The GREAT PLAINS is the broad expanse of flat land (a plain ), much
of it covered in prairie , steppe and grassland , that lies west of
Mississippi River tallgrass prairie states and east of the Rocky
Mountains in the
United States and Canada. This area covers the
entirety of the states of
South Dakota and North
Dakota and parts of the states of
New Mexico ,
Wyoming and reaches into the southern portions of
the Canadian provinces of
Saskatchewan . The
region is known for supporting extensive cattle ranching and dry
The Canadian portion of the Plains is known as the Prairies . It
covers much of
Alberta and southern Saskatchewan, and a narrow band of
southern Manitoba. Despite covering a relatively small geographic
area, the Prairies are nevertheless home to the majority of all three
* 1 Usage
* 2 Extent
* 3 Geography
* 5 Climate
* 6 Flora
* 7 History
* 7.1 Original American contact
* 7.2 European contact
* 7.3 Early European settlements on the
* 7.3.1 French
* 7.3.2 British
* 7.3.3 American
* 7.4 Pioneer settlement
* 7.5 Social life
* 7.6 After 19th century
* 9 See also
* 9.1 International steppe-lands
* 10 References
* 11 Further reading
* 12 External links
The term "Great Plains" is used in the
United States to describe a
sub-section of the even more vast
Interior Plains physiographic
division, which covers much of the interior of North America. It also
has currency as a region of human geography, referring to the Plains
Indians or the Plains States.
Canada the term is little used; Natural Resources
Canada , the
government department responsible for official mapping and equivalent
United States Geological Survey , treats the
Interior Plains as
one unit consisting of several related plateaux and plains. There is
no region referred to as the "Great Plains" in The Atlas of
In terms of human geography, the term prairie is more commonly used in
Canada, and the region is known as the
Prairie Provinces or simply
North American Environmental Atlas , produced by the Commission
for Environmental Cooperation , a NAFTA agency composed of the
geographical agencies of the Mexican, American, and Canadian
governments, uses the "Great Plains" as an ecoregion synonymous with
predominant prairies and grasslands rather than as physiographic
region defined by topography. The
Great Plains ecoregion includes
five sub-regions: Temperate Prairies, West-Central Semi-Arid Prairies,
South-Central Semi-Arid Prairies,
Texas Louisiana Coastal Plains, and
Texas Semi-Arid Plain, which overlap or expand upon other
Great Plains designations.
Ecoregions of the
Great Plains The
Great Plains before
the native grasses were ploughed under, Haskell County,
Kansas , 1897,
showing a man sitting behind a buffalo wallow .
The region is about 500 mi (800 km) east to west and 2,000 mi (3,200
km) north to south. Much of the region was home to American bison
herds until they were hunted to near extinction during the mid/late
19th century. It has an area of approximately 500,000 sq mi (1,300,000
km2). Current thinking regarding the geographic boundaries of the
Great Plains is shown by this map at the Center for Great Plains
University of Nebraska–Lincoln
University of Nebraska–Lincoln .
The term "Great Plains", for the region west of about the 96th or
98th meridian and east of the Rocky Mountains, was not generally used
before the early 20th century. Nevin Fenneman's 1916 study,
Physiographic Subdivision of the United States, brought the term
Great Plains into more widespread usage. Before that the region was
almost invariably called the High Plains, in contrast to the lower
Prairie Plains of the Midwestern states . Today the term "High Plains
" is used for a subregion of the Great Plains.
Great Plains are the westernmost portion of the vast North
Interior Plains , which extend east to the Appalachian
Plateau . The
United States Geological Survey divides the Great Plains
United States into ten physiographic subdivisions:
Coteau du Missouri or Missouri Plateau, glaciated – east-central
South Dakota, northern and eastern
North Dakota and northeastern
* Coteau du Missouri, unglaciated – western South Dakota,
northeastern Wyoming, southwestern
North Dakota and southeastern
Black Hills – western South Dakota;
* High Plains – southeastern Wyoming, southwestern South Dakota,
Nebraska (including the Sand Hills ), eastern Colorado,
western Kansas, western Oklahoma, eastern
New Mexico , and
Texas (including the
Llano Estacado and
* Plains Border – central
Kansas and northern
the Flint , Red and
Smoky Hills );
Colorado Piedmont – eastern Colorado;
* Raton section – northeastern New Mexico;
* Pecos Valley – eastern New Mexico;
Edwards Plateau – south-central Texas; and
Texas section – central Texas.
