Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The history of politics in the Great Plains has to do with the formal structures of governmental authority and the process of political decision making, as well as the policies of external political agencies that have affected the region. Before the arrival of Europeans, political authority tended to be local in nature, relating to the authority of Native American leaders over bands or tribes. Since the nineteenth century, however, politics has had not only local but state or provincial and federal dimensions. The most distinctive aspects of Plains politics appeared between 1890 and World War II; since 1945, Plains politics has moved closer to national patterns.

Political Authority before the Arrival of Europeans

Before the arrival of the Europeans and the horse, most of the Indigenous people of the Great Plains lived in permanent villages along streams and rivers. Some–the Blackfoot, for example–lived as nomadic hunters. The basic political unit of the sedentary societies was the village, each with its own structure of authority. The Pawnees, for example, were divided into four bands; the largest of them, the Skiris, had an internal organization based on thirteen villages, a political structure that persisted even after the number of actual villages significantly declined. The chiefs of each village typically joined together as a tribal council that met periodically throughout the year. The Skiris also collaborated with the other three Pawnee bands on significant issues, making this a confederation of independent but mutually supported units.

Patterns of leadership differed among the Plains tribes, but the position of village chief was typically hereditary within certain lineages. A chief's actual authority, however, rested on his ability to provide successful leadership. in dealing with traders, distributing goods, negotiating with outsiders, allocating farmlands, and adjudicating disputes. Those from other families could, through demonstrating their abilities, exercise other forms of leadership. Thus, a village might have one or a few main chiefs, several shamans, and separate leaders for war, buffalo-hunting expeditions, and the various men's societies. Occasionally, a woman might serve as a shaman, but women did not hold any of the other community-wide political roles.

Advent of Europeans and Americans

In 1541 Vásquez de Coronado and the few men under his command became the first Europeans to venture into the Great Plains. Afterward, Spanish authorities did little to establish their political authority there. The Hudson's Bay Company began trading from posts along the eastern shores of Hudson Bay and James Bay in 1670. By 1720 the hinterland of York Factory, the largest of these posts, included the whole of what is now Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Under the terms of its charter the Hudson's Bay Company had governmental and judicial powers, but these were exercised only in a minimal way during the early years of the company's history. French explorers and traders entered the Plains in the early eighteenth century, but French authorities were no more active than the Spanish in establishing their political authority.

Plains Indians experienced the impact of the arrival of Europeans in North America long before significant numbers of Europeans came to the Plains. European settlers along the Atlantic traded with nearby Indigenous peoples, providing guns and manufactured goods, including items of iron and brass. As these trading partners were pushed west by European expansion, they, in turn, equipped with guns and iron weapons, pressured the peoples to their west. This constant pressure from the East, compressing Indian space, bred conflict among the Plains tribes and between Plains tribes and migrating tribes. The Teton and Yankton Sioux, for example, pressured from the East and attracted to the Plains by the horse and bison, crossed the Missouri River by 1800 and began their successful campaign to wrest control of the range from Indigenous groups such as the Pawnees and Kiowas. Farther north the Western Wood Crees entered territory of the Plains Crees, who in turn began to frequent the hunting grounds of the more westerly tribes, resulting in bloody intertribal conflicts.

Among the nomadic Plains tribes, the basic political unit was the band.a relatively small group that traveled together, camped together, hunted together, and made war together. Bands of the same tribe or closely related tribes came together for religious ceremonies, councils, hunting, or war. Political leadership was typically fluid, with different leaders for different purposes, none of whom held supreme authority within the band or tribe. As of about 1800, for example, the Cheyennes had ten bands, each with four chiefs; when the ten bands came together each spring, the four chiefs of each band, plus a few other elders, formed a tribal council. Other men were war leaders or led men's societies.

The Treaty of Paris (1763) gave Spain the entire southern region between the Mississippi River and the crest of the Rocky Mountains, and it gave Britain the vast northern territories formerly held by New France. Spanish authorities exerted little political authority in the Plains, however. In 1800 Spain secretly sold to France the entire Louisiana country north of the Red River. Napoleon, the ruler of France, then sold Louisiana to the United States in 1803.

From the Louisiana Purchase to the Kansas-Nebraska Act

Although claimed by European powers for some 250 years, the Plains had, in fact, experienced very little outside political authority during that time. That changed in 1811 when Thomas Douglas, Lord Selkirk, with the assistance of the Hudson's Bay Company, established an agricultural colony on the Red River of the North at the present site of Winnipeg. Conflict between rival fur traders led Selkirk to secure a small force of mercenary soldiers, recently released from British employ, to reestablish order in the new settlement. Meanwhile, the U.S. government sent explorers into its part of the Plains and then planted small military posts along the Missouri River, but the military exercised little influence. Real political control still rested largely with the villages, bands, and tribes.

In 1830 Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which uprooted many Native American peoples living east of the Mississippi and removed them to the eastern parts of what are now Kansas and Oklahoma. Many of them had long since adapted to white society, and some–the Cherokees, for example–brought with them political structures modeled as much on the U.S. Constitution as on traditional practices.

Through the annexation of Texas (1845) and war with Mexico and the resulting Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), the United States acquired title to territories that included the Southern Plains. Though Texas claimed most of the Southern Plains, the residents of New Mexico contested that claim. Congress in 1850 attempted to resolve these and other issues arising from the war with Mexico through an elaborate compromise that, among other provisions, set the present western boundary of Texas and established a territorial government for New Mexico.

