How Memorialization Shapes History and Tourism

As I have begun writing the chapter on memorialization of the overland trails, I am struck by the connections this chapter has to others in the report. How people have commemorated, designated, wrote about, and toured sites along the overland trail have had a direct correlation to the national political, cultural, and social context of the time and have consequently influenced, either for good or ill, how the trails have been studied and remembered ever since. The history of the nineteenth century overland migrations themselves, as Nic Gunvaldson and I explore in our chapters on the migrations, obviously formed the cornerstone for memorialization efforts in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The role of Scotts Bluff National Monument in the memorialization and commemoration process has much to do with its formation as a local landmark and subsequent development within the neighboring communities, as Doug Sheflin’s chapter on town and park relationships will demonstrate. Memorialization of the overland trail has privileged a white, Anglo-Saxon narrative that ignores or over-simplifies the rich and diverse Native American connections to the trail landscape and the Scotts Bluff region, past and present, as Andrew Cabrall is exploring in his two chapters on the Native American experience.

One of my earlier chapters written for this project involved a look at mobility in Nebraska and the Scotts Bluff area in particular, as people have moved about in the region from the 1860s to the present in search of land, industry, opportunity, and tourist experiences. The team has decided that because of the overlap between this chapter and others that will be part of the final report, my research for the mobility chapter will instead be folded into other appropriate sections of the finished document. It seemed to make sense to incorporate the tourism sections of the mobility chapter into my current chapter on memorialization. At first, I was unsure how strong the connections would be. As I have begun writing, however, I have noticed how well the two correlate. Memorialization of the overland trails and of Scotts Bluff National Monument has not just been about marker dedications, speeches, pageantry, and anniversary events. Memorialization is also part of the day-to-day, annual routines of how and why Americans remember, read about, visit, and explore sites connected to their nation’s past. The desire to increase tourism, and thus economic development, was a major reason why local residents of Scottsbluff and Gering pushed to get Scotts Bluff designated as a national monument. Tourism is both an economic driver and a vehicle for popular memory. When tourists visit historic sites, they bring to the table a host of preconditioned values, beliefs, assumptions, and motivations, often colored by the cultural and social forces at work in their nation at that time. Many tourists believe that it is important to visit historic sites in order to gain an appreciation for their nation’s past, or to inculcate patriotism or a particular set of values in the lives of their children. Consequently, tourism is an important element of memorialization. However, tourists are not merely passive consumers of information who seek edutainment. They can, and many do, play an active role in how Americans continue to shape our understanding and commemoration of historic events. Many parents, including my own, have dragged many a young child along to a host of historic sites during the family summer vacation. In the process, many of those children, like me, have discovered a passion for the history of places that eventually turned into a career of helping to interpret and document that history for others. And most of us still enjoy touring the sites that are important to our nation’s heritage.

William Henry Jackson: Unlikely Overland Trail Spokesman

Much of my research over the past few days has concentrated on William H. Jackson. It is mind boggling to me what a prolific photographer and artist Jackson was and how much he accomplished in his long, ninety-nine year life. However, what struck me in particular is how tenuous his ties really are to the Oregon Trail and Scotts Bluff in particular. Although Jackson traveled the route in 1866 as a bullwhacker and again on a return trip in 1867, he only passed through Scotts Bluff on the 1866 trip. As a photographer with F. V. Hayden’s geological surveys from 1870-1878, Jackson spent many summers in Wyoming, including two that involved traveling along sections of the overland trail in that state. However, none of the surveys of which he was a part involved Nebraska, and Jackson never photographed Scotts Bluff during his years as a landscape photographer. Jackson himself viewed his years with the survey as among his best, and Yellowstone, Mount of the Holy Cross, and Mesa Verde held the closest places in his heart.

I have found myself speculating whether Jackson would have ever returned to subjects of the overland trail had he not met Howard Driggs in New York in the late 1920s, a friendship that resulted in Driggs publishing Jackson’s autobiography and appointing Jackson as research secretary of the Oregon Trail Memorial Association (OTMA) in 1928. In his later years, Jackson did mostly commissioned watercolors and oil paintings, many of them for people like Driggs, who used Jackson’s paintings and sketches to illustrate books about a romanticized West. Jackson seems to have enjoyed this work and the opportunity to revisit his early sketches and journals from the 1860s to help him get the setting and details right for these paintings. People knew him primarily for his survey photographs, however, and only as time wore on would his work for Driggs and OTMA attain prominence, now standing as equal to or even rivaling his survey work in fame.