Cretaceous Period (145–66 million years ago), the Great
Plains were covered by a shallow inland sea called the Western
Interior Seaway . However, during the Late
Cretaceous to the Paleocene
(65–55 million years ago), the seaway had begun to recede, leaving
behind thick marine deposits and a relatively flat terrain which the
seaway had once occupied.
During the Cenozoic era, specifically about 25 million years ago
Pliocene epochs, the continental climate became
favorable to the evolution of grasslands. Existing forest biomes
declined and grasslands became much more widespread. The grasslands
provided a new niche for mammals, including many ungulates and glires
, that switched from browsing diets to grazing diets. Traditionally,
the spread of grasslands and the development of grazers have been
strongly linked. However, an examination of mammalian teeth suggests
that it is the open, gritty habitat and not the grass itself which is
linked to diet changes in mammals, giving rise to the "grit, not
Paleontological finds in the area have yielded bones of mammoths ,
saber-toothed cats and other ancient animals, as well as dozens of
other megafauna (large animals over 100 lb ) – such as giant sloths
, horses , mastodons , and
American lion – that dominated the area
of the ancient
Great Plains for thousands to millions of years. The
vast majority of these animals became extinct in
North America at the
end of the
Pleistocene (around 13,000 years ago).
Bison at the Tallgrass
Prairie Preserve in
glimpse of the southern
Great Plains in southern
Oklahoma north of
In general, the
Great Plains have a wide variety of weather through
the year, with very cold and harsh winters and very hot and humid
summers. Wind speeds are often very high, especially in winter.
Grasslands are among the least protected biomes. Humans have
converted much of the prairies for agricultural purposes or to create
Great Plains have dust storms mostly every year or so.
The 100th meridian roughly corresponds with the line that divides the
Great Plains into an area that receive 20 in (510 mm) or more of
rainfall per year and an area that receives less than 20 in (510 mm).
In this context, the High Plains, as well as Southern
Saskatchewan and Eastern
Montana are mainly semi arid
steppe land and are generally characterised by rangeland or marginal
farmland . The region (especially the High Plains) is periodically
subjected to extended periods of drought ; high winds in the region
may then generate devastating dust storms . The eastern Great Plains
near the eastern boundary falls in the humid subtropical climate zone
in the southern areas, and the northern and central areas fall in the
humid continental climate .
Many thunderstorms occur in the plains in the spring through summer.
The southeastern portion of the
Great Plains is the most tornado
active area in the world and is sometimes referred to as
Great Plains are part of the floristic North American Prairies
Province , which extends from the
Rocky Mountains to the Appalachians
ORIGINAL AMERICAN CONTACT
Plains Indians See also:
hunt under the wolf-skin mask, 1832–33.
Paleo-Indians ) who arrived to the Great Plains
were successive indigenous cultures who are known to have inhabited
Great Plains for thousands of years, over 15,000 years ago.
Humans entered the North American continent in waves of migration,
Beringia , the Bering Straits land bridge .
Great Plains were the range of the bison and of the
culture of the
Plains Indians , whose tribes included the Blackfoot ,
Comanche , and others. Eastern
portions of the
Great Plains were inhabited by tribes who lived in
semi-permanent villages of earth lodges , such as the
Arikara , Mandan
, Pawnee and Wichita .
Great Plains in
North Dakota c. 2007, where communities began
settling in the 1870s.
With the arrival of
Francisco Vázquez de Coronado , a Spanish
conquistador , the first recorded history of encounter between
Europeans and Native
Americans in the
Great Plains occurred in Texas,
Nebraska from 1540 to 1542. In that same time period,
Hernando de Soto
Hernando de Soto crossed a west-northwest direction in what is now
Oklahoma and Texas. Today this is known as the De Soto Trail. The
Spanish thought the
Great Plains were the location of the mythological
Quivira and Cíbola , a place said to be rich in gold.
Over the next one hundred years, founding of the fur trade brought
thousands of ethnic Europeans into the Great Plains. Fur trappers from
France, Spain, Britain, Russia and the young
United States made their
way across much of the region, making regular contacts with Native
Americans. After the
United States acquired the
Louisiana Purchase in
1803 and conducted the
Lewis and Clark Expedition
Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1804–1806, more
information about the Plains became available and various pioneers
entered the areas.
