April 3, 1888–March 8, 1963
Walter Prescott Webb remains one of Texas's most significant and influential scholars.
Born in 1888, Webb grew up in Stephens County. In 1904, an Atlanta literary magazine published a letter written by a young Webb asking how he could become a writer. Remarkably, a New Yorker named William E. Hinds read the letter and became Webb's benefactor, sending him books, money, and encouragement. With Hinds's support, Webb entered The University of Texas in 1909, where he eventually received a doctorate.
Webb taught at his alma mater throughout his career. He served as director of the Texas State Historical Association and spearheaded the creation of The Handbook of Texas, the definitive encyclopedia of the state's history. In 1958, he served as president of the American Historical Association.
As a scholar, Webb made his name with The Great Plains, his 1931 study that shows how the distinctive climate and geography of the American West shaped the region's history. In 1950, a survey of historians identified the book as the single most important work in U.S. history written since the turn of the century.
Webb died in 1963. In a memorial, J. Frank Dobie described him as "the most powerful thinker I have ever known." "Most historians deal with the past as the past," said Dobie. "Webb dealt with it as a guide to the future."
The Walter Prescott Webb papers are held by the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at The University of Texas at Austin. They contain published and unpublished manuscripts, articles, research materials, lectures, correspondence, business records, photographs, and more, all documenting Webb's remarkable scholarly career.
The Handbook of Texas, created and sponsored by the Texas State Historical Association, was first published in 1952. The encyclopedia includes information about the state's geography, history, and significant individuals. The handbook was expanded to six volumes in 1996 to include more information about women and minorities in the state, and debuted online in 1999. The encyclopedia now contains over twenty-five thousand articles and has become the model for other state encyclopedia projects.
In the 1950s, the distinguished folklorist Américo Paredes first criticized Webb for his portrayal of Indians and Mexican Americans and his consistently approving and even romantic depiction of the Texas Rangers. Paredes notes that Webb, in his 1935 study The Texas Rangers: A Century of Frontier Defense, overlooked many of the atrocities the Rangers committed, from the Mexican War of 1846–1848 through the early decades of the twentieth century. Near the end of his life, Webb too felt that his book on the Rangers required revision and that he had failed to sufficiently incorporate Mexican and Mexican American perspectives. (As he explained to the director of the University of Texas Press, "If a man can't grow in thirty years, he may as well be dead.") Sadly, Webb was killed in an automobile accident before he had the opportunity to update his work.
Collins, Michael L. "Walter Prescott Webb." In Writing the Story of Texas, edited by Patrick L. Cox and Kenneth E. Hendrickson Jr., 44–66. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013.
Frantz, Joe B. "Remembering Walter Prescott Webb." Southwestern Historical Quarterly XCII (July 1988): 17–30.
Furman, Necah Stewart. Walter Prescott Webb: His Life and Impact. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1976.
Furman, Necah Stewart. "Webb, Walter Prescott." Handbook of Texas Online. Accessed September 7, 2015.
Graham, Don. "Fallen Heroes." Texas Monthly, February 2005. Accessed September 17, 2015.
Owens, William A. Three Friends: Roy Bedichek, J. Frank Dobie, Walter Prescott Webb. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969.
Philp, Kenneth R., and Elliott West, eds. The Walter Prescott Webb Memorial Lectures: Essays on Walter Prescott Webb. Austin: University of Texas Press for The University of Texas at Arlington, 1976.
Webb, Walter Prescott. The Great Frontier. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1952; reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.
Webb, Walter Prescott. The Great Plains. Boston: Ginn, 1931; reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981.
Webb, Walter Prescott. The Texas Rangers: A Century of Frontier Defense. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1935; reprint, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1965.
Weber, David J. Foreigners in Their Native Land: Historical Roots of the Mexican Americans. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2004.