Western Life

The Great Plains

The Great Plains, also called ‘The Plains,’ is the flatland which extends from west of the Mississippi River to east of the Rocky Mountains. The expanse is covered in prairie, grassland and steppe, and has a height of 600-1200 feet in the east, and between 4000 and 6000 feet near the mountains. The Great Plains is divided into four main sections: the northern, intermediate, central and southern plains. Although the weather varies throughout the year, extensive cattle ranching and dry farming have been practiced in the area. The extended periods of drought, harsh, cold winters and hot, humid summers make farming a challenge. In addition, there are annual dust storms and strong winds, especially during winter.

The Europeans arrived on the Great Plains to see that they were already inhabited by Native Americans, including the Cheyenne, Sioux, Comanche and several other tribes. The arrival of the Europeans proved detrimental to the indigenous communities, as they had no resistance to the diseases the foreigners brought with them. The Great Plains smallpox epidemic occurred between 1836 and 1840, reaching its peak in 1837, and killed many of the natives. It began when an American Fur Company steamboat carried infected people into the Missouri Valley. More than 15,000 Native Americans died along the Missouri River alone, with entire tribes being almost wiped out. The total number of deaths could not be recorded, because of how widespread the epidemic became, and many historians believe that more than half the Native American population in The Plains died as a result.

Westward expansion was responsible for a massive migration to the area during the 19th century. In addition to much of the land being used as open range for cattle to roam freely, the fur trade was at a high and hunters frequented the area killing almost all the wild bison for their hides. After 1870, when new railroads had been established across the plains, the development of the land increased. Farmers from both Europe and other parts of America began to branch out. In 1862, The Homestead Acts had been passed, which provided housing for the growing population and facilitated the agricultural development of the Great Plains. Settlers were allowed to claim up to 160 acres of land, which they were required to cultivate and live on it for at least five years. Hundreds of thousands of people came to claim plots, but many of them gave up because of the difficulties of dryland farming. This was made worse by the government’s advice, which was counterproductive to the proper method.

After World War II, numerous dams were constructed in the Missouri River Basin to provide flood control, irrigation and hydroelectric power. This increased the productivity of the farmlands and the plains continue to be predominantly agricultural, producing significant amounts of wheat, cotton and corn, as well as raising cattle and sheep. The Great Plains is also a source of mineral wealth to the country, with several states within its boundaries producing petroleum and natural gas.


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