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

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.