By 1850 most of the Plains still appeared on maps as "unorganized Indian territory." The major land routes to California, Oregon, and New Mexico crossed this territory. Committed to the idea of a railroad from Chicago to the Pacific Ocean, Stephen Douglas, U.S. senator from Illinois, had long recognized the need to establish territorial organization in the Plains. Early efforts foundered, however, on southern opposition to the creation of territories where the Missouri Compromise (1820) banned slavery. Douglas fashioned a successful compromise in early 1854, creating Nebraska and Kansas Territories, each to decide whether or not to permit slavery within its boundaries. The Kansas-Nebraska Act provoked a great national debate over slavery, precipitated the emergence of the Republican Party, and contributed significantly to a major national political realignment. The organization of Kansas, in turn, initiated a miniature civil war known as "Bleeding Kansas."

From the Kansas-Nebraska Act to the 1890s

The population of Kansas Territory grew rapidly, and Kansas became a state in 1861. Congress also created several more territories in the region: Dakota and Colorado in 1861, Montana in 1864, and Wyoming in 1868. With the end of the Civil War, opportunities in the Plains attracted many new settlers. Nebraska became a state in 1867 and Colorado in 1876.

Even late in the nineteenth century, however, much of the American Plains remained territories. Montana and the Dakotas became states only in 1889 and Wyoming in 1890. Oklahoma and New Mexico remained territories into the twentieth century. Throughout their territorial days, residents could not elect their own governors nor participate in presidential elections, and the election of the territorial legislature had no implications for the election of U.S. senators (who were elected by state legislatures until 1913). What political patronage existed was federal and often allocated in faraway Washington. All this made for low stakes for parties in territorial politics, and some historians have suggested that, in longtime territories, strong party organizations and loyalties were consequently stunted.

In most of the Canadian Plains, provincial status also came relatively late. After the creation of the Dominion of Canada in 1867, the new government entered into negotiations with the Hudson's Bay Company for acquisition of its vast holdings in what is now central and western Canada. After the successful completion of these negotiations, the first significant step toward the organization of territories came in 1870, when the Manitoba Act created a tiny Manitoba province and a huge federally administered unit, the Northwest Territories. The Northwest Territories Act of 1875 provided for local government but left the most important decisions to an appointed lieutenant governor. Both laws made possible the establishment of a dual school system and, after 1877, both recognized French and English as official languages, but these provisions proved to be long-term sources of political conflict. The boundaries of Manitoba were expanded in 1882, and four federal districts were created in the Plains. Thereafter, the Northwest Territories moved toward self-government and integration into federal politics. In the 1890s the school laws of the Northwest Territories made English the language of instruction in all schools, though local school trustees could provide for the study of a language other than English. After a rapid population increase in the 1890s, the districts were consolidated into the Provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905. A final boundary adjustment in 1912 gave additional northern territory to Manitoba. As was true in the United States, long-term territorial status seems to have stunted the growth of political parties, though, perhaps, for different reasons.

Unlike the situation in the territories, following the Civil War the political parties in the Plains states had a greater stake in elections, and partisanship developed along regional lines. Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado emerged as Republican strongholds under the leadership of Union Army veterans who solicited the votes of their numerous fellow veterans. There, Republicans constantly reminded voters of the Homestead Act and Republican largess in promoting western economic development. Party politics in Texas followed as directly from that state's participation in the Confederacy, as westward-moving southern whites assisted the Democrats in "redeeming" the state from Republican rule in 1873 and keeping it securely Democratic thereafter. In Canada, early governments in Manitoba and the territories were nonpartisan. In Manitoba in 1888, a partisan Liberal government replaced the nonpartisan government of Premier John Norquay, who was of mixed Cree and Scottish ancestry, while territorial administrations remained nonpartisan until the new Provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta were created in 1905.

Politics of Gender, Ethnicity, and Race

Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, advocates of women's suffrage were active in the Northern and Central Plains. In 1867 Kansas became the first state to vote on the issue, but its voters rejected suffrage. The first session of the Wyoming territorial legislature, in 1869, approved suffrage for women.the first time any state or territory had taken such a step. Some attributed that decision to the belief among Wyoming males that women's suffrage would draw more women to the territory, but others have pointed to diligent lobbying by suffrage advocates. When Wyoming achieved statehood in 1890, it became the first state to fully enfranchise women. Colorado, in 1893, became the first state whose male voters approved women's suffrage. Despite repeated agitation of the issue and several referenda, the other Plains states continued to reject suffrage until 1912 or later, even though women won statewide elective office in North Dakota and Oklahoma.

With or without the suffrage, Plains women took prominent roles in reform movements, especially efforts to banish liquor. In 1878 Kansans amended their state constitution to prohibit the importation, manufacture, and sale of alcohol, but the law was widely violated. Despite referenda in several other Plains states, before 1907 laws banning liquor were passed only in North and South Dakota, and South Dakotans soon reversed that decision.