Even Jackson’s association with Scotts Bluff National Monument would likely not have been formed was it not for Driggs and the many events that Jackson attended as a member of OTMA. Jackson was an old timer who survived longer than many other overland travelers, so having him present as a speaker or guest of honor at events and dedications at Oregon Trail sites like Scotts Bluff was a feather in the cap of these locations. The otherwise inconsequential fact that Jackson had camped near Mitchell Pass in 1866 and could personally point the location out seventy years later likely added to a sense that he was tied to Scotts Bluff in an inextricable way. I am still researching all the details of how such a large portion of Jackson’s sketches, paintings, and photographs as well as personal effects wound up at the museum at Scotts Bluff National Monument. It seems unusual, considering his closer attachment to other western sites and his residence in places like Omaha, Denver, Washington, D.C., and New York City.

Certainly Jackson played a role in the history of Scotts Bluff and in ensuring its place among the still-revered landmarks of the overland trail. However, the more I read the more I see Jackson as being less of a leader in overland trail memorialization and more a convenient tool to accomplish the aims of others. Unlike Ezra Meeker, Howard Driggs, Merrill Mattes, or Paul Henderson, Jackson was not necessarily an advocate for the overland trail history and sites. He certainly appreciated the history he had lived through, and made money memorializing it in visual form. But had he made friends with someone other than Driggs, perhaps someone who wanted to preserve the cliff dwellings of the Four Corners area, for example, Jackson likely would have just as easily spent his last two decades painting other western scenes with which he was at least, if not more, familiar. In this way, Jackson is almost an accidental hero of the memorialization movement. An important hero, certainly, but also one who was propelled to that position by men wishing to take advantage of his talents and his cachet as an old timer who had lived during the trail days. Jackson himself, even humble and self-effacing as he was, recognized this and expressed some frustration and helplessness that his life and story had been co-opted by others so that they could tell history their way.

I’m realizing now that telling the Jackson story in light of memorialization of the overland trails and Scotts Bluff in particular is going to involve more nuance and fresh interpretation than expected. Jackson’s story, along with all of the other unusual stories and characters I have discovered, is going to make for fascinating chapter material.

Further Reading:

Hales, Peter B. William Henry Jackson and the Transformation of the American Landscape. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.

Waitley, Douglas. William Henry Jackson: Framing the Frontier. Missoula, MT: Mountain
Press Publishing Company, 1999.

Gundy, Lloyd W., ed. William Henry Jackson: An Intimate Portrait: The Elwood P. Bonney Journal. Edited and annotated by Lloyd W. Gundy. Denver, CO: Colorado Historical Society, 2000.

Driggs, Howard R. Westward America. With reproductions of forty water color paintings by William H. Jackson. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1942.

Jackson, Clarence S. Picture Maker of the Old West: William H. Jackson. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1947.

Jackson, William Henry. The Pioneer Photographer; Rocky Mountain Adventures with a Camera. By William H. Jackson in collaboration with Howard R. Driggs; illustrated from sketches and photographs made by the author. Yonkers-on-Hudson, NY: World Book Company, 1929.

Retracing the Overland Trail in the Twentieth Century

One of the most interesting things in my research has been discovering how many people have written driving guides on the Oregon Trail. One of the earliest seems to be one produced by the Federal Writers’ Project in 1939, which provides step-by-step directions, mileage, and landmarks. Other driving guides are more personal, giving not only detailed information about following in the footsteps of the pioneers but also how the writer felt about the trip and their observations into the past. Ezra Meeker, himself a pioneer, was probably the first to do this when he published a version of the diary he kept when retracing the Oregon Trail in 1906. One of the people who followed Meeker’s lead was Irene Paden, who published The Wake of the Prairie Schooner in 1944 as a compilation of her family’s decade of travels back and forth along various routes of the overland trails.

What is unique about these part driving guide, part personal memoir books is their demonstration of how ordinary people, who were trail enthusiasts but not necessarily history buffs, were memorializing the overland trails in their own way. Most did not recreate the trip with strict historical accuracy; people like the Padens drove automobiles, stayed in hotels, and ate at restaurants along the way. Instead, their focus on authenticity was through following the historic route as closely as possible. Some, like the Padens, even drove their automobiles in the ruts of the historic trail!

