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Great Plains

GREAT PLAINS

GREAT PLAINS, a geographically and environmentally defined region covering parts of ten states: Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico. Running between Canada and Mexico, the region stretches from the 98th meridian (altitude 2,000 feet) to the Rocky Mountains (altitude 7,000 feet). This eastward-sloping, treeless, semi-arid, shortgrass plateau's annual rainfall is


between thirteen and twenty inches, and the region's continental climate creates an environment of extremes: excessive heat and cold, and violent weather patterns. Along with deep, rich soils, its other valuable resource is the Ogallala Aquifer, a large, nonrenewable water source underlying much of the region. The region's culture, its boom and bust economy, and its importance to American history cannot be understood apart from its environment.

Evidence suggests that the first human occupation of the Plains occurred at the end of the last ice age (around 10000 b.c., when the Clovis and then Folsom peoples inhabited the region). Between 5000 and 2000 b.c., a long drought made the region uninhabitable. Around 1000 a.d. the drought receded and the Eastern Woodland culture entered the central Plains to farm stream bottoms. The climate shifted again and many of its inhabitants withdrew, as others took their place.

The first documented European visit to the Plains was made in 1540 by the Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado. One hundred and fifty years later, the French investigated trading opportunities with Plains tribes in the region. American interest in the Plains was cemented with its purchase from France in 1803. In the twenty years after the Louisiana Purchase, three government expeditions led to the common perception of this region as the Great American Desert. Trails were blazed through the Plains from the 1830s, taking settlers to California and Oregon, and, by the late 1870s, the military had forced many Indian nations such as the Arapahos, Cheyennes, and Apaches onto reservations.

Euro-American settlement began at the close of the Civil War. Peace, the sense of manifest destiny, technological developments, and an unusually generous period of rainfall between 1878 and 1887 made the Plains appear especially inviting. Relying on free access to land and water, cattle ranching boomed in the 1870s and 1880s, but later declined as a result of the increasing number of small farmers and the harsh winter of 1886–1887. Boom times came in the mid-1910s, as Plains farmers increased production to supply World War I. An economic bust followed due to overproduction, and this, combined with the prolonged drought of the 1930s and poor agricultural practices, led to the region's most terrible ecological and social catastrophe, the Dust Bowl.

Post–World War II farmers sought to minimize weather unpredictability by mechanizing irrigation in order to utilize the Ogallala Aquifer. From 1940 to 1980, production tripled even as crop prices declined. By 1990, 40 percent of America's beef was fattened and slaughtered within a 250-mile radius of Garden City, Kansas. The decline in the aquifer, combined with low commodity prices, led to a depressed regional economy, and a decreasing and aging population at the turn of the twenty-first century. Unlike many other American regions, the Great Plains resists the traditional story of progress: its environment sets the context for repetitive boom-and-bust economic cycles.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Opie, John. Ogallala: Water for a Dry Land: A Historical Study in the Possibilities for American Sustainable Agriculture. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.

Webb, Walter Prescott. The Great Plains. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981. Reprint of the original 1931 edition.

West, Elliott. The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1998.

AmandaRees

See alsoArchaeology and Prehistory of North America ; Dust Bowl ; andvol. 9:Across the Plains to California in 1852 ; Living in the Dust Bowl, 1934 .

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Great Plains

Great Plains, extensive grassland region on the continental slope of central North America. They extend from the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba south through W central United States into W Texas. In the United States the Plains include parts of North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas.

Physical Geography

The Great Plains slope gently eastward from the foothills of the Rocky Mts. at an elevation of 6,000 ft (1,829 m) to merge into the interior lowlands at an elevation of roughly 1,500 ft (457 m). The 1,500 ft (457 m) contour line, the 100th meridian of longitude, and the 20-in. (51-cm) isohyet of precipitation are arbitrarily used to mark the region's transitional eastern border. In places, however, it is clearly marked by an escarpment. Much of the Great Plains was once covered by a vast inland sea, and sediments deposited by the sea make up the nearly horizontal rock strata that underlie the area. Intrusive igneous rocks account for sections of higher elevation. The Great Plains region has generally level or rolling terrain; its subdivisions include Edwards Plateau, the Llano Estacado, the High Plains, the Sand Hills, the Badlands, and the Northern Plains.

The Black Hills and several outliers of the Rocky Mts. interrupt the region's undulating profile. The Saskatchewan, Missouri, Platte, Republican, Arkansas, Cimarron, and Canadian rivers flow in wide beds, generally from west to east, and are important sources of water. Rainfall decreases from east to west. Except for its easternmost margin and the elevations, the Great Plains have a semiarid climate, averaging less than 20 in. (51 cm) of precipitation annually. There are wide seasonal temperature ranges and winds of high velocity. In the westernmost sections the chinook, a warm winter wind, brings relief from bitterly cold and snowy winters. The dominant type of vegetation consists of shortgrass prairies; trees grow in moister areas and along water courses.

People and Economy

Although overall the Great Plains are sparsely populated, with much of the grassland devoted to farms and ranches, about half the people live in small to medium-sized urban areas; Edmonton, Alberta and Denver, Colo. are the largest cities in the region. Soils throughout the region are fertile and very productive when water is available. The principal crop is wheat, concentrated in the Spring Wheat Belt (generally N of Nebraska), where the colder climate delays sowing until spring, and the Winter Wheat Belt (centered in Kansas and Oklahoma), where the milder climate allows for winter sowing. Other crops include sorghum, flax, and cotton. Cattle and sheep are raised throughout most of the Great Plains. Oil, natural gas, coal, and gold are among its mineral deposits.

History

The Great Plains were long inhabited by Native Americans, who hunted the teeming herds of buffalo (see bison) that roamed the grasslands and, due to wholesale slaughter by settlers and the U.S. army, were nearly extinct by the end of the 19th cent. The region was explored by the Spanish in the 17th cent. Until well into the 19th cent., the central Great Plains were called the Great American Desert. The first westward-bound pioneers bypassed the Great Plains. The railroads were largely responsible for their development after the Civil War. An initial wave of settlement was followed by emigration in times of drought. By the mid-1930s, decades of overgrazing and poor soil management in many of the Plains states had resulted in dust storms and the devastation of crops (see Dust Bowl).

Bibliography

See W. P. Webb, The Great Plains (1931, repr. 1981); N. R. Peirce, The Great Plains States of America (1973); B. W. Blouet and F. C. Luebke, ed., The Great Plains: Environment and Culture (1979).

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Great Plains

Great Plains High, extensive region of grassland in central North America. The Great Plains extend from the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, through w central USA to Texas. The plateau slopes down and e from the Rocky Mountains. It is a sparsely populated region with a semi-arid climate, prone to high winds. The chinook wind warms the bitter winter. Most of the land is prairie. Cattle-ranching and sheep-rearing are the main economic activities; wheat is the principal crop. Native Americans roamed the Great Plains before Europeans destroyed the bison. The railroads brought settlers in the late 19th century. In the 1930s, drought and soil mismanagement resulted in the dust bowl.

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