In the Northern Plains the political battle over prohibition reflected broader ethnic and religious differences. One side, called evangelicals by some historians, consisted of old-stock Americans and immigrants who a.liated with the Methodist, Baptist, Congregational, or Presbyterian denominations, along with Norwegian and Swedish immigrants and their off- spring. On the other side were Catholics and many German Protestants, called liturgicals or confessionals by some historians. Whereas evangelicals condemned as sinful any use of alcohol, and often added gambling and dancing, liturgicals found no inherent sin in a stein of beer, a dance, or a lottery. Thus, referenda on prohibition and women's suffrage (closely connected in many voters' minds) often turned on the ethno-cultural values of voters. Identification with the Democratic and Republican Parties in the Northern Plains often had ethnic dimensions, for northern Democrats adamantly opposed prohibition. Republicans usually tried to duck the issue but sometimes issued cautious endorsements. Similar patterns regarding ethnicity, prohibition, and women's suffrage were to be found in the Prairie Provinces, though the time of settlement there meant that the patterns appeared later. There, ethnic conflict often focused as well on denominational schools, especially funding and the extent of civil supervision.

If the struggle over prohibition formed a highly divisive political issue in the Northern Plains, Texas politics sometimes revolved around race. Texas experienced Radical Reconstruction beginning in 1867, and a coalition of black and white Radical Republicans remained in control until 1873, when the Democrats won a gubernatorial election characterized by widespread fraud and intimidation of black voters. With the Democrats' accession to power, a new state constitution was written, severely limiting the legislature but not disfranchising black voters.

In the Central Plains states, the small numbers of African Americans aligned themselves with the dominant Republicans. Some received political patronage in return, and a few were elected to local or state office, including state auditor in Kansas. In Kansas, and later in Oklahoma Territory, black migrants from the South created all-black towns and exercised local political authority.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, only in New Mexico did Mexican Americans exercise significant political power. Long-established Hispano communities (most of them not in the Plains), along with the slow pace of in-migration by other groups, meant that Mexican culture dominated many areas. Voters elected Mexican Americans as local officials, territorial legislators, and territorial delegates to Congress. Mexican Americans also secured federal patronage posts, including territorial secretary and governor.

As the American Plains filled up with new residents, Congress moved toward reducing the size of Indian reservations, the largest of which were in Dakota and Montana Territories and in what is now Oklahoma. Outside the jurisdiction of state or territorial officials, these reservations were administered directly by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In 1871 Congress had specified that the executive branch was no longer to negotiate treaties with Indian tribes. Officials of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, committed to a policy of assimilation, sought to eliminate most traditional practices, including structures of authority and governance. In the Dawes Act of 1887, Congress directed that reservation land be divided among Indian families and owned in severalty (i.e., individually) rather than in common. Remaining land was to be taken out of the reservation system, producing a dramatic reduction in the size of reservations. In 1890 Congress created Oklahoma Territory in the western part of what is now Oklahoma, leaving the eastern region as Indian Territory. In the Northern Plains, the Great Sioux Reservation had been significantly reduced in size in 1877 and was broken up into smaller units in 1889.

In the Prairie Provinces, the 1870s and 1880s also proved crucial to the Native peoples and Métis (those of mixed Indian and European, mostly French, ancestry). The Indian Act of 1876, based on assumptions about assimilation similar to those underlying the Dawes Act, made Canadian Indians wards of the federal government. In the 1870s a series of treaties with the major Plains tribes typically provided for small reserves along with annuities and equipment. The treaties opened large areas for railroad construction, European and Canadian settlement, and agricultural development. An uprising by Métis in 1885, in opposition to Canadian federal authority, was quickly suppressed.

Populism and Silver

By the 1880s political agitators throughout the Plains were calling for new federal policies to counteract steadily declining prices for farm products and to regulate railroad rates, but few established political figures took notice. Texas was an exception, at least with regard to railroad rates. John Reagan, member of Congress from Texas, had advocated regulation through the late 1870s and early 1880s and had contributed to the Interstate Commerce Act in 1886. James Hogg, as attorney general and governor in the late 1880s and early 1890s, made a political reputation in Texas by attacking railroads.

In 1890, in the Central and Northern Plains states, new political parties emerged, claiming to speak for hard-pressed farmers and laborers. Organized at first as state parties under various names, the parties eventually came together as the People's Party, or Populists. The new party called for governmental action to restrict the great corporations that had developed since the Civil War and, the Populists argued, limited the economic opportunities and political rights of ordinary citizens. In the Plains the Populists drew their greatest strength from farmers on marginally productive land, often with large mortgages at high interest rates, for whom the prevailing deflation proved especially ruinous.

The Populists called for sweeping changes in federal monetary and banking policies, especially expansion of the circulating currency to counteract the prevalent deflation; government ownership of the railroads and the telegraph and telephone systems; structural reforms to make government more responsive to voters, including the secret ballot and the initiative and referendum; and other reforms such as the eight-hour workday and a graduated income tax. Populists won office as local and state officials, including governor, and as members of state legislatures and the U.S. Congress.

In most places in the Central and Northern Plains states, the Democrats were reduced to a tiny third party. They often threw their support behind Populist candidates. Such fusions brought gubernatorial victories in 1892 in Colorado, Kansas, and North Dakota, in 1894 in Nebraska, and in 1896 in South Dakota. In Texas, where the Democrats were the dominant party, the growth of Populism brought unsuccessful fusion with the minority Republicans.

