Great Basin

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Great Basin, semiarid, N section of the Basin and Range province, the intermontane plateau region of W United States and N Mexico. Lying mostly in Nevada and extending into California, Oregon, Idaho, and Utah, it is bordered by the Sierra Nevada on the west, the Columbia Plateau on the north, the Rocky Mts. on the northeast, the Colorado Plateau on the east, and the Mojave Desert on the south.


The region is a complex topographic basin, the surface of which is broken by numerous fault-block mountains, trending mostly north-south and rising sharply in places to more than 10,000 ft (3,048 m) above dry, sediment-floored basins. Death Valley, 282 ft (86 m) below sea level, is the lowest basin; it is also the hottest (134°F/56.7°C in the shade is the highest temperature ever recorded in the world) and one of the driest (less than 3 in./7.6 cm of rain annually) parts of North America. Throughout the Great Basin rainfall is limited (2–20 in./5.1–51 cm annually) and sporadic.

The region was recognized as an area of interior drainage by J. C. Frémont, who explored (1843–45) and named it. The rivers of the region have no outlet to the sea; they either dry up as they cross the parched terrain, like the Humboldt, or empty into large lakes or into playas that temporarily fill with water after heavy rain. Klamath and Utah lakes contain freshwater; most other lakes are brackish or salty. The lakes are remnants of a much larger system of ancient lakes that occupied the region during the Pleistocene epoch: Great Salt, Sevier, and Utah lakes are remnants of glacial Lake Bonneville (see under Bonneville Salt Flats); North Carson, South Carson, Walker, Honey, Pyramid, and Winnemucca are remnants of glacial Lake Lahontan; and glacial Lake Manly is thought to have occupied Death Valley.


Although Nevada and Utah experienced significant growth in the 1970s and 80s, the Great Basin remains one of the least populated areas of the United States. In recent decades, its traditional economic activities, mining and ranching, have been superseded by manufacturing and tourism. In addition, several military installations, including a nuclear testing site in Nevada, have been established since the 1950s and a concentration of aerospace, defense, and electronics firms has sprung up around them.

The mining industry in the Great Basin traces its roots to the 1850s, when gold and silver were discovered in Death Valley; the discovery of silver at the Comstock Lode near Virginia City, Nev., in 1859 attracted a new influx of settlers. The output of gold from mines in both Nevada and Utah remains high. Mercury and barite are also mined in Nevada; in Utah, beryllium, uranium, molybdenum, and silver are mined. Copper mines, formerly the mainstay of the regional economy, began to decline in the 1970s and have largely fallen into disuse. A variety of commercial salts are processed at chemical plants near the Great Salt Lake. Intensive forms of cattle production, based on irrigated feed crops, are concentrated along the Humboldt and Reese rivers and along streams draining into the margins of the Great Basin from the Wasatch Mts. and the Sierra Nevada. Great Basin National Park (77,180 acres/31,258 hectares) is located in the South Snake Range of E Nevada. It has exceptional scenic and geologic attractions, including Lehman Caves and Wheeler Peak (the highest point in the park, with Nevada's only glacier and groves of bristlecone pines, the oldest living trees). It was designated a national park in 1986. See National Parks and Monuments (table).


See W. D. Thornbury, Regional Geomorphology of the United States (1965); J. McPhee, Basin and Range (1981); W. Fiero, Geology of the Great Basin (1986); G. G. Cline, Exploring the Great Basin (1988).

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Classical America: The West: Great Basin


Environment. Trapped between the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains, the Great Basin is an arid expanse of terrain that includes present-day Nevada, Utah, western California, and southern Oregon. Temperatures fluctuate wildly. The summers are brutally hot while the winters can be bitterly cold. The areas inhabitants depended primarily on the Archaic hunting-and-gathering strategy. Rabbits, antelope, snakes, pine nuts, roots, berries, and other wild plants contributed the bulk of the peoples diet. The scarcity of food inhibited the development of large, settled communities, and band structures persisted here well into the contact period.

