Historical Happenings

Rain Follows the Plow

The number of humans on Earth has septupled in the last 130 years, and the population continues to increase exponentially. It won’t be long before there are more people than the planet can handle. Back in the mid-1800s, however, this wasn’t so much of an issue. The number of people in the New World was increasing but there was space for them to spread out and explore. The government, railroad tycoons, and mass real estate influencers were more than happy to encourage as many people as possible to move out West into the Great American Desert.

“Spokesmen for the American West read an inspiriting message in the world of Nature. Their imaginations were filled with symbols of fertility, of waxing vigor, of abundant harvests, of endlessly increasing wealth and happiness.” –Henry Nash Smith

The allegedly marvelous opportunity for agriculture was a treat used to entice settlers. Despite surveys returning results of arid or even desert conditions in the Plains region, infinite wealth and happiness could be found if only one was determined to succeed. The biggest issue, according to some, was the lack of rainfall. The solution was found in a claim that ‘rain follows the plow’. By plowing and cultivating the dry expanses of the Great Plains, more water would evaporate and in turn, more water would be available to precipitate back down as rain.

There were a few big names in this game. Ferdinand V. Hayden was an instrumental surveyor of the region up until the founding of the U.S. Geological survey who believed that planting trees could bring more rain. Richard Smith Elliot assisted Hayden for a few years, included cereal grains in his list of crops that could thrive on the plains and suggested that building railroads could also contribute to rainfall. Samuel Aughey and Charles Dana Wilber wrote pages upon pages about how rainfall was already increasing and the land to the west was characterized by unmatched fertility.

On the other hand, John Wesley Powell argued that this was all bologna. There may have been some cyclical changes going on, but there was no big increase in rainfall and any increase had nothing to do with human activity. Powell had the right idea, but the power of those in favor of rain follows the plow did a number on his reputation. But until dry-farming techniques could be perfected, the rise of civilization in the wild west would eventually lead the way into the Dust Bowl.

Featured photo courtesy of U.S. National Archive:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/35740357@N03/7495746734/

See the following sources for more info:

Smith, Henry. “Rain Follows the Plow: The Notion of Increased Rainfall for the Great Plains, 1844-1880.” Huntington Library Quarterly 10, no. 1 (1946): 169.

Current Earth Science

Humans, the Short End of the Time Scale

The long-winded history of the Great Plains is recorded in the geological features we see today. The Precambrian shows itself in outcrops of the pink Town Mountain granite, the Packsaddle schist and Valley Springs gneiss. These rocks tell a story of massive chambers of boiling-hot magma being pushed to the surface to cool, and surrounding rocks being metamorphosed by intense heat and pressure. In the Paleozoic and later in the Cretaceous, ancient shallow seas covered the inner continent and produced carbon-rich rocks. Limestones, shales, and fossilized reefs are scattered throughout the Great Plains and nearby areas, evidence that the area was not always the ‘Great American Desert’. Decaying plant matter built up and compressed over time resulted in coveted coal deposits. When the waters retreated, the temperatures started going down, too.

Now, the Great Plains are dusted by a layer of younger sediments—sand and gravel and soil—eroded from the Rocky Mountains on the western border. These sediments help trap water underground in aquifers, supplying the region and its inhabitants. It is no surprise that pockets of water have been attracting all sorts of living beings for thousands of years, and early humans were no exception.

The common consensus among archaeologists is that humans began living on the Great Plains at least 11,000-11,500 years ago, based on carbon dating of various artifacts like bones, stone flakes and tools. This time overlaps with the last Ice Age, and the time of giant creatures like mammoths and saber-tooth cats (see Miocene and Mammoths). In 2005, a study took advantage of some broken mammoth bones that had been on display at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science for nearly 30 years. The bones appeared to have been broken by humans rather than by natural means, and were carbon dated at about 12,200 years old. Many scientists are drawn to the significance of discovering the oldest site with clear evidence of human habitation, and so research continues.

Humans have been fascinated by the challenges and opportunities offered by life on the Great Plains for a very long time, whether because of water and food resources, the hunt for gold and precious materials, agriculture, or an adventure. This curiosity is prominently realized in the mid-1800s, when Americans were surveying the Territories and some people thought that rain would follow the plow.