In 1896 William Jennings Bryan, a Democrat from Nebraska, won the Democratic presidential nomination on a platform that stressed currency inflation through silver coinage and called for an income tax and other reforms. Most western Populists enthusiastically gave him their support, and he secured their party's nomination as well. Leading western Republicans broke with their party, formed the Silver Party (or Silver Republicans), and also nominated Bryan. Bryan lost the presidency, though he did well throughout much of the West. The Populist and Silver Republican parties survived for a few years, then faded away. For many voters in some Plains states, party loyalties may have been significantly weakened. In Colorado and Nebraska, the Democrats emerged stronger than they had been before 1890. Republicans and Democrats were closely competitive in those two states and in Montana over the next twenty years. Kansas and the Dakotas, however, could usually be found in the Republican camp.

Racial issues became prominent in Texas politics in the 1890s, when the state's Populists made a strong appeal to black voters and, in coalition with Republicans, registered a strong vote for their gubernatorial candidate in 1896. Texas adopted a poll tax in 1902 but never followed other former Confederate states in creating a more elaborate set of legal or constitutional provisions designed to restrict black participation in politics. Texas Democrats accomplished much the same thing extralegally, though, by barring African Americans from Democratic primaries (and eventually writing that provision into law) and by coercing blacks who insisted on exercising the franchise.

The two-party system remained intact in western Canada until 1917, although there was considerable dissatisfaction with federal policies governing tariffs, railways, grain handling, and grain marketing. That discontent, and the formation of a Union government in 1917 to implement a policy of military conscription, contributed to the breakup of the two-party system and the formation of the National Progressive Party after World War I.


Where the Populists had focused especially on economic problems, other reformers, then and later, raised other issues. By 1910 or so, reformers had adopted the label "progressive" for themselves and their proposals. Every Plains state experienced progressive reform during the two decades before World War I, and those reforms changed both the structure and function of most state governments. In 1898 South Dakota Populists made their state the first to adopt the initiative and referendum. Most other Plains states also adopted the initiative and referendum, though not through Populists' efforts. Other popular structural reforms intended to foster direct democracy included the direct primary, recall, nonpartisan offices, and limits on political parties. Structural reforms to extend the merit system to state employees, to rationalize the structure of state government, and to simplify state budgeting were also adopted in many states.

The initiative, referendum, and recall were also popular in the Canadian Plains. The legislatures of all three Prairie Provinces approved variations on direct-democracy legislation between 1912 and 1916. The Alberta law was highly limited. That of Saskatchewan was rejected due to low turnout in a referendum (even though those who voted were strongly in favor). Manitoba's law was overturned in the courts. The Progressives, however, and particularly the United Farmers of Alberta, initiated aggressive new direct legislation measures in the 1920s, but these also failed to achieve the desired results. More recently the western-based Reform Party of Canada has again proposed measures such as recall, initiative, and referendum.

Progressives in the Plains states added new functions to state government as they promoted regulation of railroads and public utilities, abolition of child labor, employer liability and workers' compensation, and protection for consumers. Four states set up insurance funds for deposits in state-chartered banks. When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, its constitution included a wide range of progressive innovations, including restrictions on corporations, a graduated income tax, and the initiative and referendum. Oklahoma Democrats showed another side of progressivism, however, when they enacted racial segregation and a literacy test for voting, a device to disfranchise African American voters. Under Gov. Peter Norbeck (1917–21), a progressive Republican, South Dakota launched several state-owned enterprises, including a coal mine, cement plant, hail insurance fund, and hydroelectric plants.

Renewed organizing by women and temperance advocates brought new victories for prohibition and women's suffrage. Oklahomans voted their state dry in 1907, and by 1918 all the Plains states but Texas had done the same. Kansas adopted women's suffrage in 1912 and Montana followed in 1914. In 1916 Montana elected the first woman to serve in the House of Representatives, Jeannette Rankin. South Dakotans and Oklahomans adopted women's suffrage in 1918. In all the other Plains states, women gained the suffrage with the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. In Canada, in 1916, Manitoba was the first province to extend the franchise to women, followed almost immediately by Saskatchewan and Alberta. The following year the federal government extended the franchise to women in the military and to female relatives of military men, and in 1918 all women in western Canada gained the right to vote in federal elections.

Progressivism in the Plains states differed in important ways from progressivism in eastern states. Like other western progressives, those in the Plains were more likely to favor direct democracy, women's suffrage, and prohibition than their eastern counterparts. Some, like Norbeck, proved more receptive to stateowned enterprise, especially if such enterprises were for the purpose of economic development. And, as events after 1914 were to demonstrate, some were distinctly more isolationist in their views on foreign policy.

In some Plains states, voters endorsed proposals more radical than those proffered by progressives. The Socialist Party, espousing government ownership of key industries, made an especially strong showing in Oklahoma, winning 21 percent of the vote for governor in 1914. Socialists developed strength elsewhere in the Plains states, electing local officials in several places, but failed to win any office higher than member of the state legislature. In North Dakota, by contrast, Arthur C. Townley, a former socialist organizer, was the moving force in the Nonpartisan League (NPL). The npl won the governorship in 1916 and dominated the state legislature in 1919. They enacted much of their program, including a state-owned bank and terminal grain elevator.

