Classical America: The West: Great Basin
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 area’s 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 people’s 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: 1000–1600 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: 1000–1600 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. D’Azevedo, 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).
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 .