Great Plains of North America

Great Plains of North America
Great Plains of North America

The Great Plains of North America extend about 2,400 miles from parts of the Northwest Territories to Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. In the United States, they continue southward through sections of Montana, North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas, into Mexico, and about 1,000 miles from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains eastward to Indiana. The area of the Great Plains is 1.2 million square miles, with 700,000 square miles in Canada and 500,000 square miles in the United States.

The High Plains, a higher region of the Great Plains west of the 100th meridian, are arid and receive only 20 inches or less of rainfall a year, making the land suitable for range animals or marginal farms.

The southern part of the Great Plains lies over the Ogallala aquifer, an immense underground layer of water-bearing rock dating from the last ice age. Drought devastates the plains about every 25 years and dust storms ravage it as well.

As Meriwether Lewis noted in his journal, vast herds of bison ranged on the Great Plains and provided the foundation for the lives and culture of the Native American tribes like the Blackfeet, Crow, Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Comanche, and others.

Much of this territory was acquired by the United States from France in the Louisiana Purchase and was then opened to settlement. After European settlers nearly exterminated the buffalo and removed Native Americans to Indian reservations, they opened the Great Plains to ranching and grazing.

The Homestead Act of 1862 and later the Dominion Lands Act of 1871 in Canada opened the Great Plains for settlement and farming. A settler could claim up to 160 acres of land if he and his family lived on it and cultivated it for a period of time. Thousands of Americans and immigrants built homesteads. Many were not skilled dryland farmers and failed, as they were unprepared for the rigors of life on the Great Plains.

In the early 1920s historian Walter Prescott Webb introduced his Great Plains thesis stating, “... for this land, with the unity given it by its three dominant characteristics, has from the beginning worked its inexorable effect upon nature’s children. The historical truth that becomes apparent in the end is that the Great Plains have bent and molded Anglo-American life, have destroyed traditions, and have influenced institutions in a most singular manner.”

He stressed the environmental distinctiveness of the Great Plains and differentiated them from the rest of the North American continent. He cited the comparatively level land surface on the plains, the absence of trees, the semiarid climate, and argued that two important physical characteristics across the plains were missing. These elements were water and abundant timber, and their lack made the Great Plains environmentally unique.

The second part of Webb’s thesis stressed that the Great Plains represented an institutional chasm. He argued that Anglo-American lifestyles and institutions were adapted to wet, well-timbered environments, and Americans had evolved mainly from the wet and timbered regions of northwestern Europe.

When they immigrated to North America, they settled along the Atlantic seaboard, a region of plentiful rainfall and dense forests. They settled the region successfully because their lifestyles, tools, methodologies, and institutions were suited to this physical environment.

When settlers came to the Great Plains, the culture and customs that they brought with them from the East made it difficult for them to cope with the foreign environment for long periods of time. Settlement jumped from the wet forests of the East to the western Pacific slope of California and Oregon, leaving the corridor known as the Great American Desert uninhabited and undeveloped.

They had to adapt their institutions and lifestyles to the plains. On the Great Plains, the horse, the Colt revolver, the Winchester carbine, the open-range cattle industry, barbed wire, sod housing, windmills, dry land farming, and irrigation, as well as new laws, were all part of the process of adaptation.