In the Canadian Plains the 1890s and early twentieth century brought increased immigration and development, leading, belatedly, to provincial status for Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905. In both provinces Liberals established themselves as the majority until after World War I, but Manitoba had a Conservative government from 1900 to 1915. Liberals sustained themselves in the two western provinces by drawing upon federal patronage and by paying close attention to local interests, especially the grain growers who opposed the protective tariff. The Liberals also cultivated a more diverse constituency than did the Conservatives, whose voters and leaders were largely British in ancestry and Anglican in religion. Even so, both parties were predominantly British and Protestant in ethnicity. In Manitoba the Conservatives thrived by painting the Liberals as insufficiently attentive to local concerns. Liberals and Conservatives from the Prairie Provinces sometimes took positions in support of their regional interests that set them apart from their eastern counterparts, just as progressive Republicans and Democrats in Plains states sometimes found themselves in opposition to the national leadership of their parties.

World War I and Depression

Jeannette Rankin of Montana and Sen. George W. Norris of Nebraska were among those members of Congress who voted against the declaration of war in 1917. Throughout the Plains, World War I introduced a period of intense patriotism, encouraged by the administration of President Woodrow Wilson, new state Councils of Defense, and extragovernmental bodies. Suspicion and hostility greeted those of German birth or descent, pacifists (including Mennonites, who were often of German ancestry), and radicals, especially the NPL, Socialists, and the Industrial Workers of the World. Canada had entered the war earlier, at the same time Britain did, and the war there, too, intensified Canadianization drives among both immigrants and French Canadians and brought suppression of radical groups.

The war created a huge demand for wheat and meat. At the end of the war, however, prices for agricultural products fell, initiating an agricultural depression that persisted when the rest of the economy began to roar with the prosperity of the 1920s. By 1922 agricultural distress and reversals for organized labor, especially railroad workers, sparked political protests among farmers and workers in the American Plains. Organized through the Conference on Progressive Political Action, protesting voters put Democrats into the governorship in several Plains states and elected Burton K. Wheeler, a progressive Democrat, to the U.S. Senate from Montana. A similar coalition in Oklahoma elected the governor there. In 1924, the independent presidential candidacy of Robert La Follette drew significant support from farmers and organized labor. He failed to win any Plains state, but he carried many counties across the Northern and Central Plains. Political protest ebbed in the late 1920s, until the onset of the Great Depression in 1929–30.

The economic distress of farmers contributed to the development of a congressional "farm bloc" in 1921. Members of Congress from both parties, including many from the Plains states, joined to support regulation of stockyards and grain exchanges, exempt farm cooperatives from antitrust laws, and make credit more easily available to farmers. Arthur Capper, U.S. senator from Kansas, often took a leading role in the farm bloc. Despite such efforts, however, the farm economy continued to slump.

In the Canadian Plains, the war years and their immediate aftermath produced a new political movement that drew upon traditions from eastern Canada, from Britain (including cooperatives, trade unions, and socialism), and from populism, progressivism, and the NPL in the United States. Launched at a federal level as the National Progressive Party in 1920, it especially drew its voting strength from farmers and scored important victories in the 1921 federal elections, sweeping nearly every seat in the Prairie Provinces. Variations appeared in provincial politics. In Alberta the NPL had scored some early victories in 1917. Pressured by npl successes, the older and larger United Farmers of Alberta (UFA) moved toward more independent political involvement. In 1919 the UFA and NPL merged, and in 1921 the UFA swept the provincial elections, virtually eliminating all other parties, and remained in power for the next fourteen years. The United Farmers of Manitoba, in 1922, won control of that province and remained a dominant element in various coalition governments until 1958. Both farmer organizations were allied with the Progressives at the federal level. In Saskatchewan the ruling Liberals made substantial concessions to the Saskatchewan Grain Growers Association and forestalled the emergence of a viable farmers' party. Thus, by the mid-1920s party politics in the Prairie Provinces had begun to show distinctive variants from federal patterns.

In 1924 two Plains states elected the nation's first female governors. In Wyoming, the death of the incumbent a month before the election led to the nomination and election of his widow, Nellie Tayloe Ross. Miriam A. "Ma" Ferguson won the governorship in Texas, but she was widely seen as a surrogate for her husband, James E. Ferguson, who was ineligible to run because he had been impeached from the governorship in 1917.

Ma Ferguson's victory in the Texas Democratic primary came despite the opposition of the Ku Klux Klan. Antiblack, anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, and anti-immigrant, the Klan presented itself as the defender of old-fashioned Protestant morality and became a significant force in Plains politics. Klan-endorsed candidates won local and state office across Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Kansas in the early and mid-1920s. The Klan tried to influence elections elsewhere but declined in most places after the mid-1920s. In 1929, however, in Saskatchewan, the Klan contributed to the defeat of the Liberals.

The nationwide Depression that began in 1929 was a serious economic blow to a region whose farmers had not shared in the more general prosperity of the previous decade. Nature compounded the Depression with drought, beginning in 1933 and lasting until 1938, turning large areas of the Plains into the Dust Bowl. Political repercussions appeared in a few Plains states as early as 1930, when voters elected governors and senators who promised to address their economic problems. The political upheaval intensified in 1932, when Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first Democrat to sweep all of the Plains states' electoral votes. He also carried Democrats into Congress, statehouses, and state legislatures. In North Dakota, a revived Nonpartisan League, led by William Langer, won complete control of state government for the first time since 1919. For most Plains states, elections in the early 1930s marked the biggest protest vote in their history, and Democrats dominated most Plains state governments.