 

Featured photo courtesy of U.S. National Archive:

Hikers Terry Mcgaw and Glen Denny Enjoy a View of the Maze from the Top of a Ridge Separating Two Canyons. The Maze, a Wild and Rugged Region in the Heart of the Canyonlands, Has No Footpaths, and Hikers Enter by Means of Ropes Or Steps Cut in the Rocks,

 

See the following sources for more info:

http://geology.teacherfriendlyguide.org/index.php/rocks-sc/rocks-region4-sc

https://www.geosociety.org/documents/gsa/timescale/timescl.pdf

Denver Post Staff Writer. “Museum’s Mammoth Bones Exhibit New Life After Nearly 30 Years on Display, Fossils Found in Kansas Are Causing Scientists to Re-examine When Humans Arrived on the Great Plains. (DENVER AND WEST).” The Denver Post (Denver, CO), 2005.

Deep Time Snapshot

Miocene and Mammoths

Ever wonder what it’s like to meet a mammoth? It was possible—only a few tens of thousands of years ago on the Great Plains. We call this epoch in time the Pleistocene, spanning from 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago. In the span of geologic time, this is a miniscule segment in the history of Earth. The world was in the middle of an extreme ice age, and North America was almost in the same position we see it now. North America was also host to the largest ice sheet at the time: the Laurentide ice sheet, a forceful tool that carved and shaped the landscape as it spread and flowed.

The Pleistocene is famous for its fauna, including Smilodon, the saber-toothed cat that was 30 percent bigger than a modern African Lion. The Smilodon is one of the most extraordinary cats to have ever lived, thanks to its incredible musculature, jaw strength, and extra-long canine teeth. Paramylodon, the cousin of the South American Megatherium (which became the namesake of a research club in the 1870s—look out for this post!), was a giant ground sloth. Unlike today’s sloths, they walked on the ground on feet sporting claws 18 centimeters long and lived and reproduced in caves. Glyptodons were a weird animal that looked like a combination of an armadillo and a tortoise. It had a six-foot long tail and possibly an elephant-like trunk. Animators made use of these quirky creatures in their film, Ice Age.

These, among other animals of the Pleistocene, are not only found in the fossil record of the Great Plains, but also in the unusually diverse La Brea tar pits. Thousands of excellently preserved specimens have been found in the gooey oil-tar underneath Los Angeles, California. After a few animals got stuck, their plight attracted predators interested in an easy meal. Some of the predators got stuck themselves, bringing in even more critters, creating a cycle. As a result, the tar pits have provided a snapshot of life in the Pleistocene, life that could be seen not just in (not so) sunny California, but across the continent.

Even more well-known are mammoths—some of the largest mammals ever walking the Earth. In the cold, harsh environment of the ice age, mammoths found refuge in a stretch of grasslands near the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Columbian mammoth remains have been found near ancient equine, bison, and sheep remains in the Upper Missouri Basin, the Rocky Mountains, the Yellowstone Basin and more. Basically, if there was vegetation available for eating, mammoths lived there. Some studies have even found mammoth limb bones showing evidence of human modification—giving light to the claim that early humans shared a world with these giant animals.

 

Featured image courtesy of U.S. National Archive:

Mt. Moran and Jackson Lake from Signal Hill, Grand "Teton National Park," Wyoming.

 

See the following sources for more info:

https://tarpits.org/la-brea-tar-pits/timeline

https://www.geosociety.org/documents/gsa/timescale/timescl.pdf

 

Flowers, Mark., Mags. Lightbody, Dominic. Frisby, and British Broadcasting Corporation. Ice Age Giants. Land of the Sabre-tooth. VAST: Academic Video Online. London, England: British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), 2013.

Hill, Christopher L. “Stratigraphic and Geochronologic Contexts of Mammoth (Mammuthus) and Other Pleistocene Fauna, Upper Missouri Basin (northern Great Plains and Rocky Mountains), U.S.A.” Quaternary International 142 143 (2006): 87.

Holen, Steven R. “Taphonomy of Two Last Glacial Maximum Mammoth Sites in the Central Great Plains of North America: A Preliminary Report on La Sena and Lovewell.” Quaternary International 142 143 (2006): 30.

