The Great Plains Region
"The Great Plains . . . feel at times like an almost forgotten region—and yet there are wonders in it."
When we applied to the National Endowment for the Humanities for a grant to fund the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, reviewers wanted to know just where the region is located and what makes it special. This confirms Larry McMurtry's thinking, expressed in the above quote, that the Great Plains is a forgotten region, but it was also a reasonable request, prior to dispensing money, and we set about meeting the requirement.
Any region is both a real place and an intellectual concept. In that sense, a region is the equivalent of the historian's period: a region is the division of space into identifiable units, just as a period is the division of time into recognizable segments. Both are classification schemes, generalizations that aid in the understanding of complex reality. The challenge is to identify the characteristics of the human and physical environments that constitute a region and to establish boundaries for that distinctive portion of the earth's surface. Even the South—perhaps the most readily recognizable North American region—lacks definitive boundaries. In the groundbreaking Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, for example, the editors make no attempt to delimit their region except to say that the South is wherever southern culture is found. In our case, such a creative evasion would not have satisfied the reviewers, so we set about tracing the evolution of the concept of the Great Plains region, identifying the physical, historical, and cultural characteristics that together define its regional character, and specifying boundaries which, if not hard and fast, are logical.
In this introductory essay, written nine years later, I keep the framework of that original grant proposal, but I can now add substance by drawing from the vast storehouse of information and analysis created by the almost 1,000 scholars who participated in the making of the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains.
The region now recognized as the Great Plains has been characterized in many ways, not all of them laudatory. Part of the region was branded the Great American Desert following the explorations of Zebulon Pike (1806) and Stephen Long (1820), though this aspersion was never widely accepted by the American public. Labeling the Great Plains the "buffalo commons," a failed agricultural experiment in a land that should be put back in grass, continues the tradition of maligning the region, in the sense that it negates the people who call it home.
The actual term, "Great Plains," has been used to describe the grasslands of North America since at least the mid-nineteenth century, but it only gained widespread acceptance in the 1930s. In 1931, geographer Nevin Fenneman began his book, Physiography of Western United States, with a lengthy discussion of the "Great Plains Province," a physical region of great diversity, yet sufficiently distinctive from surrounding areas to merit separate identification. Also in 1931, historian Walter Prescott Webb propelled the Great Plains into the public imagination with his contention that the grasslands to the west of the ninety-eighth meridian—which he characterized as a treeless and largely unwatered land—demanded fundamental changes in "ways of life and of living" before they could be settled by European Americans. In that same decade of the 1930s the Great Plains became known as a problem region, the home of the Dust Bowl. The region received more attention than it wanted in Pare Lorentz's documentary The Plow that Broke the Plains, made for the Farm Security Administration in 1936, and in The Future of the Great Plains, a report submitted to President Roosevelt in December of that same year. Through such publicity, the Great Plains became inscribed on the map of American regions, on a par with the Midwest, New England, and the South, and it has persisted. It is there in the geography textbooks, in the scholarly literature on American regionalism, in more popular works like Ian Frazier's Great Plains, and on the landscape throughout this vast area on billboards, motel signs, and business marquees.
What are the criteria for identifying the Great Plains as a region? One starting point is climate, specifically climatic variability. Rainfall varies from more than thirty inches a year in eastern Kansas to less than fifteen inches a year in the lee of the Rocky Mountains. Droughts of thirty-five or more consecutive days can be expected annually, with frequency increasing from east to west, and drought periods of sixty to seventy days are experienced about every ten years. Extended periods of drought, such as in the 1890s, 1930s, and 1950s, take on the dimensions of severe natural disasters, causing agricultural failure and depopulation. Native Americans, as well as European American settlers, were confounded by such periodic drought, as in the dry, warm period between 1439 and 1468 when Upper Republican peoples were forced to abandon their agricultural villages in the Central Great Plains. Similarly, the dry years of the early 1890s caused the failure of many settlers on the western Plains, settlers who had only just arrived in the good years of the 1880s and had no reserves when the drought hit. As climatologist Charles Warren Thornthwaite explained in 1941, in the wake of the Dust Bowl, it was this uncertainty that made staying on the Great Plains difficult: "In a desert you know what to expect of the climate and plan accordingly. The same is true for the humid regions. Men [and women] have been badly fooled by the semiarid regions because they are sometimes humid, sometimes desert, and sometimes a cross between the two." Add to this the other climatic hazards of high winds, tornadoes, extreme temperatures, blizzards, and destructive hail, and the tenuousness of settlement in this transitional region becomes understandable.