In mid-1932, in some Northern Plains states and nearby areas, the Farmers Holiday Association began efforts to raise farm prices by withholding produce from market and sometimes blocking roads to prevent others from selling. Holiday members joined others in demanding that state governments impose a moratorium on farm mortgage foreclosures, and several Northern Plains states adopted such measures.

Roosevelt's New Deal addressed the farm problem with the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which included provisions for paying farmers and stockgrowers to reduce production. Relief rolls, both state and federal, grew to include a quarter or a third of the population in some Plains states, and sometimes two-thirds or more of those in Dust Bowl counties. Other New Deal programs ranged from construction of schools and bridges to rural electrification, and from tree planting and flood control to social security. One New Deal project, the Fort Peck Dam in Montana, was the largest earthen dam in the world when it was completed in 1939.

By the mid-1930s several Plains states had experienced efforts by Democratic governors and legislatures to create "Little New Deals," but most were modest and unimaginative. Nearly everywhere in the Plains states, governors and legislatures drastically cut state spending to provide property tax relief. Seeking alternatives to property taxes, several states enacted sales taxes or income taxes. Plains states also created the agencies necessary to participate in new federal welfare programs.

In a few instances in the 1930s, states went beyond budget cutting, tax reform, and participation in New Deal programs. In 1936 Colorado voters approved a pension program for those over sixty that proved so costly it absorbed most of the new sales tax. In Nebraska, Senator Norris convinced voters in 1934 to amend the state constitution to create a unicameral, nonpartisan legislature. Norris also provided some of the inspiration for the development of Nebraska's public power districts, most of which used federal funds to construct generating and distribution systems. By 1945 the state's entire electrical power system was publicly owned.

The New Deal also brought important changes to the governance of Indian reservations. Roosevelt appointed John Collier as commissioner of Indian Affairs. A longtime critic of previous federal Indian policies, Collier closed down many boarding schools and ended efforts to suppress traditional religious practices. His "Indian New Deal" included as its centerpiece the Indian Reorganization Act (1934), which promised to end allotments, restore tribal ownership of unallotted lands, and encourage tribal self-government, albeit using European American.styled governments. Tribes could vote on participation, however, and some rejected the reforms.

In 1936 Republicans gave their presidential nomination to Alfred Landon of Kansas, but he was buried in a Roosevelt landslide that continued the Democratic dominance in most of the Plains states. Soon after, however, some leading Democrats, notably Burton Wheeler, became highly critical of Roosevelt. In 1938 and after, Plains voters also expressed their disaffection from the New Deal, as most of the Northern Plains states returned to the Republicans and the Southern Plains states turned to conservative Democrats.

The late 1930s saw isolationism at high tide in the Northern Plains. In the mid- and late 1930s, Sen. Gerald Nye of North Dakota led investigations into the munitions industry and sponsored neutrality legislation. Jeannette Rankin of Montana cast the only vote against American entry into World War II. Isolationism then receded, but Langer voted against joining the United Nations, and both North Dakota senators opposed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The Depression brought permanent changes in the politics of the Prairie Provinces. As the economy worsened, Saskatchewan was especially hard hit. The federal government, in Liberal hands, eventually provided relief grants to the Prairie Provinces and, perhaps most importantly, turned over control of natural resources to the provincial governments, thereby ending a long-standing grievance. When the Conservatives swept into federal office in 1930, they were led by Richard Bennett from Calgary, the first western prime minister.

Bennett's Conservatives failed to carry Alberta and Saskatchewan, both of which were moving toward distinctive provincial party systems. In 1929 Saskatchewan voters finally ended the Liberals' long tenure with a Conservative victory. This was short-lived, and in the mid-1930s control returned to the Liberals. Within Saskatchewan the Conservatives virtually disappeared from provincial politics, and opposition to the majority Liberals came instead from the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), a farmer-labor coalition with socialist leanings. Albertans abandoned the ufa in 1935 and turned to a new party, Social Credit. Social Credit owed its appeal, more than anything else, to William Aberhart, a fundamentalist radio preacher who combined old-time religion with a cranky economics that promised to increase consumers' purchasing power. Drawing upon economic distress born of falling prices for farm products and urban unemployment, Social Credit swept Alberta's elections in 1935 and dominated the province's politics until 1971. For much of that time, Alberta practiced virtually one-party politics, with Social Credit sometimes winning 90 percent of the seats. It also attracted a following outside Alberta. From 1922 until 1943 Manitoba had a coalition government led by a veteran of the National Progressive Party, John Bracken. In 1943 Bracken became leader of the federal Conservatives, insisted that the party take the name Progressive Conservatives, and pushed it to adopt at least some of the old Progressive programs, especially opposition to the protective tariff.

Plains Politics since 1945

Prosperity returned to the Plains during World War II. During and after the war, liberals continued on the defensive in most places in the Plains, as conservative Republicans usually held most governorships in the Northern and Central Plains states and equally conservative Democrats held those in Oklahoma and Texas. Except for Montana and sometimes North Dakota, the Northern Plains states usually sent conservative Republicans to represent them in Washington. Between 1956 and the mid-1970s, however, all the Plains states moved toward more competitive two-party systems.

