Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The role of the U.S. federal government in the development and current status of the Great Plains has been central and often controversial. Most of the Great Plains became part of the United States when the federal government, led by President Thomas Jefferson, bought "Louisiana" from the French in 1803. That same government then commissioned an expeditionary party to explore the massive tract of land. The records of Lewis and Clark constitute the first and, in many ways, the most influential systematic American observations and reflections in the Great Plains.

The land of the Great Plains began its relationship with the federal government as a set of territories, which meant that governmental structures were relatively undeveloped and the federal government, by default, was the crucial player in the few tasks accorded it in those days (law enforcement, mail delivery, development of transportation, and the like). As each territory acquired more population and identity, pressure would grow for the territory to be upgraded to statehood. Thus, Texas became a state in 1845, Kansas in 1861, Nebraska in 1867, Colorado in 1876, the Dakotas and Montana in 1889, Wyoming in 1890, Oklahoma in 1907, and New Mexico in 1912.

Statehood brought the Great Plains into a different stage of relationship with the federal government. Theoretically, such designation might have been expected to give the states greater autonomy, but in reality it has not worked out that way. The shifting nature of federalism through the history of the Republic has generally been one of expanding federal authority. The Civil War, various Supreme Court decisions, the New Deal, and the Great Society all shifted power to Washington and away from the state capitals.

Though affecting the entire country, the expanding role of the federal government has probably been resented more in the Great Plains than in any other region except the South. The spirit of individualism may have been romanticized in portrayals of the Old West, but it is not entirely fictitious. Although historically beneficiaries of federal programs beyond their proportion in the U.S. population, citizens of the Great Plains have long been among the loudest complainers about the goings- on in far-off Washington. People residing in the Great Plains still prefer to govern themselves. Current governors of the states of the Great Plains stridently object to the "unfunded mandates" coming from Washington, gun owners decry federal efforts to control guns, farmers drive their tractors to Washington to protest federal policies, antigovernment militias sprout, and distrust of government and bureaucrats is rampant and occasionally transforms into hatred and violence–witness the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City and the events following a federal raid on firearms at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco.

The federal government's relationship with Native Americans, many of whom still reside in the Great Plains, has been checkered and inconsistent. At different times it has included breaking legal treaties, forcing people to live in undesirable areas, promoting assimilation with whites, protecting cultural differences, declaring individuals to be wards of the state, and permitting legalized gaming (and therefore substantial profits) on land controlled by Native Americans.

The independent spirit that characterizes people of the Great Plains, regardless of race and ethnicity, makes it unlikely any governmental entity will be embraced warmly. Yet the U.S. federal government, for better or for worse, continues to be intimately involved in the daily lives of people in the Great Plains, whether by providing farm subsidies, assisting the elderly, protecting lightly used air traffic corridors, offering disaster relief, or determining winners and losers in water disputes.

See also IMAGES AND ICONS: Colony of the East / NATIVE AMERICANS: Assimilation Policy; Treaties / PROTEST AND DISSENT: Oklahoma City Bombing / RELIGION: Branch Dividians.

John R. Hibbing University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Stein, Robert M., and Bickers, Kenneth N. Perpetuating the Pork Barrel. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Tolchin, Susan J. The Angry American. Boulder CO: Westview, 1999.

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