Great Plains and Prairies - Settlements
The pre-European occupation of the Plains by American Indians was limited. Hunting, particularly for buffalo, was the primary economic activity. Most tribes lived along streams in semipermanent settlements. With no means of rapid long-distance overland movement (the dog was the only domesticated animal in pre-European North America), the Indians could not leave the dependable water supplies of the streams for any long period. This was a substantial problem, for the migration of the great buffalo herds often took this food source far away from the settlements for many weeks.
When the Spanish departed from the southern Plains following their initial explorations, they left some of their horses behind, a "gift" that dramatically altered the lifestyle of the Plains Indians. By the time Americans reached the Plains in the early 19th century, they found what many have called the finest light cavalry in world history. The horse had diffused throughout the grasslands, and the Plains Indians, no longer restricted to the waterways, freely followed the buffalo migration.
The early American perception of the region as an unpromising and difficult place to settle was not totally wrong. The lack of trees meant that farmers had none of the traditional material used for the construction of houses and barns, for fencing, or for fuel. Water sources were scarce; often rivers and streams had only a seasonal flow. Those who arrived early settled along these waterways. The crops that settlers brought with them to the Plains often failed, and crop success varied greatly from year to year as precipitation amounts fluctuated widely. Agricultural production rates were also generally lower, and the 65-hectare farm size that seemed so adequate farther east proved to be too small on the Great Plains.
The settlement frontier hesitated along the eastern boundary of the Plains partly as a result of these problems. Settlers tended to bypass the Plains for the Pacific Coast until technological and land ownership changes made Plains settlement more inviting. During this hesitation, an alternative economic system swept across the region. An extensive ranching economy had been introduced into south Texas by Spaniards and into east Texas by American settlers from the South. This economy spread from Texas northward during the period from 1867 to 1885.
Great herds of cattle were driven northward from south Texas to railheads in Kansas both for shipment east and to stock the huge, relatively unsettled Plains region. By 1880, perhaps 5 million head of cattle had been moved.
The open-ranching economy collapsed rapidly in the late 1880s. Widespread overgrazing, competition from the superior beef of expanding cattle-raising operations in the Midwest, a slipping national economy, a disastrous winter in 1887-1888, and a rapid influx of farmers onto the Plains combined to end this short period of American history. The open-range, unimproved ranches were pushed to the drier western side of the Plains or were forced into a more restrained fenced operation.
On the agricultural frontier, barbed wire, developed commercially in the 1870s, provided an effective alternative fencing material to take the place of the missing wood supply. For a time, dwellings constructed of sod provided adequate housing. Nevertheless, most settlers replaced them as soon as possible with frame homes. Lumber was brought in by the railroads, which were under construction all across the Plains by the 1870s. The development of a simple windmill and mechanical well-drilling devices meant that sufficient water could be obtained locally for humans and animals, as well as for irrigation. It was the widespread adoption of windmill technology on the grasslands that led to its subsequent acceptance across most of rural America. Grain farming also became increasingly mechanized, enabling farmers to operate larger farms and thus compensate for lower yields.
Finally, crops that were better adapted to the growing conditions of the region were introduced into the agricultural system, and farmers began to improve their understanding of how to use the Plains environment. Hard winter wheat is perhaps the best example. First brought to the United States by Mennonite immigrants from Russia, it was far better adapted to the dry growing conditions of the Great Plains than the wheat strains grown there earlier.
Today, the Great Plains is America's premier wheat-producing region, and it is largely on the abundance of Plains agriculture that the United States is the world's top wheat exporter.
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