on marginal land into communities. [23] The symbol of the plow against the sunset began to serve as a representation of the struggle that settlers faced in coaxing allegedly "infertile" land to provide economic benefits. As stated by Emerson and Whitman, the West was an autonomous utopia in which small farmers would be committed to creating a society based on the equality of land and work. [24]

A major aspect of the "democratic utopia" myth was adherence to the Protestant work ethic. This concept emphasizes that hard work, thriftiness, and sacrifice would be rewarded with Divine blessings of ownership, security, and equality. [25]

Works Cited

1. ^ "Midwestern United States -- Culture." Experience Festival. Global Oneness, 2013. Web. 25 February 2013.

2. Shortridge, James R. The Middle West: Its Meaning in American Culture. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 15 March 1989. Print. p. 41

3. ^ Oxford English Dictionary entries for "Midwestern", "Midwest", and "Midwesterner",

4. ^ Census Regions and Divisions of the United States, U.S. Census Bureau

5. ^ Merriam-Webster online

6. ^ Fenneman, Nevin M. (January 1917). "Physiographic Subdivision of the United States." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 3 (1): 17–22. OCLC 43473694. PMC 1091163. PMID 16586678. Retrieved 6 May 2013.

7. ^ Wishart, David. 2004. The Great Plains Region, In: Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, pp. xiii-xviii. ISBN 0-8032-4787-7

8. ^

9. Quantic, Diane Dufa. The Nature of the Place: A Study of Great Plains Fiction. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995. Print. p. 30

10. Ibid., p. 56

11. Ibid., p. 58

12. Ibid., p. 97

13. Ibid., p. 38

14. Ibid., p. 65

15. Ibid., p. 50-51

16. Ibid., p. 51

17. Ibid., p. xix

18. Ibid., p. 64

19. Ibid., p. 97

20. Ibid., p. 60

21. Ibid., p. 62

22. Ibid., p. 64

23. Ibid., p. 70

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid., p. 73

How are Great Plains stereotypes and myths portrayed by the media?

See Portrayal of Great Plains Stereotypes and Myths by the Media: A Case Study of the American Musical

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