In the late 1950s the national economy entered a recession. When Dwight D. Eisenhower's presidential coattails were removed from state and congressional elections, economically distressed farmers and urban dwellers began to elect liberal Democrats throughout the Northern Plains. By 1959 George McGovern of South Dakota, Quentin Burdick of North Dakota (elected following a fusion of the Democratic Party with remnants of the npl in 1956), and Gale McGee of Wyoming had joined Mike Mansfield and Lee Metcalf of Montana to make the Northern Plains appear a center of congressional liberalism. Northern and Central Plains states also began electing Democrats as governor, albeit usually moderate or conservative Democrats. Since the late 1950s Nebraska and North Dakota have joined Montana as being more likely to elect Democrats than Republicans as governor or U.S. senator. Underneath those highly visible offices, however, significant majorities of the voters have continued to identify themselves as Republicans.

As Democratic victories made some Northern and Central Plains states more competitive for major offices, a parallel development occurred among Southern Plains Republicans. In 1961 Texans sent a Republican, John Tower, to the U.S. Senate for the first time since Reconstruction. In 1962 Henry Bellmon became the first Republican ever to win the Oklahoma governorship, and Bellmon went on to the U.S. Senate in 1968. By 1973 both Oklahoma senators were Republicans. Like the Northern and Central Plains states, Oklahoma voted consistently Republican for president from 1952 through 1988, excepting only 1964. (Between 1952 and 1996, excepting 1964, all the Northern and Central Plains states voted Republican for president except for Montana and Colorado in 1992.) Though Texas voted Republican for president in 1952, 1956, and 1972, it was not until 1978 that a Republican, Bill Clements, won the governorship, and that office has alternated between the parties since then. Texas has voted Republican in presidential elections consistently since 1980. New Mexico voted Republican in all presidential elections after 1948 except 1960, 1992, 1996, and 2000. However, just as voters in the Northern Plains states have elected Democrats to major offices even though most have remained Republican, so most Oklahomans and Texans seem to have remained Democrats–at least until the late 1980s.

Republican gains in Southern Plains states, like Republican gains in the South more generally, came in part in response to Democratic espousal of civil rights legislation. The civil rights movement had its most direct impact in the Southern Plains, even though the specifics of Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka (1954) concerned Topeka, Kansas. Earlier, the Supreme Court had struck down the Texas white primary law (1944) and had ordered Oklahoma and Texas to integrate their state graduate and professional schools (1950). There were, however, relatively few African Americans in most Plains counties, so the direct political impact of the civil rights movement was more pronounced in the eastern, non-Plains portions of those states. One important exception was Colorado, where Denver residents fought an occasionally violent battle over school integration between 1969 and 1974.

The 1970s also saw increased politicization of other ethnic groups in Plains states. In South Dakota, the American Indian Movement, first organized in Minneapolis in 1968, led demonstrations demanding equal treatment and autonomy and challenging the existing tribal leadership. A confrontation at Wounded Knee in 1973 produced two deaths. A violent, but not deadly, confrontation in 1967 brought an end to the Alianza, a New Mexico group formed to demand the return of land grants. In the early 1970s in Texas, Mexican Americans formed the La Raza Unida Party and won a number of local offices.

During the last quarter of the twentieth century, politics in several Plains states acquired a greater measure of racial and gender diversity. New Mexicans, to be certain, had routinely elected Mexican Americans to state and federal office throughout their state's history. In 1978 Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas won the first of three terms in the U.S. Senate. Coloradoans in 1974 elected George L. Brown, the nation's first black lieutenant governor since Reconstruction, and in 1992 they sent Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Native American, to the U.S. Senate. Patricia Schroeder, who served in Congress for twenty-four years, left undefeated in 1996 with a national reputation. In Nebraska in 1986, two women, Helen Boosalis and Kay Orr, faced each other as the major party candidates for governor.

In the Prairie Provinces, quite different political patterns evolved after World War II. In Saskatchewan, the ccf, led by Tommy C. Douglas until 1961, defeated the Liberals in 1944. The ccf took office as the first avowedly socialist state or provincial government in Canada or the United States, and it dominated Saskatchewan politics until 1964. A political coalition of farmers, labor, and professionals, the ccf espoused socialism and, in power, enacted a variety of reforms of provincial government as well as creating several government-owned manufacturing ventures, a hospitalization insurance program, and publicly owned transportation facilities. The CCF became part of the New Democratic Party (NDP) in 1961. When the ndp introduced a universal, compulsory, prepaid medical care plan in 1961-62, it precipitated massive resistance by the province's physicians. This, along with some losses among its farm supporters who disliked the NDP's close ties to labor, helped to produce a Liberal victory in 1964. The NDP regained their majority in 1971, lost to the Progressive Conservatives in 1982, but subsequently recovered. The coalition that had governed in Manitoba since the early 1920s came to an end in 1958 with a Progressive Conservative win. Party turnover in Manitoba has been frequent since then, with Progressive Conservatives, Liberals, and the ndp all forming governments at least once. In office, the Manitoba ndp initiated some moderate socialist programs. Alberta, riding a crest of economic prosperity produced by a post. World War II oil boom, continued its maverick political ways, giving usually enormous parliamentary margins to Social Credit through 1971, when it switched to the Progressive Conservatives by similar large margins.

