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

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

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.

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.