In a land whose reference is the horizon, it is difficult to grasp dimensions. These western grasslands, no respecter of the longest international boundary in the world, extend north into Canada's Prairie Provinces. If you were to drive from southwest Texas to north Alberta, you would cover some 2,400 miles and never have left the Great Plains. If you were to travel from the eastern Dakotas to the Montana Rockies, you'd journey some 700 miles and never have left the Great Plains.
Because the region was settled by Anglo-Americans after the Civil War, it boggles the mind that one of America's founding fathers would have a lasting impact on the landscape of the Great Plains. But Thomas Jefferson's imposition of the township-and-range survey system -- first on the Old Northwest, then by extension on the Louisiana Purchase -- became the measure of the West. It was the most expeditious way for surveyors to deal with land rushes. From the air, you can see the rectangular layout -- mile after mile of straight rural roads going north-south or east-west -- Etch-a-Sketch lines, as Alicia Rebensdorf puts it. It makes for a seemingly endless checkerboard. As a result, most of the boundaries of the states and provinces in the Great Plains have no correspondence to physical features like rivers, watersheds, or continental divides. Rather, their boundaries are straight-line parallels and meridians. Colorado and Wyoming in the U.S., and Saskatchewan in Canada, are entirely creatures of parallels and meridians. The same holds for many county boundaries in the region. (By the way, Utah is the only other state or province whose boundaries are solely parallels and meridians.)
|Jefferson anticipated western land rushes.|
The township & range aided surveyors
and expedited property claims.
|Railroads, east-west "streams of steel" that replaced river transport, had a great influence on settlement patterns and even the shapes of Great Plains states.|
Most of the states in the Great Plains, moreover, cover a similar extent of land. Why? It goes back to Jefferson's idea of equality regarding national expansion. The new states were to be equal republics not just politically but also geographically. In the world's first great republic, western states would not be colonies dependent on the older states in the East or Midwest.
Given the region's size and diversity, even a bevy of specialists with Ph.D.'s cannot do the landscape justice. Consider all the ways the various disciplines attempt to describe, define, circumscribe, and manage the Great Plains:
|The township & range grid --|
Jefferson's lasting legacy to the region.
- Geographers shoehorn the Great Plains into the westernmost physiographic province of North America's interior plains. A rural hinterland, the plains slope east from the foothills of the Rockies toward the Mississippi River. This great expanse of plateau is carpeted with prairie grasses and filled with an array of cultural and natural surprises -- like the fact that a continental divide cuts across the land, separating the watershed of Hudson Bay from that of the Gulf of Mexico. The basic land-use pattern of the land is the square grid -- township and range -- established by Thomas Jefferson to deal judiciously and expeditiously with land rushes.
- Geologists chisel into its limestones, sandstones, shales -- layer upon layer of sedimentary rocks formed from the outwash of the Ancestral Rockies -- strata laid down over millions of years on the floor of a long-vanished sea. Continental glaciers pushed as far south as the Upper Missouri River Valley, where North Dakota is today.
- In this big sky country, climatologists describe the region in shorthand -- Dfa, Dfb, Cfa, and Bsk from the Köppen-Geiger climate classification system -- summarizing the extremes of winter and summer, wetness and drought, that are experienced in the interior of a large continent that lies in the lee of a great cordillera. Periodic droughts, blizzards, white outs, and tornadoes are the culprits that descend from the west.
- Hydrologists have plenty to concern themselves in this arid land. Chill, east-flowing rivers -- the Missouri, North and South Platte, and Arkansas -- cascade out of the Rockies onto the Great Plains. Other rivers have names that evoke a colorful past -- the Yellowstone, Cache la Poudre, Republican. There is also the northern Red River that heads toward Hudson Bay, and the vast Ogallala Aquifer that has been tapped to extend farming west. Surprising to people unfamiliar with the region, there are thousands of natural lakes in the Great Plains -- many thousands. The Nebraska Sand Hills alone have more than 1,400 natural lakes. When levees of the Army Corps of Engineers fail, or when reservoirs and riverbanks overflow in the spring, catastrophe strikes as it did in many Missouri River communities in the spring and summer of 2011. Minot, North Dakota, on the Souris River made the evening news day after day after day.
- Ecologists have a field day with all the prairie environments. This is the land "where the buffalo roam." In remnants of the tall grass prairie, grasses grow as high as a man. In the short grass prairie, a person has a 360-degree view of the horizon. Antelope and prairie dogs populate the landscape. Slim ribbons of trees along the rivers extend the range of America's eastern forests into the west.