The transitional character of the physical environment of the Great Plains posed another problem for its inhabitants. Thin ribbons of woodlands trace rivers like the Missouri, Platte, and Saskatchewan out into the grasslands of the Great Plains, and the Canadian Prairies are girdled on the north by the Parkland Belt, a mixed prairie and woodland zone that grades into the coniferous forests of the northlands. However, compared to neighboring regions to the east and west, the Plains have few trees. This caused difficulties for Native Americans like the Pawnees and Omahas, who had to move their villages every few years as the local already sparse timber was depleted. It also caused difficulties for early European American settlers who had to improvise by building houses of sod, hay, and clay, and use buffalo dung for fuel. The problem persisted until the railroads were firmly in place, allowing the big lumber companies of St. Paul and Winnipeg to extend their market areas to the west.
A third environmental challenge of the Great Plains was, and is, sheer distance. West of the Missouri in the United States and of the Great Lakes in Canada, the waterways were navigable only for the trappers' and Indians' bullboats and canoes. There were no convenient westward-flowing rivers like the Ohio or Tennessee to channel settlers into the heart of the Great Plains. The Missouri River was navigable for shallow-draft steamboats to the mouth of the Yellowstone after 1832, but there were frequent groundings and sinkings, and only the earliest American emigrants to the Great Plains (into eastern Kansas and Nebraska in the late 1850s and early 1860s and into southeastern Dakota Territory for a brief time in the 1860s) came by water. Indians partly overcame distance by adopting the horse in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Americans had to wait for the coming of the railroads in the 1860s before they could break free from the Missouri River. Distance remained a serious problem until the 1920s, when automobiles came into common use, revolutionizing mobility and allowing a new flexibility in settlement decisions. But even today the friction of distance and the "social costs" of space (e.g., providing education, electricity, and now broadband Internet access to widely dispersed residents) are compelling features of Plains existence. Isolation is still a reality of life, especially in the wide interstices between the main lines of transportation and settlement.
Of course to many Plains residents the wide-open spaces, even the isolation from neighbors and towns, are regional characteristics to be celebrated, not endured. There may be no doctor within fifty miles and no longer an available bus system, but there is a close connection to the land and a deep sense of place that is often absent in more urbanized areas. Plains residents who have returned to the region after living elsewhere often speak of how much they had missed such simple pleasures as being waved to (generally a single finger barely lifted from the steering wheel) on the country roads.
The vast distances, the flowing grasslands, the sparse population, the enveloping horizons, and the dominating sky (the Plains landscape is really largely skyscape) convey a sense of expansiveness, even emptiness, which is another defining characteristic of the Great Plains region. It's hard to capture a Plains scene in a photograph, for example, because, as Jonathan Raban puts it, there is "more space than place." Norman Henderson, like Raban, an astute contemporary explorer of the Plains, writes that it is difficult to capture the essence of the region in words on paper because "the grasslands are a feeling more than a view."
Novelists such as Willa Cather and O. E. Rölvaag dwelled upon the impact of the overwhelming expansiveness on settlers. In Giants in the Earth, Rölvaag's epic novel of pioneer settlement in southeastern Dakota Territory in the 1870s, the woman of the household, Beret, is driven to distraction by the "nameless, blue-green solitude, flat, endless, still, with nothing to hide behind." This was a common reaction of the European American settlers who came out of humid, forested environments; they called it "loneliness," a reaction to too much space and one's own meager presence in it. It is still a common reaction to the sweeping horizons of the Great Plains. Other peoples, however, including the Kiowas, who migrated from the headwaters of the Yellowstone to southwestern Oklahoma, embraced the openness of the grasslands with a sense of emancipation, preferring plains to claustrophobic mountains and woodlands.
Population density in the Great Plains, by county and census division, in the United States (2000 census) and Canada (1991 census)
Modern geographers have also identified the absence of features as an integral part of the regional character of the Great Plains. To John Hudson, the essence of South Dakota is "captured by pictures of nothing—absolutely nothing, except maybe a telephone pole sticking up over the grain-fields and perhaps a lone elevator on the horizon." Yet on a smaller scale, between the observer and the horizon, there is a wealth of detail. The Great Plains may well lack trees, but there is a rich and diverse array of grasses, forbs, and animal life. An acre of tallgrass prairie, for example, is home to approximately 100 species of grasses and forbs, and every square yard of that prairie teems with insect life, including millions of tiny spring-tails (Collembola) in the rich dark soil.