Manuel Lisa , based in
St. Louis , established a major fur trading
site at his Fort Lisa on the
Missouri River in Nebraska. Fur trading
posts were often the basis of later settlements. Through the 19th
century, more European
Americans and Europeans migrated to the Great
Plains as part of a vast westward expansion of population. New
settlements became dotted across the Great Plains.
The new immigrants also brought diseases against which the Native
Americans had no resistance. Between a half and two-thirds of the
Plains Indians are thought to have died of smallpox by the time of the
Louisiana Purchase .
EARLY EUROPEAN SETTLEMENTS ON THE GREAT PLAINS
Further information: List of French forts in
Further information: List of Hudson\'s Bay Company trading posts
Homesteaders in central
Nebraska in 1886
Wheat field on
Dutch flats near Mitchell,
* Fort Lisa (1809), North Dakota
* Fort Lisa (1812), Nebraska
* Fontenelle\'s Post (1822), Nebraska
* Cabanne\'s Trading Post (1822), Nebraska
After 1870, the new railroads across the Plains brought hunters who
killed off almost all the bison for their hides. The railroads offered
attractive packages of land and transportation to European farmers,
who rushed to settle the land. They (and
Americans as well) also took
advantage of the homestead laws to obtain free farms. Land speculators
and local boosters identified many potential towns, and those reached
by the railroad had a chance, while the others became ghost towns. In
Kansas, for example, nearly 5000 towns were mapped out, but by 1970
only 617 were actually operating. In the mid-20th century, closeness
to an interstate exchange determined whether a town would flourish or
struggle for business.
Much of the
Great Plains became open range , or rangeland where
cattle roamed free, hosting ranching operations where anyone was
theoretically free to run cattle. In the spring and fall, ranchers
held roundups where their cowboys branded new calves, treated animals
and sorted the cattle for sale. Such ranching began in
gradually moved northward. Between 1866 and 1895, cowboys herded 10
million cattle north to rail heads such as Dodge City,
Nebraska ; from there, cattle were shipped eastward. See
Cattle drives in the
Cattle herd and cowboy,
Many foreign investors, especially British, financed the great
ranches of the era. Overstocking of the range and the terrible winter
of 1886 resulted in a disaster, with many cattle starved and frozen to
Theodore Roosevelt , a rancher in the Dakotas, lost his entire
investment; he returned east to reenter politics. From then on,
ranchers generally raised feed to ensure they could keep their cattle
alive over winter.
To allow for agricultural development of the
Great Plains and house a
growing population, the US passed the
Homestead Acts of 1862: it
allowed a settler to claim up to 160 acres (65 ha) of land, provided
that he lived on it for a period of five years and cultivated it. The
provisions were expanded under the
Kinkaid Act of 1904 to include a
homestead of an entire section . Hundreds of thousands of people
claimed such homesteads, sometimes building sod houses out of the very
turf of their land. Many of them were not skilled dryland farmers and
failures were frequent. Much of the Plains were settled during
relatively wet years. Government experts did not understand how
farmers should cultivate the prairies and gave advice counter to what
would have worked. Germans from Russia who had previously farmed,
under similar circumstances, in what is now
Ukraine were marginally
more successful than other homesteaders. The
Dominion Lands Act
Dominion Lands Act of
1871 served a similar function for establishing homesteads on the
prairies in Canada.
Grange in session, 1873
The railroads opened up the
Great Plains for settlement, for now it
was possible to ship wheat and other crops at low cost to the urban
markets in the East, and Europe. Homestead land was free for American
settlers. Railroads sold their land at cheap rates to immigrants in
expectation they would generate traffic as soon as farms were
established. Immigrants poured in, especially from Germany and
Scandinavia. On the plains, very few single men attempted to operate a
farm or ranch by themselves; they clearly understood the need for a
hard-working wife, and numerous children, to handle the many chores,
including child-rearing, feeding and clothing the family, managing the
housework, feeding the hired hands, and, especially after the 1930s,
handling paperwork and financial details. During the early years of
settlement, farm women played an integral role in assuring family
survival by working outdoors. After approximately one generation,
women increasingly left the fields, thus redefining their roles within
the family. New technology including sewing and washing machines
encouraged women to turn to domestic roles. The scientific
housekeeping movement, promoted across the land by the media and
government extension agents, as well as county fairs which featured
achievements in home cookery and canning, advice columns for women
regarding farm bookkeeping, and home economics courses in the schools.
