Walter Prescott Webb (April 3, 1888 in Panola County, Texas – March 8, 1963 near
Austin, Texas Austin is the capital city of the U.S. state of Texas, as well as the seat and largest city of Travis County, with portions extending into Hays and Williamson counties. Incorporated on December 27, 1839, it is the 11th-most-populous ci ...
) was an American
historian A historian is a person who studies and writes about the past and is regarded as an authority on it. Historians are concerned with the continuous, methodical narrative and research of past events as relating to the human race; as well as the st ...
noted for his groundbreaking work on the
American West The Western United States (also called the American West, the Far West, and the West) is the region comprising the westernmost states of the United States. As American settlement in the U.S. expanded westward, the meaning of the term ''the We ...
. As president of the
Texas State Historical Association The Texas State Historical Association (TSHA) is a non-profit educational organization, dedicated to documenting the history of Texas. It was founded in Austin, Texas, on March 2, 1897. , TSHA moved their offices from Austin to the University of N ...
, he launched the project that produced the ''
Handbook of Texas The ''Handbook of Texas'' is a comprehensive encyclopedia of Texas geography, history, and historical persons published by the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA). History The original ''Handbook'' was the brainchild of TSHA President W ...
''. He is a member of the Hall of Great Westerners, which is a part of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.

Early life

Walter Prescott Webb was born on April 3, 1888 in rural Panola County, Texas to Casner P. and Elizabeth (Kyle) Webb. His father worked a farm part-time while teaching school.When Webb was a teenager, the family moved west to the arid western Cross Timbers region traversing Stephens County and Eastland County, Texas. He helped with the family farming business and attended Ranger High School. The Webbs moved frequently to different tenant farms within the region. According to Webb, these experiences at the edge of the western plains of Texas influenced his early writing. Casner started by accepting teaching assignments and farm leases in Stephens County, but first moved to adjacent Eastland County 1898. Webb enrolled at various rural schools and was certified as a teacher in 1907. Webb started attending the
University of Texas The University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin, UT, or Texas) is a public research university in Austin, Texas. It was founded in 1883 and is the oldest institution in the University of Texas System. With 40,916 undergraduate students, 11, ...
Austin Austin is the capital city of the U.S. state of Texas, as well as the seat and largest city of Travis County, with portions extending into Hays and Williamson counties. Incorporated on December 27, 1839, it is the 11th-most-populous ci ...
in the fall of 1909. In 1913, Webb graduated with a baccalaureate degree. Over the next few years, he taught at three high schools and at the Texas State Teachers College.


Webb worked as a bookkeeper in San Marcos and as an optometrist's assistant in
San Antonio ("Cradle of Freedom") , image_map = , mapsize = 220px , map_caption = Interactive map of San Antonio , subdivision_type = Country , subdivision_name = United States , subdivision_type1= State , subdivision_name1 = Texas , subdivision ...
. Then, in 1918, he was invited to join the history faculty at the University of Texas. He wrote his
Master of Arts A Master of Arts ( la, Magister Artium or ''Artium Magister''; abbreviated MA, M.A., AM, or A.M.) is the holder of a master's degree awarded by universities in many countries. The degree is usually contrasted with that of Master of Science. T ...
thesis on the Texas Rangers in 1920 and was encouraged to pursue his PhD. After a year of study at the
University of Chicago The University of Chicago (UChicago, Chicago, U of C, or UChi) is a private research university in Chicago, Illinois. Its main campus is located in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. The University of Chicago is consistently ranked among the ...
, 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 World War I (28 July 1914 11 November 1918), often abbreviated as WWI, was one of the deadliest global conflicts in history. Belligerents included much of Europe, the Russian Empire, the United States, and the Ottoman Empire, with fightin ...
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. ''The Texas Rangers'' (1935) was considered the definitive study of the legendary Texas Rangers and its Captain Bill McDonald. Webb published ''Divided We Stand: The Crisis of a Frontierless Democracy'' in 1937. In the following years, Webb accepted two teaching positions in England. The
University of London The University of London (UoL; abbreviated as Lond or more rarely Londin in post-nominals) is a federal public research university located in London, England, United Kingdom. The university was established by royal charter in 1836 as a degr ...
appointed him as the Harkness Professor of American History. After the United States dispatched troops to Europe, Webb moved to
Oxford Oxford () is a city in England. It is the county town and only city of Oxfordshire. In 2020, its population was estimated at 151,584. It is north-west of London, south-east of Birmingham and north-east of Bristol. The city is home to th ...
to accept a chair at the university as its Harmsworth Professor of American History. 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''. After returning from England in 1944, Webb joined in a political dispute, which pitted several University of Texas faculty against the University of Texas Board of Regents. The board fired some economics professors for their support of
New Deal The New Deal was a series of programs, public work projects, financial reforms, and regulations enacted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the United States between 1933 and 1939. Major federal programs agencies included the Civilian Co ...
policies. The sitting University of Texas President, Homer P. Raimey defended the fired professors on the grounds of economic freedom. In response, the board fired Raimey. Webb was a spokesperson for the faculty opposed to the new president, T.S. Painter. One result of this advocacy was a strain of Webb's relationship with the former Chair of the History Department, Eugene C. Barker, who had also influenced Webb as a historian. Webb served as president of the Mississippi Historical Association and the
American Historical Association The American Historical Association (AHA) is the oldest professional association of historians in the United States and the largest such organization in the world. Founded in 1884, the AHA works to protect academic freedom, develop professional s ...
. He was a co-founder of the Texas Institute of Letters and a member of the Philosophical Society of Texas.

