A New Look at the Great Plains

by Elliott West

Old house, rural Montana. (Carol M. Highsmith's America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)To most Americans the Great Plains are the Great Flyover, or maybe the Great Drivethrough. Viewed from a window seat the plains seem nearly devoid of interest, something to get across enroute to someplace far worthier to explore or live in. Yet anyone who has spent time on the plains knows better. Walk around in western Nebraska or the Texas panhandle and you will find a geography that is mixed and surprising and sometimes disorienting.

Most people consider plains history much like the land—flat, featureless, and undeserving of more than a glance between sips of a soda. But spend some time in that past and you will see that, like the plains from 30,000 feet up, it has been literally overlooked, and consequently misunderstood and underappreciated. Seen up close, this history is thickly peopled, dense with stories, and full of unexpected revelations that feed a deeper understanding of western—and American—history.

If nothing else, the plains remind us that American history, defined as what people have done on this continent, began in the West. There is vigorous debate today about the early peopling of the Americas—the when and where and how of the first migration from Asia—but the opinion is unanimous that the West was the first region settled. There is also consensus that although the West may not have been the earliest migratory route, one of the first paths of migration was through a passway in the glacial sheet to the north and then along western edge of the Great Plains in the eastern shadow of the Rocky Mountains. From this perspective, Interstate 25, which runs north and south through Cheyenne, Wyoming, to Denver and Pueblo, Colorado, is arguably the oldest road in America. A commuter stuck in one of its rush-hour traffic jams might take some consolation from being part of a tradition dating back about 12,000 years. Great Plains lesson number one: American history is very old.

Between the times of those first travelers and the coming of Europeans, the Great Plains saw the rise and passing of dozens of cultures. Through trial and error, the peoples who were part of these cultures adapted to a varied environment and to one of the most dangerously erratic climates in North America. They farmed along the eastern edges of the plains, hunted among the prolific game of the high plains, and devised annual rounds of movement that included forays to gather flint from the Rockies and to conduct elaborate hunts at an altitude of 11,000 feet, close to the Continental Divide. The plains peoples were connected to worlds far beyond the Great Plains through trade networks reaching to both coasts and into Central America. A grave dug nearly 1,800 years ago in what is now Nebraska contained parrot feathers from the tropics and shells from the Gulf of Mexico. Peoples who traversed the plains subsisted by taking what was there (and there was plenty, including vast numbers of game birds traversing one of the world’s great flyways) while exchanging some of that abundance for other foods they needed to fill their nutritional needs. For example, the bison herds gave the plains people enormous supplies of protein craved by game-poor settlements among Pueblo peoples of the Rio Grande valley, who in return offered corn to plains people who, apparently unaware of the Atkins diet, craved that carbohydrate-rich crop. Plains people worshiped using many cosmologies, which included what is surely one of loveliest of the American people’s many creation stories, that of the Pawnees, who tell us that our world and all its life were sung into existence by the stars. Great Plains lesson number two: American history has always been a cultural grab bag.

If nothing else, looking deeply into the plains’ past broadens our appreciation of colonial history. Finally, and thank goodness for it, historians nowadays are more inclined to expand the colonial perspective to include the French, Spanish, and other imperial experiences, but, once again, they typically overlook what the Great Plains has to teach us. There the Spanish, French, British, and American empires converged on terms closer to equality of power than anywhere else. French and English interests reached into the plains from Canada and the lower Mississippi, Spanish from the Rio Grande valley, and the United States out of St. Louis, starting with Lewis and Clark, but that famous expedition, often misrepresented as the start of the region’s true history, came after many decades of maneuvering by other rivals. All, including the United States and its president, Thomas Jefferson, considered the plains the key to controlling the western two-thirds of the continent, and they acted accordingly, making remarkable efforts to court and tease alliances from native inhabitants. In what is today Nebraska, Spain suffered one its great imperial disasters when a command under Pedro de Villasur was all but annihilated in 1720 by Indians supplied with guns by French traders. Soon afterward the French pressed their courtship by taking a delegation of Indians to Paris, where Louis XV entertained them and on their parting gave them jeweled watches. That was eighty years before Lewis and Clark entered this diplomatic arena with their own gifts and medals. To block these cheeky newcomers Spain sent no fewer than four military commands to turn back Lewis and Clark—all obviously unsuccessful, although the Spanish did arrest Zebulon Pike and his men, who made that other, far less celebrated expedition that first described the southern plains as an American desert.