Although the eastern image of farm life in the prairies emphasized
the isolation of the lonely farmer and wife, plains residents created
busy social lives for themselves. They often sponsored activities that
combined work, food and entertainment such as barn raisings , corn
huskings, quilting bees, Grange meetings, church activities and
school functions. Women organized shared meals and potluck events, as
well as extended visits between families. The Grange was a nationwide
farmers' organization, they reserved high offices for women, and gave
them a voice in public affairs.
AFTER 19TH CENTURY
Withdrawal rates from the
Ogallala Aquifer .
The region roughly centered on the
Oklahoma Panhandle , including
southeastern Colorado, southwestern Kansas, the
Texas Panhandle , and
New Mexico was known as the
Dust Bowl during the
late 1920s and early 1930s. The effect of an extended drought,
inappropriate cultivation, and financial crises of the Great
Depression , forced many farmers off the land throughout the Great
From the 1950s on, many areas of the
Great Plains have become
productive crop-growing areas because of extensive irrigation on large
United States is a major exporter of agricultural
products. The southern portion of the
Great Plains lies over the
Ogallala Aquifer , a huge underground layer of water-bearing strata
dating from the last ice age .
Center pivot irrigation is used
extensively in drier sections of the Great Plains, resulting in
aquifer depletion at a rate that is greater than the ground's ability
Depopulation of the Great Plains
The rural Plains have lost a third of their population since 1920.
Several hundred thousand square miles of the
Great Plains have fewer
than 6 inhabitants per square mile (2.3 inhabitants per square
kilometer)—the density standard
Frederick Jackson Turner used to
American frontier "closed" in 1893. Many have fewer than 2
inhabitants per square mile (0.77 inhabitants per square kilometer).
There are more than 6,000 ghost towns in the state of
Kansas historian Daniel Fitzgerald . This problem is
often exacerbated by the consolidation of farms and the difficulty of
attracting modern industry to the region. In addition, the smaller
school-age population has forced the consolidation of school districts
and the closure of high schools in some communities. The continuing
population loss has led some to suggest that the current use of the
drier parts of the
Great Plains is not sustainable, and there has
been a proposal – the "
Buffalo Commons " – to return approximately
139,000 sq mi (360,000 km2) of these drier parts to native prairie
Wind farm in the plains of West
Great Plains contribute substantially to wind power in the United
States . In July 2008, oilman turned wind-farm developer T. Boone
Pickens called for the U.S. to invest $ 1 trillion to build an
additional 200,000 MW of wind power nameplate capacity in the Plains,
as part of his
Pickens Plan . Pickens cited Sweetwater,
Texas as an
example of economic revitalization driven by wind power development.
Sweetwater was a struggling town typical of the Plains, steadily
losing businesses and population, until wind turbines came to the
surrounding Nolan County .
Wind power brought jobs to local
residents, along with royalty payments to landowners who leased sites
for turbines, reversing the town's population decline . Pickens claims
the same economic benefits are possible throughout the Plains, which
he refers to as North America's "wind corridor."
* Geography of
1837 Great Plains smallpox epidemic
Great American Desert
Great American Desert
Great bison belt
Great Plains Art Museum
Great Plains Conservation Program
Northern Great Plains History Conference
* Territories of the
United States on stamps
Pampas , Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil
* ^ A B Wishart, David. 2004. The
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* ^ Atlas.nrcan.gc.ca
* ^ CEC.org
* ^ "About the National Health and Environmental Effects Research
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43473694 . PMC 1091163 . PMID 16586678 . doi :10.1073/pnas.3.1.17 .
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* ^ Brown, Ralph Hall (1948). Historical Geography of the United
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* ^ Phillip E. Jardine, Christine M. Janis, Sarda Sahney, Michael
J. Benton. "Grit not grass: Concordant patterns of early origin of
Great Plains ungulates and Glires." Palaeogeography,
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* ^ "Ice Age Animals". Illinois State Museum.
* ^ "A Plan For Reintroducing
Megafauna To North America".
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* ^ Threats Assessment for the Northern
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* ^ "First
Americans arrived 2500 years before we thought – life
– 24 March 2011". New Scientist. Retrieved 2014-02-12.
* ^ Hanna, Bill (2010-08-28). "
Texas artifacts \'strongest evidence
yet\' that humans arrived in
North America earlier than thought".
Star-telegram.com. Retrieved 2014-02-12.
