Walter Prescott Webb

Walter Prescott Webb
Born (1888-04-03)April 3, 1888
Panola County, Texas
Died March 8, 1963(1963-03-08) (aged 74)
Austin, Texas
Occupation Author, Historian
Nationality American
Genre Non-fiction, history, Texana
Subject American West
Notable works The Great Plains, The Handbook of Texas
Notable awards Loubat Prize (1933)
Relatives William J. Oliphant (father-in-law)

Walter Prescott Webb (April 3, 1888 in Panola County, Texas – March 8, 1963 near Austin, Texas)[1] was an American historian noted for his groundbreaking work on the American West. As president of the Texas State Historical Association, he launched the project that produced the Handbook of Texas. He is also noted for his early criticism of the water usage patterns in the region.


Webb was reared on his family farm in Carthage in rural Panola County, Texas. After graduating from Ranger High School in Ranger in Eastland County, he earned a teaching certificate and taught at several Texas schools. He eventually attended the University of Texas at Austin and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1915 at the age of twenty-seven. He worked as bookkeeper in San Marcos and optometrist's assistant in San Antonio, then in 1918 he was invited to join the history faculty at the University of Texas. He wrote his Master of Arts thesis on the Texas Rangers in 1920 and was encouraged to pursue his PhD. After a year of study at the University of Chicago, he returned to Austin, where he began a historical work on the West. The result of this work was The Great Plains, published in 1931, hailed as great breakthrough in the interpretation of the history of the region, and declared the outstanding contribution to American history since World War I by the Social Science Research Council in 1939. He was awarded his PhD for his work on The Great Plains in 1932, the year after its publication.

In 1939-1946 he served as president of the Texas State Historical Association. During his tenure as president, he launched a project to produce an encyclopedia of Texas, which was subsequently published in 1952 as the Handbook of Texas. The world wide web version of the work is a popular Internet reference tool on the state. In all, Webb wrote or edited more than 20 books. One of them, The Texas Rangers (1935) was considered the definitive study of the legendary Texas Rangers and its Captain Bill McDonald.

In 1958 Webb served as president of the American Historical Association.

Walter Prescott Webb grave at Texas State Cemetery in Austin, Texas

Webb's father-in-law was the Confederate States Army veteran and Austin, Texas-based photographer William J. Oliphant (1845–1930).[2]

Webb was killed in an automobile accident near Austin. He was interred at Texas State Cemetery in Austin on the proclamation of then Governor John B. Connally, Jr. At the time of his death he was working on a television series on American civilization under a grant from the Ford Foundation.

In his honor the University of Texas established the Walter Prescott Webb Chair of History and Ideas. The position is currently held by A.G. Hopkins. Webb Middle School in Austin, Texas is also named after him.[3]


Rundell (1963) has examined Webb's main books to see what inspired and prompted the writing of each, what the purpose and message of each seems to be, and Webb's emergent philosophy of history. The professional reception of these studies was also considered. The message of The Great Plains (1931) is contained in its subtitle 'A Study in Institutions and Environment.' Its primary purpose was to present representative ideas about the region rather than to write its history. Webb called the settled area of Europe 'the Metropolis' and the rest of the world 'the Great Frontier', claiming that "the Great Plains environment... constitutes a geographic unity whose influences have been so powerful as to put a characteristic mark upon everything that survives within its borders", pointing to the revolver, barbed wire, and the windmill as essential to its settlement. He claims that the 98th meridian constitutes an "institutional fault", with "practically every institution that was carried across it... either broken and remade or else greatly altered". The book was hailed as one of the top contributions to Am. history since World War I by the Social Science Research Council in 1939.

Webb's The Texas Rangers (1935) was a pungent and learned treatment of a frontier institution. The economic domination of the North, through the tariff, Civil War pensions, and patent monopolies, and the development of the centralized economy dominated by 200 major corporations (over the South and West, which contained the largest share of natural resources) was the theme of Divided We Stand (1937).

More Water for Texas (1954) popularized and vitalized a federal study of what he regarded as the most serious problem of his state. The Webb thesis focused on the fragility of the Western environment, pointing out the aridity of the territory and the dangers of an industrialized West.

In 1951 Webb published The Great Frontier, proposing the Boom Hypothesis, that the new lands discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492 ran out by 1900, closing the frontier and giving the U.S. economic and ecological problems, threatening the future of individualism, capitalism, and democracy. The book caused a firestorm of controversy.

O'Har (2006) shows that in his classic interdisciplinary history of the post-Civil War West, Webb develops dominant characteristics of the Great Plains – treelessness, level terrain, and semiaridity – and examines effect on the lives of people from very different environments. To succeed, pioneers made radical readjustments in their way of life, eschewed traditions, and altered social institutions. Webb believed what set the Great Plains apart from other regions was its individualism, innovation, democracy, and lawlessness, themes he derived from the Frontier Thesis of Frederick Jackson Turner. His focus is said to have missed the emergence of a national empire, and others criticize him for failing to acknowledge the roles played by women, Indians, and Mexicans.[4]


Webb was an esteemed historian when he wrote an article in the May 1957 edition of Harper's entitled "The American West, Perpetual Mirage". In the article, Webb criticized U.S. water policy in the West, stating that the region was "a semidesert with a desert heart", and that it was a national folly to continue to follow the current federal policy (managed through the United States Bureau of Reclamation) of attempting to convert the region into productive cropland through irrigation. Webb's criticism of federal policy was roundly rebuked at the time, but some contemporary critics of U.S. water policy regard him as prophetic in his views.



See also


  2. William James Oliphant Biographical Sketch, Texas State Library and Archives Commission
  3. Juarez, Tina. "Where Homeboys Feel at Home in School". ASCD.
  4. George O'Har, "Where The Buffalo Roam: Walter Prescott Webb's 'The Great Plains'", Technology and Culture 2006 47(1): 156–163
  5. XL | Reviews | 'Nightswim,' Conspirare & more – Oct. 14, 2004


Primary sources

Further reading

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