Curious Blurbs

Clean Burning Coal

When studying coal formation, origins usually point to the Carboniferous period in geologic history, 359-299 million years ago. Shallow inland seas, like the Western Interior Seaway discussed in the last post, were intermixed with thick trees and plant life, creating the perfect swampy wetlands where coal is formed. Decaying plant matter, buried and squeezed by mud, retains a lot of carbon. Over millions of years, the layers of dead plants undergo a process of pressure called carbonization.

The deeper the burial, the better the coal; higher carbon concentrations in the rock burn better and cleaner. Carbonization creates four main types of coal, from lowest to highest grade: lignite, sub-bituminous, bituminous, and anthracite.

Coal is formed on all continents, and the U.S. is among the biggest sources. While most U.S. coal comes from the East Coast, most famously from Pennsylvania and the Appalachian Region, a significant amount comes from the ‘Western Coal Region’, essentially the Great Plains. Coal from the western United States tends to be Cretaceous in age (see the post The Cretaceous Interior Seaway), corresponding with the dinosaurs, and more importantly the Western Interior Seaway, which provided the wet environment and flourishing plant life needed to form coal.

“Coal is the largest source of energy for generating electricity in the world, and the most abundant fossil fuel in the United States.”

Nine major coal-producing regions exist within the Great Plains, including some resources in Canada, and Wyoming is by far the top producer. The majority of these locations produce low-grade coal, of the lignite and sub-bituminous types. These sources supplied early explorers, farmers, and railroads, but after World War II, mining and production of coal took a nose dive. The need for energy did not decrease. In fact, it exploded, and desire for fuel has only increased since the 60s. The government also began setting stricter emissions standards at this time, and as a result, many hopeful surveyors set out to find their fortune in clean-burning coal.

 

Featured image courtesy of U.S. National Archive:

Utah  -  Near Moab, 05/1972

 

See the following sources for more info:

http://plainshumanities.unl.edu/encyclopedia/doc/egp.ind.014

https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/coal/

https://www.geosociety.org/documents/gsa/timescale/timescl.pdf

Roberts, Laura N. Robinson, Laura N. Robinson. Kirschbaum, Kirschbaum, Mark A., and Geological Survey, Issuing Body. Paleogeography of the Late Cretaceous of the Western Interior of Middle North America: Coal Distribution and Sediment Accumulation. U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper; 1561. Washington: Denver, CO: U.S. G.P.O.; U.S. Geological Survey, Information Services, 1995.

Deep Time Snapshot

The Cretaceous Interior Seaway

Jurassic Park helped to give dinosaurs their fame, but this really wasn’t when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. The Cretaceous period, starting about 145 million years ago, was the real heyday of our giant mesothermic friends (most dinosaurs were not ectothermic, or cold-blooded!). Until their extinction around 66 million years ago, dinosaurs were spread across the globe, including in the Great Plains region. At this point, Pangea had broken apart and North America was starting to look like the massive continent we know today.

Even more interesting, the North American landmass was home to a Cretaceous inland sea. The Western Interior Seaway was a result of incredibly high sea level, where a shallow ocean covered a massive part of the continent. “At its maximum extent, the seaway extended for 4,800 km from the North Slope of Alaska to northern Mexico and was approximately 1,620 km wide from central Utah to Minnesota,” according to a U.S. Geological Survey report. This includes much of the Great Plains region.

Evidence of this inland sea lies in the paleontology—the fossils—of the region. Geologists have found an incredibly diverse variety of marine fossils all over the landlocked states, even here in Arizona. The fossils found are not just shallow water creatures, though some extensive coral reef remains have been studied. Giant turtles, ammonites, crinoids, sharks and fishes have been discovered in areas that are now deserts and grasslands. On top of that, giant marine beasts resembling the Loch Ness monster, like Mosasaurs and Plesiosaurs who needed large expanses of salty ocean water to survive, have been found. Right along side these are the bones and tracks of dinosaurs who tromped on the muddy shores.

The rock that hosts the marine fossils also tells the tale of deep ocean covering North America. Chalk, limestone and dolostone are carbonate rocks, created when microscopic sea-critters died and accumulated on the ocean floor, eventually compacting into solid rocks.