* ^ Rees, Amanda (2004). The
Great Plains region. Greenwood
Publishing Group. p. 18. ISBN 0-313-32733-5 . Retrieved 2009-09-04.
* ^ "Emerging Infections: Microbial Threats to Health in the United
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* ^ Raymond A. Mohl, The New City: Urban America in the Industrial
Age, 1860–1920 (1985) p. 69
* ^ Robert R. Dykstra,
Cattle Towns: A Social History of the Kansas
Cattle Trading Centers (1968)
* ^ John Rossel, "The Chisholm Trail,"
Kansas Historical Quarterly
(1936) Vol. 5, No. 1 pp 3–14 online edition
* ^ Ian Frazier,
Great Plains (2001) p. 72
* ^ Deborah Fink, Agrarian Women: Wives and Mothers in Rural
Nebraska, 1880–1940 (1992).
* ^ Chad Montrie, "'Men Alone Cannot Settle a Country:'
Domesticating Nature in the Kansas-
Nebraska Grasslands", Great Plains
Quarterly, Fall 2005, Vol. 25 Issue 4, pp. 245–258. Online
* ^ Karl Ronning, "Quilting in Webster County, Nebraska,
1880–1920", Uncoverings, 1992, Vol. 13, pp. 169–191.
* ^ Nathan B. Sanderson, "More Than a Potluck",
Fall 2008, Vol. 89 Issue 3, pp. 120–131.
* ^ Donald B. Marti, Women of the Grange: Mutuality and Sisterhood
in Rural America, 1866–1920 (1991)
* ^ Bobby A. Stewart and Terry A. Howell, Encyclopedia of water
science (2003) p. 43
* ^ Amanda Rees, The
Great Plains region (2004) p. xvi
* ^ "Legendary
Texas oilman embraces wind power".
Star Tribune .
2008-07-25. Archived from the original on 2008-07-27. Retrieved
* ^ Fahey, Anna (2008-07-09). "
Texas Oil Man Says We Can Break the
Addiction". Sightline Daily. Retrieved 2008-08-24.
* ^ "
T. Boone Pickens
T. Boone Pickens Places $2 Billion Order for GE Wind
Turbines". Wind Today Magazine. 2008-05-16. Archived from the original
on 2008-10-01. Retrieved 2008-08-24.
* ^ Block, Ben (2008-07-24). "In Windy West Texas, An Economic
Boom". Retrieved 2008-11-05.
* Bonnifield, Paul. The Dust Bowl: Men, Dirt, and Depression,
New Mexico Press , Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1978,
hardcover, ISBN 0-8263-0485-0 .
* Courtwright, Julie.
Prairie Fire: A
Great Plains History
(University Press of Kansas, 2011) 274 pp.
* Danbom, David B.
Sod Busting: How families made farms on the
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* Eagan, Timothy. The Worst Hard Time : the Untold Story of Those
Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. Boston : Houghton Mifflin
* Forsberg, Michael , Great Plains: America's Lingering Wild,
University of Chicago Press
University of Chicago Press , Chicago, Illinois, 2009, ISBN
* Gilfillan, Merrill. Chokecherry Places, Essays from the High
Plains, Johnson Press, Boulder, Colorado, trade paperback, ISBN
* Grant, Michael Johnston. Down and Out on the Family Farm: Rural
Rehabilitation in the Great Plains, 1929–1945, University of
Nebraska Press , 2002, ISBN 0-8032-7105-0
* Hurt, R. Douglas. The Big Empty: The
Great Plains in the Twentieth
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environmental, social, economic, and political history of the region.
* Hurt, R. Douglas. The
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Nebraska Press. 2008. Pp. xiii, 507.
* Mills, David W.
Cold War in a Cold Land: Fighting Communism on the
Northern Plains (2015) Col War era; excerpt
* Peirce, Neal R. The
Great Plains States of America: People,
Politics, and Power in the Nine
Great Plains States (1973)
* Raban, Jonathan. Bad Land: An American Romance. Vintage
Departures, division of Vintage Books, New York, 1996. Winner of the
Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction.
* Rees, Amanda. The
Great Plains Region: The Greenwood Encyclopedia
of American Regional Cultures (2004)
* Stegner, Wallace. Wolf Willow, A history, a story, and a memory of
the last plains frontier, Viking Compass Book, New York, 1966, trade
paperback, ISBN 0-670-00197-X
* Wishart, David J. ed. Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, University
Nebraska Press, 2004, ISBN 0-8032-4787-7 . complete text online
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