As they traveled, people like the Padens often viewed history from their lens of comfortable twentieth century life. They read overland diaries and journals and amassed enormous collections of material, but struggled to lay their modern biases aside so they could attempt to understand the experiences of the overland migrants from a nineteenth century perspective. It was through the musings of these twentieth century trail enthusiasts that historians begin to see how some of the myths of overland migration crept into how the history of the era has been told ever since. For example, Irene Paden zeroed in on any mention she ever found in diaries of interactions with Native Americans. Although we know now that most emigrants likely did not encounter Native Americans on the trail, and if they did, that these encounters were usually friendly or at least distant, Paden prioritizes accounts that focus on massacres, hostility, and the warring nature of the Plains tribes. She stereotypes Native Americans as dirty, ugly, primitive, brutal, and war-like. Because of her writing and that of many of her contemporaries in the first half of the twentieth century, many people have erroneously over-exaggerated migrant interactions with Native Americans.

Other biases that have crept in to the writing of these individuals includes a monolithic focus on the people traveling overland, relatively little attention to Mormon emigrants, and an over-generalization that the migrants to Oregon were white families seeking land and homes and migrants to California were white single men seeking wealth. Later scholarship has proved many of these claims false, but the way people have remembered and memorialized the overland trail continues to emphasize many elements like these. Consequently, my goal with the memorialization chapter is to reveal how we have portrayed the overland migration over time, discuss how myths have crept into the history, and provide a directive for a new interpretation of overland migration.

Public Presentations May 27-29

The PLHC team will be making a trip to Scotts Bluff in May!

Trip dates: Wednesday, May 27 – Friday, May 29, 2015

If you are able, please attend one of our public presentations we will be holding during our visit:

Wednesday, May 27, 7-8pm: Scotts Bluff National Monument visitors center, William Henry Jackson Room, 190276 Old Oregon Trail Road, Gering, Nebraska 69341.

Thursday, May 28, 12-1pm: Legacy of the Plains Museum, 2930 Old Oregon Trail Road, Gering, Nebraska 69341.

Thursday, May 28, 5:30-7pm: Lied Scottsbluff Public Library, 1809 3rd Avenue, Scottsbluff, Nebraska 69361.

The first half of each meeting will be a presentation of the project as a whole and the team’s research. The second half will be an opportunity for attendees to participate in discussion and share about the history and importance of Scotts Bluff National Monument. Information on how to get involved with the project will be shared. These meetings are open to anyone who would like to attend.


Want the PLHC team to share with your group or organization about the project and how you can get involved? Contact us to set up a presentation.

A New Framework for Memorialization

I have read a wide scope of literature related to overland trail memorialization over the last two weeks. It has spanned early memorialization through Ezra Meeker’s work starting in 1906, promotional materials from the Oregon Trail Memorial Association and its successors, studies of landscape photography and William Henry Jackson, including his role in memorialization in the 1930s and 1940s, and modern works that cater to tourists and adventurers seeking to retrace and relive the pioneer experience. The tone of these materials shows a change over time from 1906 to the present. Early memorialization literature focused on the “all-American” nature of the westward migration movement, and the patriotism of settlers “conquering” Oregon and “wresting” it from the hands of the “arrogant” British. Efforts to mark the Oregon Trail with monuments focused on the need to encourage civic pride in the nation’s young people and remind Americans of the struggles of their forebears. Today’s literature focuses a bit less on these grand patriotic narratives and instead celebrates the individuality of the pioneers and their daily struggles, and promotes a desire to preserve the nation’s rich heritage. Much of this literature is tourist-focused, aimed at providing the modern American with directions for how to retrace the Trail in their own way, or relive the pioneer experience through reenactments and living history. Yet, whether the material was written in 1906 or 2006, one motif has remained constant in the literature: the idea that overland migration in the mid nineteenth century was an important, transformational period in our nation’s history, and one which we would do well to remember and preserve.

Is there an opportunity in these motifs and themes for a new interpretation of overland trail memorialization? I think so. I think a broader interpretation of overland migration must encompass a much more complex and possibly less progress-oriented narrative than has historically been the case. Even today, the narrative is remarkably narrow, context-less, and white-centric. The narrative gives some space to the broader context of American political, social, and economic history that prompted overland migration, but not nearly enough. This, coupled with an inadequate discussion of what happened to the 350,000 white emigrants after they arrived at their destinations, gives the overland migration almost a feeling of an aberration in American history, disconnected from the continuity of the story before and after it. The also narrative lacks discussion of the ultimate impact of white migration upon the Native American peoples through whose territory the emigrants traveled, and the ramifications of mass mobility for Native Americans as well as other non-Anglo peoples, including Mexicans. A more all-encompassing narrative for overland trail memorialization might be much less of a heroic story of progress, but it would more fully explain the migration’s place within the whole of American history, and recognize both the successes and failures, heroes and villains, achievements and consequences, of this important period in our nation’s history. A new memorialization would focus on instilling in the next generation and appreciation for diversity, a humility in the face of past wrongs, and a desire to learn forgotten stories of those historic players given short shrift in the past.

