The physical history of the Great Plains shows us the harsh legacy they passed on to Indians, explorers, and settlers. The Great Plains, a vast and primarily flat, fertile grassland in the central United States and Canada, used largely for farming and livestock (Jones 6). This piece of land stands on a marine-rock base at a higher general elevation than the rest of the country (Kraenzel 24). They spread over the states of Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, and the Dakotas, though for all practical purposes, the Great Plains reach as far west as the Rocky Mountains and as far south as Texas and Oklahoma (Jones 6). The climate throughout this stretch of land is probably the most diverse in all of North America. The Great Plains are subject to tornadoes, heavy hailstorms, ice storms, bitter cold, droughts, blizzards, and dust storms (Jones 17). Despite the harsh weather, the soil of the Plains is extremely fertile due to glacial deposits left during the last Ice Age (Kraenzel 24) and to the sedimentary deposits of slow moving rivers and wind (Schell 7). The agricultural potential of the land alone is what drove many early Americans westward into the hellish weather conditions.
But before any people arrived in the Great Plains, there were the animals. Just as a case can be made that Midwesterners are specially adapted to the Plains, there is concrete proof that the native wildlife are genetically prepared by the land for the challenges the land presents (Kraenzel 37-9). To begin from the ground up, the native grasses of the plains are particularly hearty in comparison to other grass species (Kraenzel 24). Though most of the terrain covered by these grasses in olden times is now farmland, at one time hundreds of species of grasses blanketed the plains (Kraenzel 24). Most easily described as tall prairie grass, each individual species has its personal space on the plains. These grasses are able to handle the menacing climatically conditions of the Midwest by surviving on less water and weathering even the harshest of droughts or storms (Kraenzel 24). The grasses of the Plains are much like the settlers who came thousands of years later. The grasses rarely mix, existing in large patches across the Midwest (Kraenzel 24).
Many of the same characteristics exist in the animal life of the Plains. Until they were hunted into oblivion, bison roamed the plains in astounding numbers. Moving with clock-like precision from place to place, season to season, their physical and social characteristics show they were seemingly made for the plains (Kraenzel 37). Jackrabbits, antelope, coyotes, and prairie dogs are equally adept to life on the high plains, thanks to thousands of years of genetic conditioning. It seems clear that the existence of the non-human residents of the Great Plains has been molded, shaped, and based entirely on the lay of the land itself.
The terrain of the Great Plains had a tremendous impact on the culture of the first human inhabitants of the Midwest as well. Unlike the settlers, Native Americans recognized the Midwestern essence. The religion and society of Native Americans were based almost entirely on the land. Native Americans didn't see the land as property or something to be exploited as many of the European settlers did. Instead they saw the land as a member of their family -- something that provided for them (Van Every 16).
For more information on Native American use of the land, see Elizabeth Serflek's paper
They respected the rugged land that threatened and protected them at the same time. Some Native American tribal ceremonies involved grotesque physical injury such as hanging young men from the ceiling by hooks through their chest. This and other ceremonies like it boasted their culture's resilience to pain and hardship -- the same pain and hardship provided by the Great Plains each and every day (Van Every 17). Like the bison, most American Indian tribes were nomadic -- each season seeking out the ideal hunting grounds and the ideal living quarters based on the weather or the winds (Van Every 17). When Native Americans adopted the use of horses thanks to Spanish conquistadors this lifestyle was amplified (Van Every 18). Now they could migrate with greater speed and hunt with even more precision. Though this example shows social gain on the part of the Indians from settlers, this was predominantly not the case.
For every positive aspect of European settlement, there were hundreds of negative ones (Jones 33). The problems between the two cultures were largely due to a vast difference in perception of the land. Where Native Americans had spent centuries developing their respect for the land, the Europeans had no idea of the unique and challenging dynamic of the Great Plains. They only saw the land for its base elements: minerals to be mined, crops to be raised, animals to be hunted. The conflict in philosophy is well represented by a quote on a plaque on U.S. Highway 10 near New Salem, North Dakota. It states:
"Wrong Side Up"
These words were spoken to John Christiansen on this spot in the spring of 1883 by a Sioux Indian. John was plowing under the prairie grass. Pondering this phrase made New Salem a dairy center (Jones 13).
These words exemplify the differences between Native Americans and settlers. For the Sioux, the grass, when right side up, still served an important purpose. American Indians respected the lay of the land and understood that it was all part of a greater system. New Salem remains a dairy center to this day because Christiansen heeded the words of the Sioux and opted to stop plowing and build a dairy farm; however, nearly all other settlers ignored similar advice and millions of acres of grassland was rooted up for farming purposes (Jones 13).