Despite the demanding environment, the Great Plains has long been a magnet for settlers. Paleo-Indians were attracted to the grasslands at least 12,000 years ago to hunt such mammals as mastodons, mammoths, and bison. In the eighteenth century, the massive bison herds that thundered over the grasslands, and the horse, which allowed more bison to be taken and their meat and hides transported, drew Native Americans like the Lakotas (Sioux) into the region. After the Civil War, when the bison herds were decimated, the void was filled by cattle driven up from Texas and shipped in from elsewhere. The fertile promise of the soil made it worthwhile for farmers to take their chances with drought and loneliness: Per Hansa, Beret's driven husband in Giants in the Earth, saw not the desolation of an austere plain, but soil so black and rich that he squeezed it in his hands and watched it fall through his fingers like gold. And indeed, the Great Plains is the granary of North America.
From the earliest Native peoples to contemporary populations, Plains residents have taken up the environmental challenges and, in doing so, have created over time a region with its own identity, its own particular ways of life. No region, of course, is entirely distinct from surrounding regions, especially in contemporary North America where powerful leveling forces of mass media and corporate marketing are at work. Nevertheless, there are specific characteristics of human occupancy that permit the recognition of a particular Great Plains geography.
No other North American region was so fundamentally shaped by railroads. With the exception of the Selkirk settlement in the Red River Valley of the North after 1811, the Texas Hill country in the 1840s, eastern Nebraska and Kansas in the late 1850s and early 1860s, and the Black Hills in the 1870s, European Americans and European Canadians followed the railroads into the Great Plains. The implications of this, as far as regional development was concerned, are many. The railroads accentuated the east-west orientation of Plains settlement, producing a series of economic hinterlands that were, and are, linked to cities mainly to the east of the region (e.g., Winnipeg, Minneapolis–St. Paul, Chicago). They were not only transportation lines carrying grain out and manufactured products in but also active agents of colonization. They recruited widely for settlers—German Russians were particularly favored, because they had prior knowledge of how to farm the grasslands—to fill their large government land grants. They were the main determinant of the location, morphology, and landscapes of Plains towns, many of which have a characteristic T-shape, with the main street bisecting the tracks. They also named the towns, towns like Ismay, Montana, which was an amalgamation of Isabel and May, the names of the daughters of Albert J. Earling, president of the Milwaukee Road. The railroads were responsible for building too many towns, many of which have long since disappeared, or survive only as a single operating business, the grain elevator (which was also the business that got the towns started). Probably no other region of North America has so many ghost towns; there are an estimated 6,000 in Kansas alone. Finally, the railroads meant that Plains settlement, once started, was rapid. On the Canadian Prairies, for example (and the same could be said for other early-twentieth-century Plains frontiers in the Texas Panhandle and eastern Montana), communities, to use Paul Sharp's words, "sprang up almost full-grown." They went into old age quickly too, as rural populations thinned with agricultural mechanization, leaving main street stores closed, their windows covered with paper.
Because the Canadian and American settlement of the Great Plains was late, following the railroad, the region reflects the diverse ethnicity of immigrants who came to North America in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first few decades of the twentieth century. Local ethnic distinctiveness remains an important part of Plains regionalism, enriching the dominant stamp of native-born American and Canadian pioneers who followed generally latitudinal routes of migration into the area. Fully 71 percent of North Dakotans were foreign-born, or the children of foreign-born, in 1910, mainly Norwegians, Germans, and German Russians. German Russians also came to Nebraska; Swedes to South Dakota and Kansas; and Doukhobors, Ukrainians, and Hutterites to the Prairie Provinces, to name only a few groups and a few places. Add to these African Americans, who first came in substantial numbers to the plains of Kansas as Exodusters in the 1870s; the south to north migration of Latinos, which gathered force in the late nineteenth century and continues today; and Chinese and Japanese settlers who originally entered the Plains from the west. All these groups brought their particular values and material culture to the Great Plains, with lasting effects on the landscape, patterns of religion, foodways, and language. Although diverse ethnicity is an integral ingredient of the character of many North American regions, especially in the large cities, no other extensive region in North America has the complex ethnic mosaic that distinguishes the Great Plains, especially the Northern Great Plains and Prairie Provinces.