Writing Geology: 19th Century Travelers Describe Scotts Bluff

Writing the geology essay is coming along well. I am pleased with the richness of the sources, and if anything I have too much I could write about rather than too little. I have completed a draft of the first section, which provides an overview of the study of geology and the way in which the landscape at Scotts Bluff formed. I am now close to finishing a draft of the second section, which looks at how white travelers from the 1830s through the 1860s have described the geology, landscape, and wildlife at the bluffs.

What has been most remarkable as I go back over my primary sources and mesh them with the narrative is how many of these 19th century travelers provided surprisingly accurate descriptions of the geologic compositions of features such as Court House Rock, Chimney Rock, and Scotts Bluff. Many of these writers were spot-on in their speculations about the formation of these landscapes and the role of erosion in shaping rock features. While a few of these writers may have dabbled in studying geology or nature, most were novices who simply made empirical assessments of rock formations based on what they saw.

As a historian, I find this reassuring. Historians do not need to be afraid of science: it is merely the empirical study of what we see before us, and digging into the layers to explore deeper if explanations for what we see are not readily apparent. Reading the geologic landscape is very similar to reading historic documents. In fact, Charles Lyell, the father of modern geology, observed in 1830 how very similar the disciplines of history and geology are, noting that both require studying the past to understand the present. Lyell built the foundations for the modern study of geology by arguing that scientists should use the earth’s present natural laws to determine how the earth has gradually changed over time. The travelers of the 19th century, whether or not they even knew about Lyell’s work, were in fact doing just as he recommended. They were looking for clues in the landscape to tell them about forces that had shaped the landscape over time.

The wealthy British tourist Richard Burton, traveling by stagecoach through Mitchell Pass at Scotts Bluff in 1862, remarked how erosion had created the badlands that made passage through the bluffs so treacherous:

“The route lay between the right-hand fortress and the outwork, through a degraded bed of softer marl, once doubtless part of the range. The sharp, sudden torrents which pour from the heights on both sides, and the draughty winds—Scott’s Bluffs are the permanent head-quarters of hurricanes—have cut up the ground into a labyrinth of jagged gulches steeply walled in. We dashed down the drains and pitchholes with a violence which shook the nave-bands from our sturdy wheels. … The descent was abrupt, with sudden turns and one place showed the remains of a wagon and team which had lately come to grief.” ∞

Edwin Bryant, who traveled overland through Nebraska on his way to California in 1846, wrote about the geology of Chimney Rock:

“It is composed of soft rock, and is what remains of one of the bluffs of the Platte, the fierce storms of wind and rain which rage in this region, having worn it into this shape. The column which represents the chimney, will soon crumble away and disappear entirely.” §

Of course, their understanding of deep geological time was still a bit weak—most travelers were more willing to ascribe a faster rate to natural processes than is actually true. Like Bryant, many emigrants speculated that Chimney Rock and other landmarks were eroding so quickly that they would disappear within a few decades at most! Thankfully, we know erosion does not work quite so quickly, and we are still able to enjoy and study the North Platte Valley’s rock formations today.


∞ Richard F. Burton, The City of the Saints and Across the Rocky Mountains to California (1861; rReprint with introduction and notes by Fawn M. Brodie, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963), 87-88.

§ Edwin Bryant, What I Saw in California. 1848. pp.101-102. Accessed in online database, “Trails of Hope: Overland Diaries and Letters, 1846-1869,” BYU Harold B. Lee Library Digital Collections.

Mobility vs. Persistence: Two Sides of the Same Coin?

In my research, I have gotten the feeling that Nebraskans view themselves from the context of late nineteenth century homesteaders. These homesteaders are portrayed as determined and brave conquerors of a wild land, who put down roots and whose generational experiences on the land have given Nebraska its rich culture of persistence. This view is evident in the literary works of Nebraskans such as Willa Cather and Mari Sandoz. At the same time that they value the pioneer tradition, Nebraskans have always tried to expand the state’s industry and economic diversification. Despite some achievements in this regard, Nebraska remains a primarily agricultural state that struggles with out-migration due to limited opportunities.