Personal life

Webb married Jane Elizabeth Oliphant of Austin on September 16, 1916. Their only child, Mildred Alice Webb, was born on July 30, 1918. Webb's father-in-law was the
Confederate States Army The Confederate States Army, also called the Confederate Army or the Southern Army, was the military land force of the Confederate States of America (commonly referred to as the Confederacy) during the American Civil War (1861–1865), fightin ...
veteran and Austin, Texas-based photographer, William J. Oliphant (1845–1930). Walter and Jane remained married until her death in 1960. Webb purchased a 360-acre tract in Hays County, Texas, not far from Austin. He rehabilitated an old stone house which was located near a topological feature, and called his second home, "Friday Mountain Ranch." Webb hosted many get togethers at his ranch, attracting Texas literatis such as Frank Wardlaw,
John Henry Faulk John Henry Faulk (August 21, 1913 – April 9, 1990) was an American storyteller and radio show host. His successful lawsuit against the entertainment industry helped to bring an end to the Hollywood blacklist. Early life John Henry Faulk wa ...
, Roy Bedichek, Mody Boatright, and J. Frank Dobie. In 1961, Webb met Terrell Maverick, the widow of Maury Maverick, a former Mayor of San Antonio and Congressman. They married on December 14, 1961 in Fredericksburg, Texas.

Death and legacy

Webb died at the age of 74 in an automobile crash near Buda, Texas. He was driving, and the passenger, Terrell Maverick, suffered serious injuries, but survived. Webb was the editor of Maverick's memoir, and the two were on the road promoting her book. Governor John B. Connally, Jr. issued a proclamation for Webb to be enterred at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin. Zilker Park in Austin is the site of a statue of Webb with statues of fellow Texas writers, J. Frank Dobie and Roy Bedichek. In his honor the
University of Texas The University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin, UT, or Texas) is a public research university in Austin, Texas. It was founded in 1883 and is the oldest institution in the University of Texas System. With 40,916 undergraduate students, 11, ...
established the Walter Prescott Webb Chair of History and Ideas. Philippa Levine held this chair starting in 2017. Webb Middle School in Austin, Texas is also named after him. Webb is also noted for his early criticism of the water usage patterns in the region. In 2012, he was inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.


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, but is regarded by many modern historians as an apologia for border violence perpetuated by Rangers against Mexican-Americans. 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 Christopher Columbus * lij, Cristoffa C(or)ombo * es, link=no, Cristóbal Colón * pt, Cristóvão Colombo * ca, Cristòfor (or ) * la, Christophorus Columbus. (; born between 25 August and 31 October 1451, died 20 May 1506) was a ...
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. ''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 Frederick Jackson Turner (November 14, 1861 – March 14, 1932) was an American historian during the early 20th century, based at the University of Wisconsin until 1910, and then Harvard University. He was known primarily for his frontier thes ...
. 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.


Drought in 1853 provoked water as a new interest for Webb. He derived much of the material in ''More Water for Texas: The Problem and the Plan'' from a US Senate report from December 1952 titled, ''Water Supply and Texas Economy: An Appraisal of the Texas Water Problem''. 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 The Bureau of Reclamation, and formerly the United States Reclamation Service, is a federal agency under the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees water resource management, specifically as it applies to the oversight and opera ...
) of attempting to convert the region into productive cropland through
irrigation Irrigation (also referred to as watering) is the practice of applying controlled amounts of water to land to help grow crops, landscape plants, and lawns. Irrigation has been a key aspect of agriculture for over 5,000 years and has been dev ...
. 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.XL , Reviews , 'Nightswim,' Conspirare & more – Oct. 14, 2004
/ref> Their friendship is narrated in the book ''Three Friends: Roy Bedichek, J. Frank Dobie, Walter Prescott , Webb'' by William A. Owens, published in 1969.


* ''The Great Plains: A Study in Institutions and Environment'' (1931

* ''The Texas Rangers: A Century of Frontier Defense'' (1935

* ''Divided We Stand: The Crisis of a Frontierless Democracy'' (1937

* ''The Great Frontier'' (1951

* ''More Water for Texas: The Problem and the Plan'' (Austin: U. of Texas Press, 1954

* ''An Honest Preface and Other Essays'' (1959

See also

* Eugene C. Barker *
Great Plains The Great Plains (french: Grandes Plaines), sometimes simply "the Plains", is a broad expanse of flatland in North America. It is located west of the Mississippi River and east of the Rocky Mountains, much of it covered in prairie, steppe, ...
* Ernest Wallace * Robert W. Mondy




Further reading

* * Updates the research of Walter Prescott Webb by exploring the dynamics of the rural Euro-American frontiers in Texas from 1820 to 1970, with special attention to the effects of climate, geography, available natural resources, and patterns of exploitation by settlers. * * * * * *

External links

* {{DEFAULTSORT:Webb, Walter Prescott 1888 births 1963 deaths Historians of Texas Writers from Austin, Texas People from Carthage, Texas Eastland County, Texas Writers from San Antonio University of Texas at Austin alumni Road incident deaths in Texas Burials at Texas State Cemetery Presidents of the American Historical Association Historians of the American West Harold Vyvyan Harmsworth Professors of American History University of Texas faculty American editors