Nor does any other North American region, with the notable exception of the Southwest, retain the stamp of the Indigenous Americans as emphatically as the Great Plains. Native peoples have continuously inhabited the Plains for at least 12,000 years. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, only decades before the advent of European American settlement, Indians from the eastern United States were still migrating to the Great Plains, first of their own free will (the Lakotas and Crows, for example) and then, in the 1820s and 1830s, under the force and duress of the removal policy, which made refugees of peoples like the Cherokees. In the Plains, these immigrants competed for space and resources with Indigenous peoples such as the Pawnees and Osages. When Native Americans, encircled by European American settlers, were forced to give up their ancestral lands in the second half of the nineteenth century, they remained on the Great Plains, either on reservations that were remnants of their former territories, or amassed in Indian Territory (later Oklahoma). In the Prairie Provinces, First Nations ceded their lands to the government in a series of treaties between 1871 and 1877, before the main rush of immigration. Like their American counterparts, they retained reserves on the Plains and continue to be a major component of Plains identity. This is a component that will only increase in importance, because Native peoples are increasing faster than Plains population as a whole, and they are a young population, with growth built in to their demographic structure.
The list of defining characteristics could go on. The region has been, and continues to be, mainly a producer of raw materials for others to refine. Furs were the first such product, then cattle, corn, wheat, oil, gas, and coal. There is significant manufacturing on the Great Plains, mainly agriculturally based and mostly small scale, but the percentage of total employment in manufacturing is well below the national averages of Canada and the United States. The Great Plains can also be defined by its demographic structure: no other region of North America has a higher percentage of aged population. In many Plains communities, the young have departed, drawn to opportunities outside the region, leaving farms without the next generation and schools closed for want of students. This was not always the case, of course. The Great Plains was settled by young families, but the aged structure of Plains population now makes the region more dependent on government transfer payments (Medicare and social security, for example) than any other in North America. The Great Plains has also been a significant source of protest, as in North Dakota in 1916 when the Nonpartisan League gained control of the legislature and temporarily wrested control of credit and elevators from Minneapolis corporate power. Three years later, while the Nonpartisan League was still in power in North Dakota, to the north of the forty-ninth parallel one of the largest general strikes in North American history was staged in Winnipeg, shutting down factories, newspapers, telephones, and transportation. Protest in the Great Plains has come from all shades of the political spectrum: from socialist and communist activists like Oscar Ameringer and Ella "Mother" Bloor, to right-wing constitutionalists like the Freemen of Montana, to ethnic insurgents like Métis leader Louis Riel, and legal challenges like the landmark case, Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka. Protest, of course, is not particular to the Great Plains, but there is a tradition in the region, and it is yet another defining trait.
No region, of course, is a discrete entity, and the authoritative lines on a map belie the reality of transitions and gradations on the ground. In fact when fifty different delimitations of the Great Plains were mapped by Sonja Rossum and Stephen Lavin, the nebulous nature of regional boundaries became very clear. Yet we felt it was important to define the boundaries of the purpose of this study—to specify the portion of North America that we recognize as the Great Plains. The western boundary, following the Rocky Mountain front from Alberta to New Mexico, is the least ambiguous limit of the Great Plains. Indeed, there are few regional boundaries anywhere that are as decisive as the discontinuity between plains and mountains in Colorado and Alberta. But even the western boundary is blurred in places: in the Wyoming Basin, for example, where the Great Plains rise to more than 7,000 feet and merge less perceptibly with the Rocky Mountains, or in Montana, where extensions of the Rocky Mountains, such as the Little Rockies, interpenetrate with the Plains. Still, differences in elevation, vegetation, and human occupancy (specifically, the widely discontinuous settlement patterns in the Rocky Mountains) demarcate the Great Plains from the regions to the west.
The northern boundary in Canada is also quite distinct, tracing the line between the Parkland Belt of mixed woodland and grassland and the boreal forest of the north. The Parkland Belt of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, since the time when Assiniboines and Crees followed bison herds, has been functionally integrated with the Prairies. This integration persisted through the fur-trade period and into the subsequent era of agricultural settlement. Canadian scholars are in accord on this matter.