These views are not just the perspectives of Nebraskans in 1900, 1930, or 1945. They are still held, as evidenced by the concluding lines in the 1997 third edition of History of Nebraska, a definitive study by James C. Olson and Ronald C. Naugle. The authors write,

“Nearly a quarter-century since their centennial celebration, Nebraskans continue to struggle with many of the same issues. Their society is still heavily dependent on agriculture yet is seeking a broader economic diversity through the expansion of industry. The out-migration of Nebraskans remains a concern…. As Nebraskans look to the new century, there is much in their past to celebrate. Both creative and pragmatic solutions have resolved challenges of the past and will likely do so in the future. The land and the pioneer spirit of its people remain Nebraska’s most valuable resources for meeting the challenges of the twenty-first century.”¹

It may indeed be that the land and the pioneer spirit has made Nebraska what it is and will continue to give its people direction, but this view can neglect the role that mobility has played in the lives of Nebraskans since before it was a state. People have constantly moved in and out of the state for land, jobs, and leisure. Much of the mobility within the state has taken place within the minority population, including American Indians, Mexicans and Hispanics, Japanese Americans, and African Americans. These are many of the key players in Nebraska’s history that historians Olson and Naugle devote little, if any, space.

However, other historians have argued that the Great Plains and Nebraska have a more complex, multi-faceted story, one that takes into account the persistence but also the mobility, the white Euro-American homesteader as well as the American Indians, Mexicans, and African Americans who transformed the land. R. Douglas Hurt, the preeminent scholar of the Great Plains, has shown that the ideas of mobility and persistence are not at odds with each other; they are mutually compatible, normal processes of life. He calls Plains residents the “next year people in a next year country,” and appropriate phrase that sums up their attachment to the land and to the idea that the future is full of possibilities. Hurt concludes his book The Big Empty: The Great Plains in the Twentieth Century by saying,

“The depopulation or changing population of rural areas was not necessarily bad, because it indicated the traditional, historical process of adjustment of plains men and women to their environment, something they had done since they first came to the plains. During the twentieth century, some chose to stay while others chose to leave, but for those who stayed by choice and even for many who could not, the Great Plains became their sense of place, the land where they belonged.”²

I think Hurt’s conclusion is an excellent beginning for exploring mobility in Nebraska.

¹ James C. Olson and Ronald C. Naugle, History of Nebraska, 3rd ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 398-399.

² R. Douglas Hurt, The Big Empty: The Great Plains in the Twentieth Century (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2011), 260.

Prisoners of War in Nebraska

One of the most interesting histories I have uncovered recently in my research is the history of World War II prisoner of war camps on the Great Plains. Hundreds of thousands of German and Italian prisoners of war were housed in the United States starting in 1943. The Great Plains provided an ideal location for the POW camps: the region was remote and far from coastlines, many areas were far from major military outposts, and the region’s agricultural areas were suffering the loss of workers due to the war, which had created a labor shortage that prisoners could fill. R. Douglas Hurt’s The Great Plains During World War II introduced me to the story of these prisoners. In his article for Nebraska History, “Prisoners of War in Cheyenne County, 1943-1946,” Ralph Spencer notes that Nebraska had twenty POW camps during the war. Near the town of Scottsbluff, on land that has now been returned to pasture, stood one of two major POW base camps in western Nebraska (the other was located at Fort Robinson).

Many of the prisoners processed through Camp Scottsbluff were later located in smaller, 300-man branch camps, many located close by in communities such as Bayard and Bridgeport. Under the Geneva Convention, officers who were prisoners could not be forced to work, although they could volunteer. Enlisted men could work so long as the labor did not directly aid the war effort and the work was not demeaning or the conditions were similar to those experienced by civilian laborers. Many of the German and Italian prisoners in Nebraska worked on neighboring farmers, including sugar beet farmers in the North Platte Valley. This was an incredible boon for farmers, who faced a severe labor shortage as young men joined the military and many other agricultural workers left for higher-paying defense industry jobs in the cities. While migrant labor, particularly from Mexican-Americans and the Bracero Program, helped with the shortage, it did not supply all the labor farmers needed. Prisoners of war offered accessible, affordable labor, even if in many cases the quality and efficiency of their work was much poorer than that of experienced agricultural laborers.