Early Prehistory: 8000 b.c. to 1000 a.d. Clovis people moved into the Great Basin more than ten thousand years ago, and their culture transformed into what archaeologists call the Western Archaic tradition. Between 8000 b.c. and contact with Europeans in the early nineteenth century, the Archaic culture of the inhabitants changed little. Tools and artwork may have become more elaborate, but their basic forms remained. If the culture

remained stable, however, the population did not. Around 1000 a.d. new populations moved into the area and displaced the original inhabitants. From southern California came the forerunners of the people known as Shoshones and Paiutes. The two groups spoke Numic languages that belonged to the Uto-Aztecan family, a language group that originated in the Amerind populations of Mesoamerica.

Shoshone: 10001600 a.d. The Shoshones were hunters and gatherers who migrated into the region to take advantage of the environment. Plant foods contributed the bulk of their diets although antelope and big-horn sheep were important sources of protein. They lived in temporary dwellings because of their migratory lifestyle, and large groups gathered only during the winter months to pass the time. Basketry was crucial for the storage of dried meat, roots, and berries, and they also made pottery which, because it was too heavy and fragile to carry, they left behind at various sites so that when they returned the following year they would have a ready source of food. Leaders had little authority in Shoshone society because the groups were widely dispersed and focused on feeding themselves rather than fighting with neighbors. The form of social organization changed in the early 1600s, however, when the Shoshones began to move to the Great Plains to hunt buffalo. Inhabitants of the Plains resented the newcomers, and periodic warfare occurred that led the Shoshones to choose leaders who could organize a defense against the raiding of the Plains tribes.

Paiute: 10001600 a.d. Like the Shoshones, the Paiutes were divided into small bands and lived much in the Archaic tradition. Women gathered a variety of plants, including pine nuts, and men hunted rabbits, gophers, and other small mammals. Paiutes spent the winters in higher elevations where firewood was more plentiful, and when their winter stores of food ran out they moved into lower elevations to begin again the cycle of hunting and gathering. Some bands made pottery but others did not. Basketry was a far more important technology for storing and transporting food and other items because of its light weight and sturdiness.


Warren L. DAzevedo, ed., Handbook of North American Indians: Great Basin (Washington, d.c.: Smithsonian Institution, 1986);

Pamela Bunte and Robert Franklin, The Paiute (New York: Chelsea House, 1990).

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GREAT BASIN. On his first expedition to the 189,000-square-mile region that he named the Great Basin, 1843–1844, John Charles Frémont explored the rim of that area, which lies between the Wasatch Mountains on the east and the Sierra Nevada on the west, including most of Nevada and the western third of Utah. Frémont was in search of the mythical Buenaventura River.

The second expedition, 1845–1846, was organized for the purpose of exploring the Great Basin more fully. Frémont and his party set out south and west of the Great Salt Lake and crossed the Great Salt Desert into central Nevada. There he divided his party. Edward Kern went southwest, while Frémont and his group went northwest to California. The expeditions collected scientific data, made sketches of the scenery, and noted unusual physical features. Frémont named many rivers, lakes, springs, mountains, passes, and deserts in the Great Basin, generally after the members of his expeditions.

The early emigrant trails and cutoffs across the Great Basin branched off the Oregon Trail at South Pass, Wyoming. The Salt Lake–Los Angeles road turned southwest at Salt Lake, continued to the Virgin River, and extended southwest over the Old Spanish Trail. At the Virgin River, William's short route, or light-hand road, turned west across Nevada to Death Valley. Another important offshoot, the Humboldt Trail, crossed the Forty-Mile desert to the Carson River and from there followed mountain passes into California. The Great Basin was threaded with ramifications of these trails and cutoffs and was heavily traveled by early emigrants.


Coy, Owen Cochran. The Great Trek. Los Angeles: Powell Publishing, 1931.

Faragher, John Mack. Women and Men on the Overland Trail. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979.

Unruh, John D. The Plains Across: The Overland Emigrants and the Trans-Mississippi West, 1840–60. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979.

Effie MonaMack/a. r.

See alsoFrémont Explorations ; Gold Rush, California .

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Great Basin Desert area in w USA comprising most of Nevada and parts of Utah, Idaho, California, Wyoming and Oregon. This sparsely populated area includes Death Valley and the Mojave Desert. The few streams drain into saline lakes, the largest being Great Salt Lake. Mineral deposits include gold, magnesite, mercury, and beryllium ore. Area: c.492,000sq km (190,000sq mi).