American Indians: Plains

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American Indians: Plains

Since about a.d. 1000, the Indians of the Great Plains had been divided into two grand divisions: the nomadic, tipi-dwelling nomads who generally lived on the western short-grass Plains, and the village-dwelling horticulturists who occupied the eastern reaches of the region. Each group was well adapted to conditions in the semiarid plains environment, and the entire region was heavily populated, despite earlier claims that the area was inhospitable and

sparsely inhabited before horses were introduced by the Spanish in the seventeenth century. The nomadic life had ancient roots, reaching deep into the prehistoric past, for Indians had been living on the plains and hunting bison for no less than twelve thousand years. The village way of life was more recent, having been introduced from eastern North America about a.d. 900.

The village farmers lived principally along the Missouri and its major tributaries and on the eastern reaches of tributaries of the Mississippi. They included, from south to north, the Caddoan-speaking tribes of Texas and Oklahoma, and the Osages, Otoes and Missouris, Wichitas, Pawnees, Iowas, Omahas, Poncas, Arikaras, and the Mandans and Hidatsas. In the north, most of these villagers lived in substantial earth-covered lodges in communities often surrounded by fortifying ditches and post palisades; in the south, more moderate weather permitted their homes to be less substantial (the Wichitas even lived in grass houses). They remained for most of the year near their villages, where the women grew their crops in the fertile river bottoms. Conversely, the nomads lived in skin tipis and, while they had home territories, ranged widely in search of the bison that was the mainstay of their diet. The most important of them were the many bands of Dakotas, or Sioux; the Cheyennes and Arapahos, Crows, and Assiniboines.

There was a brisk trade from prehistoric to historic times between the villagers and the nomads, the villagers trading corn and garden produce to the nomads in exchange for the products produced by these hunting peoples. Their trade routes often became those followed by early European fur traders. This trade did not prevent groups from raiding one another at other times, for young men could attain social and political prominence only if they had war honors and were successful in raiding other groups for horses.

Even before 1750 diseases introduced by Europeans, principally smallpox, began drastically to reduce Indian populations, sometimes killing up to 95 percent of the affected population. Smallpox probably attacked tribes along the Missouri River in about 1750, but a major outbreak in 1781 was responsible for massive depopulation, as was a later one in 1837, which almost eliminated the Mandans and, according to Joshua Pilcher, left the entire northern Plains "one great grave yard." This depopulation made later American settlement a far simpler matter.

European penetration of the plains came from three directions: from the southwest by early Spanish explorers; from the north and east from the Canadian plains and Great Lakes by the French and English; and from the southeast, principally by Americans ascending the Missouri River. These alien traders brought a startling new technology, including edged iron tools and firearms, and a shift in Indian lifeways from one that stressed subsistence to another that focused on producing, at first, furs and, later, buffalo robes. These new elements, together with the introduction of horses, led to massive changes in their lifeways, ones that, for a time, brought them riches and an affluent way of life that led to today's stereotypic view of the American Indian: a tipi and a horse-mounted warrior wearing an eagle-feather headdress and carrying a spear or firearm.

Pierre Gaultier de la Vérendrye was the first visitor from the north to reach the Missouri River in 1738, but about the same time, traders from St. Louis or Prairie du Chien, on the Mississippi, began infiltrating the northern plains, and other French traders were reaching tribes deep in the southern plains. By the early nineteenth century American explorers began to follow the tracks left by the first traders, and initiated the process that led to American settlement and the often illegal confiscation of tribal lands. Lewis and Clark in 1804–1806, Zebulon Pike in 1805–1807, and Stephen H. Long in 1819–1820 brought the West to the attention of easterners. The trails that brought cattle from Texas north into Kansas and further followed, between 1840 and 1897. But it was the initiation of the Oregon and California Trails in 1834 and 1841, and the Santa Fe Trail in 1821, that brought trespassing immigrants and trade. Indian responses to them were largely the reason for the introduction of military posts along their routes.

See alsoExpansion; Exploration and Explorers; Fur and Pelt Trade; Health and Disease; Livestock Production; West .


DeMallie, Raymond J., ed. Handbook of North American Indians. Volume 13: Plains. William C. Sturtevant, general editor. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 2001.

Holder, Preston. The Hoe and the Horse on the Plains: A Study of Cultural Development among North American Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970, 1991.

Joshua Pilcher to William Clark, February 27, 1838. Letters Received by the Office of Indian Affairs: Upper Missouri Agency, 1824-1881. Record Group 75, Microcopy No. 234, Roll No. 884. National Archives, Washington, D.C.

Wood, W. Raymond, ed. Archaeology on the Great Plains. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.

W. Raymond Wood

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American Indians: Plains

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American Indians: Plains