Federal Canadian politics between 1935 and 1957 was dominated by the Liberals. In 1957, however, John Diefenbaker, a charismatic Progressive Conservative from Saskatchewan, narrowly defeated the incumbent Liberals. He achieved a decisive victory in another federal election in 1958. Diefenbaker enjoyed strong support in western Canada, particularly in the rural areas, even after he lost the 1962 federal election. Support in western Canada for the Progressive Conservatives remained strong for decades but was seriously eroded by the massive unpopularity of Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservative government during its last years in power. Disillusioned conservatives then turned in large numbers to a new political party. Preston Manning, son of a longtime Social Credit premier, founded the Reform Party in 1987 on the principles of conservatism and opposition to special treatment for Quebec and to preferences based on race, language, or culture. In the 1997 federal election, western voters divided their support between Reform, Liberal, and New Democratic Party candidates, with Reform showing particular strength in Alberta and British Columbia, allowing it to become the largest opposition party in the federal parliament.

Throughout most of the Great Plains, net out-migration began after World War II and has persisted in most rural places since. The remaining population became more concentrated in urban areas. Local and state government faced a variety of problems resulting from a diminishing population base, but education often drew the greatest attention. Declining population and increasing accreditation standards caught rural schools in their pincers. Although school consolidation often proved politically divisive, most Plains states witnessed sharp reductions in the number of school districts–by 72 percent in Wyoming between 1952 and 1984, and by 67 percent in Nebraska between 1949 and 1965.


The political history of the Great Plains has much in common with its surrounding regions. Many of its distinctive features are shared with other western or midwestern states. One feature, federal policies aimed at promoting economic development, has been common throughout much of the West. Populism, early approval of women's suffrage, and the western variety of progressivism were perhaps the most distinctive aspects of Plains political development, but they were not unique to Plains states. Populism and progressivism left most Plains states with a legacy of direct democracy and a few Plains states with stateowned enterprises. Populism and western progressivism, born of agricultural adversity and, in the 1920s at least, nurtured by a political alliance of farmers and labor, grew out of a social and economic situation now largely vanished. A similar alliance produced the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation in Saskatchewan, which showed more staying power in the form of the New Democratic Party than did its counterparts south of the border. The substantial decline in the proportion of farmers and stockgrowers in the U.S. Plains population has reduced the potential base for such politics, and the emergence of an agribusiness attitude among many of the survivors seems to have given them a different political outlook.

The emergence of two-party competition throughout most of the Plains states since the late 1950s suggests that the Plains's political subcultures are being homogenized into larger national patterns. Similarly, the half-century pattern of support for most Republican presidential candidates throughout most of the Plains suggests a homogenization into larger patterns of western politics. Finally, the decline in party loyalty in the East and South suggests that even that aspect of western politics is no longer unique. In the Canadian Plains, however, the rise of the Reform Party suggests that western distinctiveness in a Canadian context may be a persistent feature of that nation's politics.

See also AFRICAN AMERICANS: All-Black Towns / EDUCATION: School Consolidation and Reorganization / GENDER: Suffrage Movement / LAW: Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka ; White Primary / NATIVE AMERICANS: Indian Removal; Métis; Pawnees; Treaties / PROTEST AND DISSENT: Aberhart, William; American Indian Movement; Ku Klux Klan; Nonpartisan League; Temperance Movement / WAR: Bleeding Kansas.

Robert W. Cherny San Francisco State University

Abbott, Carl. Colorado: A History of the Centennial State. Boulder: Colorado Associated University Press, 1982.

Barr, Alwyn. Reconstruction to Reform: Texas Politics, 1876–1906. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971.

Brown, Norman D. Hood, Bonnet, and Little Brown Jug: Texas Politics, 1921– 1928. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1984.

Cherny, Robert W. Populism, Progressivism, and the Transformation of Nebraska Politics, 1885–1915. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981.

Clanton, Gene. Kansas Populism: Ideas and Men. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1969.

Friesen, Gerald. The Canadian Prairies: A History. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

Gomez- Quinones, Juan. Roots of Chicano Politics, 1600–1940. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994.

Gould, Lewis L. Wyoming: A Political History, 1868–1896. New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 1968.

Laycock, David H. Populism and Democratic Thought in the Canadian Prairies, 1910 to 1945. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990.

Lipset, Seymour Martin. Agrarian Socialism: The Cooperative Commonwealth Federation in Saskatchewan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971.

Lowitt, Richard. The New Deal and the West. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.

Macpherson, Crawford Brough. Democracy in Alberta: Social Credit and the Party System. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1968.

Malone, Michael P., and Richard B. Roeder. Montana: A History of Two Centuries. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1976.

Morlan, Robert L. Political Prairie Fire: The Nonpartisan League, 1915–1922. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1955.

Saloutos, Theodore, and John D. Hicks. Agricultural Discontent in the Middle West, 1900–1939. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1951.

Scales, James R., and Danney Goble. Oklahoma Politics: A History. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982.

Previous: | Contents | Next: Abbott, Grace

XML: egp.pg.001.xml