In contrast to the racism that Nebraskans often displayed toward Mexican migrant workers, many farmers were much more receptive toward German and Italian prisoners. Farmers often treated their prison workforce to home-cooked meals, engaged them in conversation, and sometimes even maintained friendships via correspondence long after the prisoners returned home. I found this very unusual considering that many of these farmers likely had sons fighting the Germans and Italians in Europe. Although the federal government classified Mexican workers as “white,” many residents of the Great Plains did not view them as white. Most Nebraskans were unwilling to surmount the language and culture barriers with their Mexican employees, but residents were more likely to treat European prisoners of war as equals. Similarity of cultural background and even language (since many residents of the Plains were themselves descendants of immigrants, including large numbers of ethnic Germans), may have accounted for some of this, but still does not dismiss the attitudes of Nebraskans.

These prisoners of war were only in Nebraska for a few short years. In 1946, only three years after the first prisoners arrived, the camps closed in and all prisoners were repatriated. Despite the prisoners’ brief time in the Great Plains, the story of mobility in the region is not complete without the unique story of these men. Despite how little has been written about this facet of Great Plains history, my interest has been piqued to learn more about their story and the experiences of the Nebraskans who lived and worked alongside them.

Demographic Shifts in Nebraska Mobility

I have spent much of the past two weeks looking at the Plains since the turn of the century, and have noted that temporary and permanent mobility is a defining social and economic feature of the region. The most useful source in discovering these broad trends in mobility has been R. Douglas Hurt’s The Big Empty: The Great Plains in the Twentieth Century, while many of the other sources I read have provided details on particular themes or eras of mobility in the Great Plains and western Nebraska in particular.

The turn of the century saw a significant influx of Mexican and Mexican American migrant laborers on the Plains, numbers that intensified after 1910 and the unrest of the Mexican Revolution. Single men and later families traveled to the Plains seasonally to take part in agricultural harvests, railroad work crews, the oil industry, and meatpacking plants. Eventually work in the railroad and meatpacking industries often became year-round, and these Mexicans moved to Nebraska and other Plains states permanently, instead of spending their winters in the cities or south in Texas and Mexico where they were recruited. In the Scottsbluff area, many migrant workers came to labor in the sugar beet fields. Those who ended up staying lived in colonias, settlements of Mexican laborers organized by Great Western Sugar Company.

High commodity prices during World War I led to many farmers expanding their production, only to have the market collapse after the end of the war. This set the stage for hard times from the 1920s through the 1930s. Some areas of the Plains were plagued by drought and poor harvests in the 1920s, which intensified with the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. The exodus from the American farm during the Depression had actually already started in the 1920s. Many Nebraskans found better conditions in the Pacific Northwest, where the economy had not been hit as hard. Others moved from farms and rural towns to cities in search of work. The demographic shift of the 1920s and 1930s was permanent; people who migrated to other areas in search of improved economic conditions did not move back to the countryside.

World War II again brought high commodity prices and flush years for the farmers who stayed on the land. The war also brought many new war defense industries to the Great Plains. Although California was the “hot spot” for defense contracts during the war, many Plains states benefitted. Nebraska boasted a number of munitions and ordnance plants, aircraft assembly plants, and military bases. Again a population shift occurred. Defense industries offered much higher wages than most other jobs, so many people left the countryside for the towns and cities where these industries were located. Some stayed within the Plains for these jobs, while many others moved to the Far West states. Cities experienced booming populations and strained city services and infrastructure, while small rural communities hemorrhaged population. Farmers in particular struggled, unable to obtain enough laborers year round and at harvest to process the high production levels called for by the federal government. Many farmhands left for the military or for higher paying defense jobs. Once again, Mexicans filled the void. The federal government authorized the Bracero Program starting in 1942 to provide much-needed temporary labor assistance to agricultural industries across the nation, and Nebraska’s sugar beet fields benefitted from this help. After the war, many defense industries closed down their plants and factories in the Great Plains. Nebraska lost the majority of its defense spending, resulting in the loss of many jobs. Some people chose to move outside the region after the war, but others stayed in the cities where they had found work during the war.

Migration and mobility in Nebraska and the Great Plains changed after the turn of the century. In the late 1800s, people had come to the region for land and farms. By the 1920s, a large exodus from the farm had begun that would wax and wane over the decades. While agricultural laborers often experienced high mobility due to seasonal employment and limited opportunities for advancement, white Nebraskans increasingly moved in search of non-agricultural employment. Cities and towns grew as people sought higher paying jobs and a more comfortable standard of living. The first half of the twentieth century thus saw more demographic population shifts and mobility in the Great Plains than in previous decades.