Excerpt from The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Worst Hard Time

The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl

by Timothy Egan

The Worst Hard Time
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  • First Published:
    Dec 2005, 320 pages
    Sep 2006, 352 pages

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"For the sake of a lasting peace," General Sheridan told the Texas Legislature in 1875, the Anglos should "kill, skin and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated. Then your prairie can be covered with speckled cattle and the festive cowboy . . . forerunner of an advanced civilization."

The animals left behind sun-crisped turds, which the nesters used to heat their dugouts and soddies, until they too ran out.

Empty of bison and Indians, the prairie was a lonely place; it had taken barely ten years to eliminate them. In victory, the American government was not sure what to do with the land.

"The High Plains continues to be the most alluring body of unoccupied land in the United States, and will remain such until the best means of their utilization have been worked out," the United States Geological Survey wrote in a report at the dawn of the twentieth century.  


At the Texas border, the White family crossed into the XIT ranch — or rather, what was left of it. Virtually all his life Bam White had heard stories of the Eden of Texas, the fabled land of waist-high bluestem, of short, resilient buffalo turf, and the nutrient-rich grama, part of what Coronado had called "an immensity of grass." Horizon to horizon, buffalo heaven, and a cattleman's dream, the XIT had been part of the New World's magical endowment — grasslands covering 21 percent of the United States and Canada, the largest single ecosystem on the continent outside the boreal forest. In Texas alone, grasslands covered two thirds of the state, with more than 470 native species. Virtually all of the Panhandle, nearly twenty million acres, was grass. In the spring, the carpet flowered amid the green, and as wind blew, it looked like music on the ground. To see a piece of it in 1926, even in winter dormancy, could delight a tomorrow man like Bam White, who loved sky and earth in endless projection.

The temperature warmed just before dusk, and the sky boiled up, thunderheads coming out of the east. It was too early in the year yet for clouds to be throwing down lightning and hail, but it happened enough that people took precautions when warning signs appeared overhead. Bam fretted about his horses. They looked sad-eyed and road-worn. Like most cowboys in the High Plains, he preferred darker horses, chocolate-colored or leathery brown, on a belief that they were less likely to attract lightning. One of his horses was lighter, not quite beige, just light enough to bring a thunderbolt down on it. Bam had never actually seen a light-haired horse combust at the touch of lightning, but he had heard plenty of stories. A friend of his had seen a cow struck dead by a sky-spark. Bam looked around: there were no rock overhangs or little arroyos such as they had passed through up north.Well, hell — what did those XIT cowboys used to do? If those boys could get through a thunder-boomer without shelter, Bam White could do the same.

Everybody in Texas had a story about the XIT. It was the ranch that built the state capitol, the granddaddy of them all. Fifteen years after the end of the Civil War, Texas wanted the biggest statehouse in the union, a palace of polished red granite. To pay for the new stone showpiece, the state offered up three million acres in the distant Panhandle to anybody willing to construct the building. After the tribes were routed, Charles Goodnight had moved a herd of 1,600 cattle down from Colorado to Palo Duro Canyon. The grass then was free; it attracted other nomadic Anglo beef-drivers and speculators from two continents. In 1882, a company out of Chicago organized the Capitol Syndicate, and this group of investors took title to three million acres in return for agreeing to build the capitol. It would cost about $3.7 million, which meant the land went for $1.23 an acre. The syndicate drew some big British investors into the deal, among them the Earl of Aberdeen and several members of Parliament. By then, the Great Plains cattle market was the talk of many a Tory cocktail hour. Books such as How to Get Rich on the Plains explained how any investor could double his money in five years.

Copyright © 2005 by Timothy Egan. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.  

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