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:
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.