Scholars also agree that there are more similarities than differences in land and life on either side of the forty-ninth parallel, marking the international boundary between the United States and Canada. Indians and fur traders crossed the border with impunity in the first half of the nineteenth century, and even after 1880, when the railroads connected the Canadian Prairies and the northern American Plains to their respective eastern control points (mainly Winnipeg and Minneapolis), parallel developments and common experiences were the norm. Land laws and settlement systems were similar. Both sections experienced agrarian protest movements and the drought and depression of the 1930s. Each had its open-range cattle era, and the Canadian grasslands were largely stocked from Montana. Similarly, there was a large influx of Americans into the Canadian Prairies in the two decades preceding World War I. No doubt, the North American Free Trade Agreement (nafta) will result in even more interaction between these two national components of the same geographic region.
A strong case can also be made for a distinctive southern boundary of the Great Plains. Physiographically the Great Plains is pinched out at the Rio Grande by the convergence of the Coastal Plain and the Mexican Highland section of the Basin and Range Province. Climatically the lands to the south of the Rio Grande are true desert. The southeastern edge of the Great Plains is marked by the prominent Balcones Escarpment, which was, historically, also a cultural divide marking the western extent of the cotton belt and the South.
This leaves the eastern boundary of the Great Plains, which is not a sharply defined line but an almost imperceptible transition zone from the more humid South and Midwest. The difficulty in identifying the eastern entry onto the Plains was described by Robert Pirsig as he rode his motorcycle west from Minnesota into North Dakota. "There is no one place or sharp line where the Central Plains [i.e., the Midwest] end and the Great Plains begin," observed Pirsig. "It's a gradual change like this that catches you unawares, as if you were sailing out from a choppy coastal harbor, noticed that the waves had taken on a deep swell, and turned back to see that you were out of sight of land." The key landscape evidence for Pirsig was that there were fewer trees on the Great Plains and those that were there had been introduced. The "greenness" encountered farther east had also paled, the streets of the towns were wider, the buildings more run-down. Pirsig concluded that there was less concern with "tidily conserving space" on the wide-open Great Plains.
To compensate for this geographical nebulousness, Plains scholars have sought to define the eastern margin by an arbitrary line, generally the 98th meridian, less frequently the 100th meridian. Perhaps a better definition of the eastern boundary would use a combination of physical, historical, and geopolitical factors. Our boundary follows the eastern border of the states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas, including these entire units in the region. These states were organized and settled later than the adjoining states to the east, and their institutions and iconographies give them a coherence that should not be divided. The rationale for the eastern boundary in Manitoba is based on physical and economic geography: Eastern Manitoba is part of the Laurentian Shield and its orientation is to Northern Ontario, not the Prairie Provinces. Eastern Oklahoma and eastern Texas are also excluded from the Plains because of overwhelming evidence that historically, environmentally, and culturally their orientation is to the South.
For some purposes in the encyclopedia, these boundaries will be transgressed to deal with particular features of adjacent areas that have significance to the development of the Great Plains, or to include entries that are simply too tempting to be left out! Kansas City, Missouri, for example, a major control point for the development of the Central Plains, is included in the Cities and Towns chapter, and Kansas City Jazz and film director Robert Altman, both products of the Missouri side of the river, are also subjects of entries. Moreover, because no region exists in a geographic vacuum, national and even international trends that have affected life on the Great Plains are often taken into account.
Yet our main concern is with the people, places, and events associated with the territory enclosed by the boundaries on the map. And what a rich tapestry of life that is. Five presidents of the United States and three prime ministers of Canada have come from the Great Plains. Great athletes like Jim Thorpe, Jim Ryun, and Gordie Howe rose from Plains communities. Celebrated writers such as Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Wallace Stegner, Louise Erdrich, and Tillie Olsen were shaped by their years on the Plains. Movie stars, from Buster Keaton and Louise Brooks to Marlon Brando and Tommy Lee Jones, and musicians like Buddy Holly, Charlie Parker, Peggy Lee, and Neil Young spent their formative years in the Great Plains. Events of lasting historical importance, such as the Wounded Knee Massacre, the North-West Rebellion, and the Tulsa Race Riot took place in the Great Plains. And Plains women, including Emily Murphy, Kate Barnard, and Annie Diggs, pioneered the struggle for women's rights in North America.
What Ian Frazier says of the Plains—that "[t]hey're so big you can never know all there is to be known about them" is true. But with the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, the product of the knowledge of so many scholars, we can at least give the reader the opportunity to know much more than was known before about this fascinating North American region.
David J. Wishart, Editor University of Nebraska–Lincoln
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