Key Figures

Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden

The settlement of the Great Plains would never have happened so quickly, if not for a few key figures. Among them was Ferdinand Hayden, a theologist and surgeon by training, but a naturalist and geologist at heart.

Hayden was born in Massachusetts, but a troubled childhood—an alcoholic father and an abandoning mother who were unmarried—led him to be raised by his aunt and uncle in Ohio. Eventually, he made it to Oberlin College and attained a degree in theological studies, and later to Albany Medical College, where he received his medical degree. In Albany, however, he also met a number of aspiring paleontologists, such as James Hall and F. B. Meek. These two encouraged him to reach out to others, and to go out west and explore. At this time, his field work was focused around South Dakota and the Missouri River.

Hayden began publishing geologic papers with Meek, as well as collecting vast collection of fossil and archaeological specimens. Together, he and Meek are credited with some big finds: the first soft-shelled turtle fossil in America, and the first dinosaur remains. That’s not all. Hayden also gathered fish, shells, plants, mammoth and mastodon teeth, mammal bones, and more. On the human side, he found axes, pottery, flint shards, and mining tools. The Smithsonian Institute was quite intrigued with these artifacts, and unofficially recruited him to help them expand their own collection. Hayden became part of the Megatherium Club with a few other gentleman scientists and collected thousands of specimens for the Smithsonian.

After a few years as a surgeon for the Union army during the Civil War, Hayden went back to his geology. He headed a party that discovered and surveyed the vast coal beds of Colorado and Wyoming, making news all the way across the pond in London. Hayden then went on to survey Iowa and Nebraska, Montana, Missouri, New Mexico, and Wyoming. His reputation as a geologist grew so much that his funding from the government grew from $5,000 to $75,000 a year. Hayden was even considered for the first director of the newly formed U.S. Geological Survey—though he didn’t get the job.

While not an active proponent of rain follows the plow, Hayden’s exploration did lead him to believe that the planting of trees in the Great Plains would be the key in the settlement and agricultural prosperity of the region. He had seen how the addition of trees might have increased rainfall in other regions and was ready to extend that idea to his beloved Great American Desert.

Featured photo courtesy of Thomas on Pexels stock photos:

https://www.pexels.com/photo/south-dakota-badlands-53817/

See the following sources for more info:

https://www.si.edu/sisearch/collection-images?edan_q=ferdinand%2Bhayden

https://siarchives.si.edu/featured-topics/megatherium/introduction

Foster, M. (1986). Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden as Naturalist. American Zoologist, 26(2), 343-349.

M. B. (1888). FERDINAND VANDERVEER HAYDEN. Scientific American (1845-1908), Lviii.(No. 1.), 9.

Picard, M. (2010). Revisiting the life and scientific reputation of Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden. Rocky Mountain Geology, 45(1), 75-81.

Curious Blurbs

Plants, at the Moment

The ecosystems of the Great Plains are relatively young, at least, in comparison with other regions in North America. It follows that a stretch of land that was so controversial would have an interesting coverage of flora. The Great American Desert is nothing like the stereotypical sandy wasteland that might come to mind. Almost 3,000 species of vascular plants can be found on the Plains. 430 of those species are types of sunflowers.

Most of these are flowering plants, or angiosperms—dramatic seasonal variation makes it difficult for anything other than grasses and wildflowers to grow. Only 100 or so of the plant species on the Great Plains are endemic, and believe it or not, none of them are grasses. In some places soapweed yucca, prickly pear cactus, buffalo grass and others thrive. Humans have had an impact here, as well. Through management of the land, settlers changed where plants could live and how they could grow. Animals grazed tallgrass and midgrass down to the roots, and natural wildfires that allowed for new growth and regeneration were reduced.

Tumbleweeds, an international symbol of the American West, were introduced by humans. They’re highly invasive, however, and have managed to secure their spot in the ecosystem. Among other introduced plants, the tumbleweeds have been able to hybridize with native plants, resulting in many new varieties. Closer to rivers and other water sources, larger plants like cottonwood trees, willows and shrubs are able to survive. While some flora on the Plains required fires to thrive, others like sumac and dogwood trees, took advantage of the riparian areas and cliffs as protection from fire.

Sage, the namesake of this blog, is abundant across the Great Plains region. Multiple species can be found, some with plants growing up to three feet tall. Prairie sage (among 200 other recorded plants) was used medicinally among the Plains tribes, as well as ceremonially for purification and protection of homes. The scent of sage, especially on a hot day or when burned, is a distinct feature of the area.

Featured photo courtesy of U.S. National Archive:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/35740357@N03/4012390176/

See the following sources for more info:

http://plainshumanities.unl.edu/encyclopedia/doc/egp.pe.027

http://plainshumanities.unl.edu/encyclopedia/doc/egp.fol.034

http://aktalakota.stjo.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=8663

http://shelledy.mesa.k12.co.us/staff/computerlab/ColoradoLifeZones_Plains_Plants.html

Curious Blurbs

Animals, at the Moment

We’ve heard about Precambrian life, the coral reefs of the Cretaceous Interior Seaway, and the mammoth and his friends of the Miocene. What lives on the Great Plains today? Agriculture and the development that comes with human settlement has played a large role in the ecology of the plains. Introduction of new species and the hunting and destruction of native species has left a stain in American history.