As the Europeans pressed westward, the tribes were pushed ahead of them. These unscheduled migrations caused warfare between tribes. As the Ojibway tribe was forced from their native land around the Great Lakes by the English and French and into the land of the Sioux in Minnesota and Wisconsin a war resulted (Hawgood 284). The Sioux were pushed into the land of other tribes and more wars occurred. This cycle continued for two centuries. By the middle of the 19th century, Native American culture had been virtually destroyed (Jones 33). Yet the example of American Indian culture shows us the long-term social implications of living on the Great Plains.
Even before Native Americans were being vanquished, the Great Plains were beginning to influence the first American explorers to set foot on the virgin land. The first European to see the Great Plains was Francisco Vasquez de Coronado of Spain in 1540. With him were 250 horsemen and 100 foot soldiers (Jones 31). When the English gained control of the East Coast, the crown issued a "Proclamation Line" that represented the western border of the American colonies. No one was supposed to cross it with the intention of settlement (Hawgood 66). Yet, as with all political lines, many predicted the fall of the Proclamation Line (Hawgood 274). Noted author Edmund Burke wrote this passage in response to the Line.
Many of the people in the back settlements are already little attached to particular situations. Already they have topped the Appalachian Mountains. From thence they behold before them an immense plain. Over this they would wander without possibility of restraint; they would change their manners with the habits of life; would soon forget a government by which they were disowned; would become hordes of English Tartars; and pouring down upon your unfortified frontiers a fierce and irresistible cavalry, become masters of your governors and your counselors, your collectors and comptrollers, and all of the slaves that adhered to them. Such would be the unhappy result of an endeavor to keep as a lair of wild beasts, that earth, which God, by an express Charter, has given to the children of men... (Hawgood 274)
And as Burke predicted, the Line did fall after the American Revolution (Hawgood 274). In 1804, the Lewis and Clark expedition marked the first time the colonists, who now called themselves Americans, took a deep look at the Great Plains and much of the western part of the continent. President Thomas Jefferson was one of the first major American political figures to realize the potential of the West (Hawgood 66). He made the Louisiana Purchase with the vague notion that there was something of value to the west of the Mississippi River. Yet, even Jefferson didn't fully realize just how much value existed in the land or how it would eventually shape the spirit of its people.
Jefferson signed Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to chart this unknown land. The explorers passed through the northern part of the Great Plains and considered it a desolate land (Hawgood 86). Just the same, many new and perplexing species of plants and animals were discovered in the plains (Bakeless 18). In the end, the expedition unearthed many of the mysteries of the Great Plains and opened the doors of settlement to millions of Americans (Bakeless 18). The original European and American explorers developed the same respect for the land that the Native Americans did; however, it would take longer for the settlers to achieve this reverence for the plains, and the effects of their learning would prove to be very damaging to the Midwestern ecosystem.
The dynamic of the Great Plains had a tremendous influence on budding American culture, though it took time and an overwhelming amount of damage to realize this influence. In the middle and late part of the 19th century, the Great Plains were settled by a diverse and extensive group of Americans and European immigrants (Jones 7). Setting out on the plains was like the discovery of a New World to the settlers -- comparable to the first time humans traveled on the sea (Van Every 10).
Think about it. The eastern United States are filled with trees and mountains, rivers and streams. The plains were dryer, flatter, more open, and bigger than anything the settlers had ever seen before (Van Every 10). And they approached this New World in the same way that Europeans had always approached new discoveries; they seized everything of value they could (Van Every 11). They noticed the obvious violence of nature in that area -- droughts, storms, and blizzards- but the boundless large game and fertile soil more than made up for the nuisance of difficult weather (Van Every 11). So westward they went: plowing, digging, and hunting their way over the Great Plains all through the early 1800s until they reached another line.
Unlike the Proclamation Line, this boundary was not imposed by an authoritative figure. It was the 98th parallel, and for decades Americans hesitated to cross this line which represented a point on the plains where weather patterns were directly influenced by the Rocky Mountains, leaving little rainfall (Kraenzel 25). Yet, just like every line, Americans eventually poured over the 98th parallel. They resumed settlement in the middle 1800s (Kraenzel 25); however, settling this land, and the land of the southern Great Plains, in the way they had settled the eastern Great Plains proved to be disastrous to Midwestern culture in the early 20th century (Worchester 4). Their thorough dissection of this land would be revenged by the harsh weather of the plains in years to come, amplified by the lack of trees or rocks to weight the soil to the ground. This would have a profound effect on the culture of that region (Worchester).
The essence of midwesterners.
Monday, May 10 1999 08:42