Historical Themes

The Great Plains bore witness to dramatic shifts in power during the nineteenth century and played a central role in the emergence of modern America. The rapid expansion of the United States in the decades following independence and the earlier arrival of horses, guns and the European fur trade helped transform the Great Plains into a world of refugees competing for resources and adapting to new realities.

In an era characterized by increasingly deadly warfare and rapid societal change, Indian peoples sought to maintain autonomy within an increasingly complex economic system. Some groups, like the Lakota, thrived while others fell victim to aggression or were decimated by periodic waves of disease. The encroachment of migrants, immigrants and soldiers from the United States in the latter nineteenth century added another variable to an already dynamic situation.

The subsequent establishment of the United States’ political control in the region, which forced most Indian groups onto reservations, was not the last power shift but rather the beginning of a new era of colonialism. Furthermore, competing visions of the plains, between farmers and ranchers as well as successive waves of migrants and immigrants, continued a pattern of shifting power with legacies apparent still today.

To understand the story of shifting power, we will focus on four broad themes:

  • The role of human migrations in shaping the context and course of power shifts on the plains.
  • Environmental and ecological change as factors both driving and driven by the actions of human inhabitants of the plains.
  • The connectedness of the plains to emerging national, continental and global economies since at least the time of Lewis and Clark.
  • Adaptation and persistence among native inhabitants of the plains amidst changes brought about by U.S. colonialism.

Shifting Power on the Plains especially will be relevant for teachers who teach about the Great Plains, Native American History and the decades following the American Civil War.