Settlers brought many work animals to pull wagons and farm equipment in an attempt to tame the Wild West. Oxen were cheap, hardy, and tasty, and so a popular choice for families traveling across the plains. After using up the oxen, people turned to horses and mules. Horses were more popular than mules, and even though farming technology has increased significantly, are still an integral facet of the modern-day ranch. The University of Nebraska says that not many species are endemic or found only in the Great Plains. Most of them are birds and small mammals, like white-tailed jackrabbits, Franklin’s ground squirrel, and the swift fox.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, there are plenty of animals that used to thrive in the region, and now are suffering. The most well-known example is probably the bison, cherished by the Native Americans and almost hunted out of existence by European settlers. Tens of millions of plains bison used to roam the Great American Desert, but westward expansion in the 1880s took its toll. Today, the plains bison maintains a ‘near threatened’ spot on the endangered species list. The mountain plover, a cute little chubby bird that likes to nest in prairie dog towns, is another near threatened species on the list. The Great Plains is the only place the plovers call home. Only about 300 black-footed ferrets—another species that is unique to the Great Plains—still live in the wild, they are truly endangered. Believe it or not, this is a lot better than in the past. Researchers believed that black-footed ferrets were completely extinct in the wild in 1986, with only 18 left in captivity. Populations of ungulates (hoofed mammals), like pronghorn, deer, elk and bighorn sheep, predators like bears and wolves, and smaller animals like prairie dogs, turkeys, chickens and grouse have also declined.

It’s not all bad news. Due to conservation efforts, some populations are increasing. The black-footed ferrets, McCown’s longspur and ferruginous hawks have all seen an increase in numbers in the last few decades.

 

Featured photo courtesy of U.S. National Archive:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/35740357@N03/4167385780/

See the following sources for more info:

https://defenders.org/black-footed-ferret/basic-facts

https://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/animals-of-the-northern-great-plains

https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/directory

http://plainshumanities.unl.edu/encyclopedia/doc/egp.ag.076

http://plainshumanities.unl.edu/encyclopedia/doc/egp.ag.026

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.

Current Earth Science

The Great American Desert

What exactly are the Great Plains? Everyone has heard the name, at least in a history class at some point. Definitions of the region have changed over time, and continue to be murky even today. Officially, the Great Plains cover parts of 10 U.S. states, the Canadian provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and bits of the Northwest Territories. Most people will consider the area west of the 100th meridian line to the Rocky Mountains to be a part of the Great Plains—a space taking up nearly a third of the country.

The Great Plains are not as flat and boring as you may imagine. It is crisscrossed and mixed with rolling hills and valleys carved by raging rivers. Even mountains make an appearance, most famously in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Most of the area is characterized by the typical semi-arid grasslands one might expect, though there was a time that the Great Plains were considered a full out desert.

This worked both for and against people from all walks of life. The Great American Desert was a concept that settlers used to become heroes—only the bravest and most awesome people could drop everything to move out farther west and thrive as farmers in the desert. Obviously, those parties interested in selling the land for profit also used the desert label as a mark of success, hinging on the idea that ‘rainfall follows the plow’. By settling and plowing the earth of this mighty desert, people could increase rainfall and enjoy the fertility of this harsh environment.

While humans have been inhabiting the Great Plains Region for over 15,000 years, it wasn’t until the last couple of hundred years that attempts were made to survey the area. Boy, were they fascinated. In 1817, Lewis and Clark considered the area an incredible garden, ripe with agricultural prospects. Not everyone agreed, and just three years later, a scientific expedition led by Stephen H. Long observed the hot, dry expanses and expressed doubts whether people could ever settle the area. Both saw the wilderness differently, with very different motivations.

Regardless, flora and fauna have thrived in the Great Plains for longer than humans have even existed, from sagebrush and cacti and trees, to bison and rattlesnakes and wolves. People were eager to spread, despite the hesitance of explorer and scientists, egged on by naturalists and a heck of a lot of hope. Even today, residents embrace the desert culture, echoing the hardiness of their pioneer forerunners.

This blog will cover a brief timeline of events, even before humans enter the picture, deep into geologic time when prehistoric life roamed the Earth. Later, it will discuss the elephant in the room, and such big-name influencers like Charles Dana Wilber, Ferdinand Hayden, and others.

 

See the following sources for more info:

https://www.britannica.com/place/Great-Plains

Baltensperger, B. H. “Plains Boomers and the Creation of the Great American Desert Myth.” Journal of Historical Geography18, no. 1 (1992): 59-73. doi:10.1016/0305-7488(92)90276-f.

Dillon, Richard H. “Stephen Long’s Great American Desert.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 111, no. 2 (April 14, 1967): 93-108.

Samson, Fred B., Fritz L. Knopf, and Wayne R. Ostlie. “Great Plains Ecosystems: Past, Present, and Future.” Wildlife Society Bulletin 32, no. 1 (2004): 6-15.