- Foresters -- yes, foresters -- have for more than a century experimented with ways to bring hardy trees into this hardscrabble land. Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt were interested in establishing pine plantations in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. Throughout the region, field windbreaks were established after the Dust Bowl, accentuating the township-and-range grid on the landscape.
- Soil scientists have made careers studying and managing the deep, rich soils of the region, like the black chernozems that have developed over thousands of years. Continental glaciers only invaded the Great Plains that stretch northeast of the Missouri River, plowing the land in their path and dumping rocks and soil in heaps on the edges of the glaciers. These mixed soils support bountiful crops of wheat. Unfortunately, because of deep plowing and overgrazing, much Great Plains soil has ended up in the Mississippi River delta. For the agricultural economy of the region to remain economically viable, soil conservation is a must.
- Agricultural economists see the land's value to local communities, as well as to our nation's GDP and world trade. The tallest buildings in a region are telltale signs of the industries that dominate the economy, and on the plains, it is the grain elevator, standing proud and white over hundreds of High Plains hamlets, towns, and small cities. Hard red winter wheat is actually the region's gold; it is the primary bread wheat of the United States, dominating croplands from Texas to South Dakota.
- Anthropologists and archaeologists have discovered some of the oldest Paleo-Indian sites in North America, at such sites as Clovis and Lindenmeier. The lifeway of Plains Indians changed dramatically when the Spanish brought the horse back to North America. Cheyenne and Apache warriors became the finest cavalry in the world.
- Historians have a rich harvest of Western and Spanish Borderlands history: conquistadors like Coronado, the Santa Fe Trail, the trappers and traders of European empires, Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark, the landmark year 1862 (Homestead Act, Pacific Railroad Act, Morrill Act, Dakota uprising), territorial settlement, cattle drives, gold rushes, sodbusters, exodusters, republican constitution making, statehood, boom-and-bust cycles, the Great Depression, Dust Bowl, the homefront during World War II, etc.
- Americanists have all sorts of wonderful things to study in the culture of the region, from the kitsch along Route 66 to the exodusters, African Americans who left the South after Reconstruction to take up homesteading in Kansas and Nebraska.
- Demographers examine the pulsing expansion and contraction of the "frontier" in the Great Plains.
- Recalling the days when Kit Carson and other pathfinders trekked through the region, today guides exploit the possibilities for cultural tourism in the region.
- People searching for solutions to our nation's energy demands are investing in wind energy (think T. Boone Pickens) and shale gas wells.
- As a presidential historian, I have studied how our U.S. presidents have put their scent on the land and erected monuments to democracy on this western sea of grass. I have explored the impact this land had on them. Theodore Roosevelt said, "I never would have been president if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota." (This and other surprising presidential connections to the Great Plains will be explored in a forthcoming essay, but first it is necessary to give a sense of place.)
|Albert Bierstadt was the greatest romantic painter of the West, especially where the High Plains delighted sojourners with a panorama of the Rockies. One of Colorado's "fourteeners" is named in the painter's honor.|
Every region has its peculiar constellation of challenges and concerns. On the Pacific Coast, for example, people have to worry about "the Big One" -- an earthquake so powerful it changes the tilt of the earth's axis -- as well as about drought exacerbated by Santa Ana winds, fast-spreading brush fires, landslides that can bury neighborhoods, and the prior appropriation of water rights; they also have to deal with immigration issues more than most of the nation. In the Great Lakes states, people have a different set of worries -- about exotic species invading the Great Lakes, the decline of the auto and auto-supply industries, and ethanol subsidies ending for corn. What are the challenges and concerns on the Great Plains? Many are weather-related: floods, tornadoes, droughts, soil erosion, and the depletion of easy water from aquifers would top many lists. In many counties there is also population decline and a brain-drain that worries people tuned into the decline of the region. Many hamlets and small towns are on the verge of extinction.
On the other hand, every region has its ensemble of strengths. The Great Plains have abundant energy resources. Take Billings, Montana, which sits amid the largest coal reserves in the United States as well as large oil and natural gas fields. The communities of the Great Plains hang together, and their students test well in school, making the region an attractive place to raise a family. During the most recent recession, several Great Plains states actually weathered the tough times well. Texas, Montana, and the Dakotas, for example, had some of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation. The High Plains states are doing lots of things right.
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This photo-essay is part of a series on Great Plains geography.