Evolution of the Great Plains Cultures and Environment, 1750-1850 To begin, bear in mind that the plains are not just flat, grassy land. They comprise at least two major ecosystems—the uplands (high, flat, and grassy) and the bottomlands (timber, along waterways, below the level of the high plains and thus sheltered). The bottomlands are more scarce, particularly on the western side of the plains, scattered here and there along waterways. See below for a fuller description.*
Act I: The Bison’s Ecosystem
Sun grass on the high plains able to support a lot of bison (3-5 million in the central plains alone).
Winter blizzards dangerous for bison shelter in the bottomlands where they can find water, forage, timber for fuel and shelter.
Act II: The Arrival of the Horse Transforms Native American Cultures
Starting in the 1690s, horses became available in New Mexico and were gradually traded north and east to Native Americans living on or near the Great Plains.
Access to horses better able to hunt bison on the plains trade with other Native American groups for more horses, other goods AND trade with Europeans (buffalo robes) for guns, horses, alcohol, and other goods many Native American groups moved west and south, onto the plains to become horse herders and buffalo hunters, in the early 19th century, giving up their sedentary, horticultural culture.
Becoming horse pastoralists and bison hunters need still more horses increasing need for resources to support the horses Plains Indians followed the grass in an annual cycle:
-In the spring and summer, horse pastoralists/bison hunters moved to the high plains to feed their horses on the rich grass of the high plains. While they were there, they hunted bison. [A lot of bison!—among the Cheyenne and Arapaho, an average of 43 per hunter per year by 1855]
-In the winter, dangerous winter weather drove Native Americans to divide into small groups and move off the high plains to the bottomlands where they could find forage, timber for fuel, water, and shelter for their large herds of horses (100,000-150,000 on the central plains alone).
Act III: The Transformation of the Bottomlands and Timber
MEANWHILE, Euro-American hunters, traders, soldiers, and settlers began to move across the plains in the 1840s and 1850s en route to Santa Fe, California, Oregon, and eventually Colorado they need water, timber, and food for horses, oxen, and herds of cattle and sheep (as many as 11 animals per person on the trail) followed the creeks and rivers through the timbered bottomlands in the summer. [Because they were heading through the plains, they traveled in spring and summer to ensure that they would arrive at their destinations before winter.]
Euro-American migrants used bottomlands in the summer AND Native Americans and bison used the bottomlands in the winter
A. Use of timber for fuel rapid decimation of timber (instead of thick groves, trees became a “curiosity”). Also overgrazing and heavy traffic destroyed grass in the bottomlands, travelers detour miles off the trail to find feed. Fewer food and fuel resources available for animals or people crisis for Plains Indians who could not replace those resources (as migrants might) by importing them.
Heavy traffic trash, offal, excrement, corpses, etc. concentrated in the bottomlands, making them “one of the most biologically treacherous areas in North America”, rife with the diseases that Euro-Americans brought with them spread of disease among Native Americans especially high death toll among Plains Indians in mid-19th century
Act IV: Threats to the Bison
The 1840 peace concluded among the Comanches, Apaches, Cheyennes, and Arapahos in access to bison that had been somewhat protected in the “neutral zone” between the warring tribes more intensive hunting of bison for trade with Euro-Americans, including hunting of female bison (for their softer, more flexible hides that made buffalo robes).
The unusually wet years from 1825-1849 (wettest stretch in the 300 years from 1650-1950) gave way to a long drought from 1849-1862 (one of the worst droughts of the century)
less grass for bison and horses weakened bison and horses (Kiowa remembered 1855 as “the summer of sitting with legs crossed and extended” because horses were so weak that even on short trips, riders had to get off and let the horses rest).
Presence of human beings in the bottomlands fewer resources for bison AND more threat of being hunted fewer places for bison to go in the winter or in drought time “species packing,” or too many species trying to use the same resources in the same place disappearance of the bison (Note: this was already a serious problem for Native American hunters as early as the late 1840s, and bison were nearly gone by the mid-1870s).
Act V: Remaking the High Plains Ecosystem
“A homesteading family, as a productive unit, also ought to be seen as an extraordinarily efficient machine of environmental change.” (Elliott West, p. 97)
Arrival of settlers continued de-timbering of the bottomlands, houses, roads, farms introduction of non-native plants (crops, Kentucky bluegrass and other grasses, weeds) and animals (livestock, earthworms, insects, cats) AND intentional and inadvertent killing of native plants (“weeds”) and animals (bison, antelope, deer, elk, wolves, small animals) “elimination of natural root systems, erosion of stream sides and silting of creeks and rivers, destruction of diverse communities of complementary grasses, shrubs, and forbs, denial of fire’s regenerative functions, loosening and leaching of the topsoil, raising its temperature and revising its chemistry.” (West, p. 98) two long-term outcomes for humans on the Great Plains:
Indians’ hunting and grazing ranges transformed in such a way that could never again be used in the older ways.
Euro-Americans’ way of life on the plains would also be undermined, ultimately driving many of these farmers (or their descendants) off the plains due to drought, loss of topsoil, etc.
*(A description of the central Great Plains from Elliott West, pp. 5-6)
The central plains cover a little less than a hundred thousand squre miles. They rise gradually in altitude from about a thousand feet above sea level in the middle of Kansas to more than six thousand feet about fifty miles east of the Rockies, then they dip slightly into a trough at the base of the mountains. The eastern portion is called the “low plains.” As one moves westward and upward, the terrain gradually levels out, and the dominant indigenous grasses and forbs (where they are allowed tog row) are progressively shorter and sparser. Timber is common in the east and especially thick in the creases between the rolling hills, but on the high plains trees are usually found only along the more dependable streams. The long, low swells of land have reminded many outlanders of the ocean. When an army unit came in sight of the timbered bottoms of the Republican River after riding for four days in 1849 without seeing a tree, and Irish private called out joyfully, “Be Jesus we’re in sight of land again!”
Travelers have traditionally been impressed, and sometimes stultified, by the apparent topographical sameness of the central plains, especially the western reaches, but in fact every part of this country, high plains and low, is an intricate mosaic of smaller, quite varied environments. Seven percent or so of the land is part of an elaborate system of watercourses. The main rivers flow generally eastward. The largest are the Platte and the Arkansas. Between them, the Kansas River is formed by the convergence of the Saline and Smoky Hill Rivers, both of which rise near the Colorado-Kansas border. Downstream from that confluence, the Kansas is joined by the Solomon and Republican Rivers, both of them formed by several forks flowing through southwestern Nebraska and northwestern Kansas. Other streams—the Big Sandy (or Sand Creek), the Purgatory (or Purgatoire) River, Walnut, and Pawnee Creeks,--drain into the Arkansas in eastern Colorado and western Kansas. These rivers and streams take much or all of their water from many small, erratically flowing creeks, some of them spring-fed.
Thus, besides the broadscale differences between the low plains to the east and the high plains to the west, there is this other fundamental division throughout the region: there are lowlands and uplands, scores of watercourses, from wide rivers to nameless gulches and seeps, and drier terrain above that drains into them. The soil composition of the uplands and lowlands usually differs considerably, as does the vegetation. The contrast in plant life is especially striking on the high plains, where the drier uplands support only the more stunted grasses while the moister stream bottoms provide a welcoming environment for lusher, taller flora that normally are found well to the east. Lowlands and uplands are quite different habitats that offer their own distinct opportunities and threats to plains creatures—including as will be seen, people.
Sources Colin Calloway, One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West Before Lewis and Clark (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003).
Elliott West, The Way to the West: Essays on the Central Plains (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1995).