By the end of the Cretaceous, the Rocky Mountains were beginning to form, and the Western Interior Seaway was retreating. The dropping sea level and receding inland sea led way to swampy environments, and later, the formation of coal.

 

Featured photo courtesy of U.S. National Archives:

Aerial View Upstream of Boom Site in Monument Valley, Utah Where Oil Spill Into the San Juan River Was Contained before Flooding Caused Overflow of Oil and Debris Into Lake Powell, 10/1972

 

See the following sources for more info:

http://geology.teacherfriendlyguide.org/index.php/fossils-sc/fossils-region4-sc

https://www.geosociety.org/documents/gsa/timescale/timescl.pdf

Roberts, Laura N. Robinson, Laura N. Robinson. Kirschbaum, Kirschbaum, Mark A., and Geological Survey, Issuing Body. Paleogeography of the Late Cretaceous of the Western Interior of Middle North America: Coal Distribution and Sediment Accumulation. U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper; 1561. Washington: Denver, CO: U.S. G.P.O.; U.S. Geological Survey, Information Services, 1995.

Deep Time Snapshot

Early History—Plains Evolution

The Earth formed with misty beginnings—most of its history is lumped into a section of time called the Precambrian. The Precambrian includes both the Archean and Proterozoic eons, which span from the formation of Earth about 4.6 billion years ago to the beginning of the Phanerozoic eon 541 million years ago. The first signs of life have been found as fossilized evidence from the Precambrian, before humans, dinosaurs and even most multicellular life existed. Earth’s atmosphere had not yet developed the oxygen-rich characteristics observed today, leaving these organisms to survive on anaerobic processes. The landmasses, though different than the modern continents, formed early and were molded by an episodic cycle throughout deep time.

That’s right, Pangea was not the only supercontinent—only the most recent. Evidence shows that six major supercontinents formed and disassembled long before Pangea, with other more minor assemblages occurring in between. The landmass we call North America was active in the continuing supercontinent cycle of Earth, though at first it was combined with other bits of land like Scotland and Greenland under a different name, Laurentia. As the continents crashed together and were pulled apart, the shape of Laurentia evolved into the familiar pattern of North America, including the ancient Great Plains region.

Things got exciting in the time after the Precambrian, starting with the Cambrian explosion. Often referenced for its trilobites (the ancient cockroaches of the sea), the Cambrian is famous for its detonation in the diversification of life. By the 500-million-year mark, the first marine vertebrates began to appear, and about 100 million years later, the first evidence of plants on land. The Phanerozoic era was the jump start of all life on Earth today, leaving behind some of the world’s most extensive and well-preserved paleontological deposits. Some of these, like the House Range in Utah and Mazon Creek in Illinois, are still treasure troves nestled into the vast expanses of the Great Plains.

Animals began the transition onto land around 360 million years ago; mammals did not appear until about 200 million years ago. Humans and their most recent ancestors have only been around for a fraction of that time: approximately 200,000 years, the tail end of the Cenozoic era. The earliest records suggest that Paleo-Indians may have arrived in the Great Plains region 15 thousand years ago, some even extending that number to 38,000 years ago. Carbon-dated remains from Wyoming provide evidence of humans at least as early as 8,500 BC. This range has led to the belief that humans may have shared time with now extinct megafauna—mammoths, giant sloths, and saber-toothed cats.

 

Featured photo courtesy of U.S. National Archives:

Fossils Are Seen Along Trail from Spanish Bottom, in the Maze, 05/1972

Find the photo here

 

See the following sources for more info:

http://plainshumanities.unl.edu/encyclopedia/doc/egp.na.001

http://palaeo.gly.bris.ac.uk/palaeofiles/lagerstatten/

http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/paleozoic/paleozoic.php

https://www.britannica.com/science/geologic-time

“Chapter 7 – The Supercontinent Cycle.” In Earth as an Evolving Planetary System, 201-35. 2016.

Mac Niocaill, Conall, and Mark A. Smethurst. “Palaeozoic Palaeogeography of Laurentia and Its Margins: A Reassessment of Palaeomagnetic Data.” Geophysical Journal International 116, no. 3 (1994): 715-25.

Wedel, Waldo R. “Prehistory and Environment in the Central Great Plains.” Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science (1903-) 50, no. 1 (1947): 1-18.