WALTER PRESCOTT WEBB, historian and author, was born
on a farm in Panola County, TX, on April 3, 1888,
the son of Casner P. and Mary Elizabeth (Kyle) Webb.
His father was a schoolteacher and part time farmer.
The Webb family had moved from Aberdeen, Mississippi,
to Caledonia in Rusk County, Texas, then to Panola
and westward past the 100th meridian to the Stephens-
Eastland counties area.
These moves from the woodlands to a new and arid
environment made a distinct impression on the young
boy, and the geographic dichotomy formed the basis
for his later writing about the Great Plains. Webb
found farm life on the family homestead in the Cross
Timbers area near Ranger harsh and unappealing. In
desperation he wrote a letter to the editor of a
literary magazine, the Sunny South, asking how a
farm boy could get an education and become a writer.
William E. Hinds, a toy manufacturer from New York,
responded to the boy‘s query and encouraged him to
“keep his sights on lofty goals.” Webb finished at
Ranger High School in Eastland County and earned a
teaching certificate. He taught at various small
Texas schools and, with the assistance of his
benefactor, William Hinds, eventually attended the
University of Texas, where he received his bachelor
of arts degree in 1915 at the age of twenty-seven.
Webb interrupted his teaching career to work as a
bookkeeper for Southwest Texas State Teachers College
in San Marcos and to serve as an optometrist‘s
assistant in San Antonio. He was teaching at Main
High School in 1918, when he was invited to join the
history faculty of the University of Texas. Webb wrote
his master‘s thesis on the Texas Rangers in 1920 and
was encouraged to pursue the Ph.D. His year of
“educational outbreeding” (as he referred to it) at
the University of Chicago was unsuccessful, and he
returned to Texas determined to write history as he
saw it. The result was the publication in 1931 of
The Great Plains, acclaimed as “a new interpretation
of the American West,” acknowledged by the Social
Science Research Council in 1939 as the outstanding
contribution to American history since World War I,
and winner of Columbia University's Loubat prize.
On the basis of this book Webb received the Ph.D.
from the University of Texas in 1932. In 1939, after
a year as Harkness Lecturer at the University of
London, Webb became director of the Texas State
Historical Association. During his tenure (to 1946),
he expanded the Southwestern Historical Quarterly
and launched a project to compile an encyclopedia
of Texas, published in 1952 as the Handbook of Texas.
With the assistance of H. Bailey Carroll, he
established a student branch of the association,
the Junior Historians of Texas, in 1940 to encourage
secondary school teachers and students to investigate
local and regional history.
Respected as a teacher both at home and abroad, Webb
returned to Europe in 1942 as Harmsworth Professor of
American History at Oxford. At the University of Texas
he became famous for his books and seminars, especially
those on the Great Plains and the Great Frontier, in
which he developed two major historical concepts. He
proposed in the Great Plains thesis that the westward
settlement of the United States had been momentarily
stalled at the ninety-eighth meridian, an institutional
fault line separating the wooded environment to the east
from the arid environment of the west. The pioneers were
forced to pause in their westward trek while technological
innovation in the form of the six-shooter, barbed wire,
and the windmill allowed them to proceed. The Great
Frontier thesis became the crux of a book of the same
title, published in 1952, that Webb declared to be his
most intellectual and thought-provoking. The Great
Frontier proposed a “boom hypothesis”: the new lands
discovered by Columbus and other explorers in the late
fifteenth century precipitated the rise of great wealth
and new institutions such as democracy and capitalism.
By 1900, however, the new lands disappeared, the frontier
closed, and institutions were under stress, resulting in
the ecological and economic problems that have plagued
the twentieth century. Although not universally well-
received at the time, the Second International Congress
of Historians of the United States and Mexico examined
the Great Frontier thesis as its sole topic during its
1958 meeting, and the concept was again an object of
discussion at an international symposium in 1972.
In all, Webb wrote or edited more than twenty books. In
1935 he published The Texas Rangers: A Century of Frontier
Defense, the definitive study of this frontier law
enforcement agency, but regarded by Webb as being filled
with “deadening facts.” Divided We Stand: The Crisis of
a Frontierless Democracy (1937) analyzed the practices
of modern corporations, which Webb contended promoted
economic sectionalism to the disadvantage of the South.
More Water for Texas: The Problem and the Plan (1954)
reflected Webb‘s interest in the conservation of natural
resources. A collection of his essays, An Honest Preface
and Other Essays, appeared in 1959, and at the time of
his death he was working on a television series on American
civilization under a grant from the Ford Foundation. Webb
was one of the charter members and later a fellow of the
Texas Institute of Letters. He was also a member of the
Philosophical Society of Texas and president of both the
Mississippi Valley Historical Association (1954-55) and
the American Historical Association (1958). He received
honorary degrees from the University of Chicago, Southern
Methodist University, and Oxford University in England.
He held two Guggenheim fellowships, acted as special adviser
to Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson on water needs of the South
and West, and received a $10,000 award from the American
Council of Learned Societies for distinguished service to
scholarship. The United States Bureau of Reclamation also
gave him an award for distinguished service to conservation.
Webb was married on September 16, 1916, to Jane Elizabeth
Oliphant, who died on June 28, 1960. They had one daughter.
On December 14, 1961, he married Terrell (Dobbs) Maverick,
the widow of F. Maury Maverick of San Antonio. Webb was
killed in an automobile accident near Austin on March 8,
1963, and was buried in the State Cemetery by proclamation
of Governor John B. Connally. A statue of Webb and his old
friends J. Frank Dobie and Roy Bedichek stands in Zilker
Park in Austin.
Three Ranger High School teachers (picture above, L to
R) Stephen "Chip" Lang (RHS-1965), Bobbie Thompson and Ronny
Powell visited the Texas State Cemetery in Austin while they
were at the 2007 Capitol Conference.