Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The dominant settlement patterns of the Great Plains of the United States reflect both an initial 1800s pioneer landscape and subsequent changes: the evolution of the region's landscape is a continuing process.

The pioneer settlement process divided the grasslands of North America into a vast checkerboard where squares were separated by section lines, which became roads, field divisions, county lines, and even state lines. The artificially imposed matrix of the U.S. Public Land Survey System, originating with the Ordinance of 1785, obliterated the natural landscapes known to the Native Americans. Six-mile-square townships were divided into thirty-six one-mile-square sections of 640 acres. European-style strassendorf villages or earlier New England–style village commons were virtually unknown, since the Homestead Law of 1862 required that homesteaders live on the land they claimed.

The homesteaders flowed into the Great Plains from a wide variety of origins. Nativeborn Americans moved in generally latitudinal directions from former homes in the eastern United States into the Plains. The children of former pioneers from New York, born in southern Wisconsin in the 1840s and 1850s, were the first American settlers in Dakota Territory in the 1870s and 1880s. To their south, a mixture of settlers from New York, New England, and Pennsylvania pioneered in a belt from Ohio to Iowa, then sent their children on to settle western Nebraska, southern Dakota Territory, and northern Kansas. "Midlanders" from Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois constituted a major flow into Kansas, but that state's southern part in particular was filled from the Upper South, from Missouri, Kentucky, southern Indiana, and southern Illinois. Farther south, in the late-settled American frontiers of Oklahoma and the Texas High Plains, the latitudinal migration was again evident, with settlers coming from Tennessee and the Deep South. African Americans also settled in considerable numbers in Kansas and Oklahoma after the Civil War. Several African American homesteader communities survive.

The population geography was diversified by settlers from Europe. Chain migration, in which early settlers wrote back to the home folks in Scandinavia, Germany, Russia, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire to encourage their migration, led to many ethnic colonies throughout the Plains, many of which survive in some form to the present. In general, the percentage of European-born settlers and their children decreased from north to south. Notable among these groups were the German Russians, who brought hard red winter wheat seed to central Kansas and laid the foundation for the winter wheat belt. Scandinavians overflowed to the Dakotas and Montana from Minnesota and produced a Viking veneer over the Northern Plains. In Kansas and Nebraska, high school teams are still known by such names as the Swedes or Cossacks depending on the origins of the original homesteaders. In Oklahoma, the land rush produced an ethnic pattern that reflected Native American, Confederate refugee, and European origins. On the Texas Plains the pattern was initially dominated by people of southern U.S. and Mexican origin: in the Texas Panhandle in 1880, for example, about two-thirds of the population had origins in the eastern United States, mainly from the South, while one-fifth of the population was Mexican, mainly from New Mexico. The Latino component of the Plains population continued to grow rapidly during the twentieth century, with a core area in the New Mexico and Texas Plains but also forming a major presence in eastern Colorado, southeastern Kansas, the meatpacking towns of Nebraska, and elsewhere throughout much of the region. This Latino immigration, and a growing Asian population, continue the tradition of a region enriched by waves of migration.

In most areas, homesteaders in the nineteenth century located on dispersed farms of a quarter-section (160 acres). There were occasional interspersed rural schools, churches, and post offices. Initial building construction often utilized native sod, since lumber was not available. Barbed wire fences were used to divide fields because rails were not available either. Sod homes were often replaced by relatively expensive lumber construction as soon as railroads and improved finances made it possible.

The initial village pattern consisted of service centers at critical stream fords and at the intersections of wagon and horse trails. As railroad expansion spread a vast web of iron rails across the Plains, new sites emerged, since steam locomotives required water every eight to ten miles. These watering spots became the nuclei from which permanent villages, towns, or cities emerged. Here sprouted railroad depots, water towers, grain elevators, stockyards, stores, schools, and churches– facilities to enable the dispersed homestead farmers to obtain their supplies, market their products, and provide for their basic living needs. Early communities vied with each other for the right to be the county seat, and occasionally heated battles occurred. Such a role was perceived as essential if a place was to become dominant in the future urban hierarchy.

As the twentieth century progressed, depression and dust bowl conditions modified the settlement pattern, initiating significant changes that continue to the present. Rural free mail delivery led to the discontinuance of many of the open-country post offices. Farm consolidation led to the abandonment of many section-line roads, and operations that were originally farms became ranches. Removal of much of the rural population led to the consolidation of rural schools and churches. The advent of larger railroad steam engines, and then of diesel engines, decreased the need for water-tower villages–only the grain elevator survives in many diminished places. Additionally, improved highways and the use of trucks doomed many of the branch railroads and the villages they served.

The present settlement pattern of the Great Plains reflects this consolidation process and some unique situations. As the farm population consolidated, the need for service centers declined and a few strategically located centers (often county seats) emerged as the dominant centers. This pattern reflects to some extent the division of the Plains into irrigated and nonirrigated areas, with denser settlement patterns in the irrigated oases of the river valleys and High Plains Aquifer.

The original Plains peoples, the Native Americans, remain an important and rapidly growing component of the region's population, especially on the Northern Plains and in Oklahoma. On the reservations, residential villages of Native Americans are interspersed with farms, often occupied by European Americans, which were homesteaded as "surplus" lands or purchased as allotments in the decades following the Dawes Act of 1887. On some reservations, for example the Devils Lake Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, more than three-quarters of the land is owned by non-Natives.

There are some places where the postconsolidation pattern offers some semblance of a European-style settlement pattern. In the German Russian Hutterite colonies of the Dakotas and Montana, large blocks of land were purchased and central residential areas for communal living were constructed. Vagaries of the Great Plains climate and the quest for profit led some large-scale operators to develop "suitcase" and "sidewalk" farming operations. In suitcase farming, the operator has widely spread grain operations necessitating overnight trips for farming. In sidewalk farming, more localized dispersion makes living in a town feasible but still permits scattered fields, so that at least some will escape localized drought and hail hazards. Both types of operations have led to the semblance of a compact farming-village settlement pattern.

The settlement patterns of the Great Plains reflect the sum total of the effects of these ongoing processes. Native Americans, who only 150 years ago were the region's sole inhabitants, have been relegated to relatively small areas. Throughout the region a pattern of large-scale farms is interspersed with abundant artifacts of a much denser network of farmsteads, railroads, and villages. At regular intervals surviving towns continue to offer supplies, markets, and life services to an increasingly diverse population.

See also: AGRICULTURE: Suitcase Farming / CITIES AND TOWNS: Small Towns / TRANSPORTATION: Railroads, United States.

John L. Dietz University of Northern Colorado

Hudson, John C. "Who Was 'Forest Man'? Sources of Migration to the Plains." Great Plains Quarterly 6 (1986): 69– 83.

Kraenzel, Carl F. The Great Plains in Transition. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1955.

Shortridge, James R. Peopling the Plains: Who Settled Where in Frontier Kansas. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995.

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