Walter Prescott Webb

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Walter Prescott Webb

Death: Died
Immediate Family:

Son of Casner P. Webb and Mary Elizabeth Kyle
Husband of Jane Elizabeth Oliphant

Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Walter Prescott Webb

Walter Prescott Webb (April 3, 1888 – March 8, 1963) was a 20th-century U.S. historian and author noted for his groundbreaking historical 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.


Born near Carthage in rural Panola County, Texas, Webb was reared on his family farm. 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.

From 1939 to 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, he wrote or edited more than twenty books. One of those works, The Texas Rangers includes information on the legendary Texas Ranger Captain Bill McDonald.

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.

The University of Texas established the Walter Prescott Webb Chair of History and Ideas. The position is currently held by A.G. Hopkins.


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 is 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 utilized the same approach in The Great Frontier (Austin: U. of Texas Press, 1964) by attempting to put his subject in the context of Western civilization, calling the settled area of Europe 'the Metropolis' and the rest of the world 'the Great Frontier.' Webb's The Texas Rangers (Austin: U. of Texas Press, 1965) 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, (over the South and West, which contained the largest share of natural resources) was the theme of Divided We Stand. Another volume, More Water for Texas (Austin: U. of Texas Press, 1954), popularized and vitalized a Federal study of what he regarded as the most serious problem of his state. Environment and his experiences within that environment explain Webb's analyses. He was interested in broad outlines rather than with the weight of documentation.

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. 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 that he failed to acknowledge the roles played by women, Indians, and Mexicans.


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.


A one-act play by Steve Moore, Nightswim, about Roy Bedichek, J. Frank Dobie and Walter Prescott Webb was first produced in Austin in the fall of 2004. Their friendship is narrated in the book Three Friends: Roy Bedichek, J. Frank Dobie, Walter Prescott Webb by William A. Owens, published in 1969.

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Walter Prescott Webb's Timeline

Age 75