Such episodes should remind us that we will have a much better understanding of North America’s several empires when we study how they came together in the continent’s contentious center. Great Plains lesson number three: American history has consisted of even wider contests of more contingent powers than the struggles we commonly hear about.

That point leads to another. In too many colonial histories Indian peoples seem essentially pawns in elaborate strategies directed by European chess masters, but as plains history makes clear, Indians were anything but other peoples’ tools. They were the main power brokers until quite late in colonial history, when the rising tide of this nation’s numbers and influence began to roll beyond the Missouri River. This is another way of saying that American history can be truly viewed only from multiple perspectives. Assume the viewpoint of the plains, from the American center outward, and new stories suddenly come to life.

One story might be called that of the other American revolution—the rise of the horse culture. It goes back much farther than even the region’s ancient human history, fifty million years back, when the earliest protohorse, Hyracotherium, appeared on the ancient Great Plains, and then evolved into its modern form. Some of these animals migrated across the Bering land bridge to flourish in Asia while their American cousins died off at the end of the last ice age. Domesticated and spread across much of the Old World, horses finished their globe-girdling odyssey when the Spanish used them in conquering Mexico and finally, under Coronado, brought them home to the plains in the 1540s, now not as wild creatures but as animals bred for two or three hundred generations as partners to humans in doing grand things. After the Pueblo peoples drove the Spanish from New Mexico in 1680, Indians across much of the West acquired horses. Those on the high plains transformed their lives by exploiting a horse’s ability to draw energy from the Great Plains as Great Pasture, thus marrying that animal’s grass-fed strength and speed to human purposes and dreams. It was a great American story, our version of a social, cultural, economic, and military revolution that over five millennia had occurred in central Asia, China, North Africa, and Europe. It unfolded here at a breathtaking clip. Born sometime after 1680, the plains horse culture was complete by about 1780, as that other revolution was taking its course in the Atlantic colonies. Great Plains lesson number four: E unum pluribus: American history is impoverished if confined to one narrative and to the usual perspectives.

Tell enough stories about the same country, however, and you are bound to uncover conflict. In this case, the one revolution, the one we celebrate with fireworks and cookouts, led within another century to the collapse of the other one, the one we trivialize if we recognize it at all. The revolution of Jefferson and Adams set loose ambitions and dreams that would suffocate the visions and snuff out the brief glories of the other, that of the Comanches, Sioux, and Cheyennes. It’s a prime example of how American history gets much messier as we open it up and view it from various angles. The final Great Plains lesson: historical lessons, American and otherwise, are ambiguous.

Once we take a closer took at plains history—once we land the plane or stop the car, and walk around and pay some basic attention to what is there—things turn out to be far trickier than most would have guessed, more convoluted and layered with experience, more varied, dynamic, and shifting. Notice that everything considered in this short piece happened prior to the episodes normally associated with the region—Lewis and Clark, the overland migrations and Indian wars, building the transcontinental railways, slaughtering the bison and establishing homesteads, the cattle industry, the Populists, the dust bowl, and the rise of agribusiness. Follow these modern stories and you will find more unexpected wrinkles that often resonate with the long, largely unexplored earlier history. Parts of the Great Plains, not either coast, have been the most ethnically diverse parts of America, an echo of its splay of ancient cultures. The region where Indians drew great power from the grass is also one of other important natural resources. The nation’s richest coal reserves are not in Appalachia but in Wyoming and eastern Montana.

No one who views the Great Plains either historically or as a part of national life today should take them for granted. Take them instead as new terrain to explore and as a chance to complicate creatively an understanding of the West and America.

Elliott West is Alumni Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Arkansas. He is the author of, among other books, The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado (1998), The Way to the West: Essays on the Central Plains (1995), and, most recently, The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story (2009).

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