The Great Plains: Facts & History

The Great Plains: Facts & History
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  • 0:01 Features of the Great Plains
  • 1:13 Climate & Ecology
  • 2:36 History
  • 4:52 The Plains Today
  • 5:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Andrew Peterson

Andrew has a PhD and masters degree in world history.

One of the most recognizable and iconic landscapes in America is that of the Great Plains. This region has been crucial to the economy, ecology and history of the US.

Features of The Great Plains

The Great Plains stretch out across the United States and Canada for roughly half a million square miles. While the flat and expansive landscape of the Great Plains may appear to be rather boring and without much life, the plains have, in fact, been home to thundering herds of roaming bison, Native American wars and violent tornadoes.

The plains are a geological and ecological zone reaching as far south as Texas and running north well into Canada; they are bordered to the west by the Rocky Mountains and extend eastward towards the Mississippi River. The states that make up the Great Plains region include Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota, North Dakota, as well as parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Montana.

Map Indicating the Great Plains Region of the US and Canada
Map of the Great Plains

Perhaps the most striking feature of the Great Plains is its sparse population. Although one can find a number of major cities across the region (like Omaha and Oklahoma City, for example), the Great Plains as a whole has an exceptionally low population density. To give you an idea, New Jersey has a population density of roughly 1,200 people per square mile, while plains states, like the Dakotas, have population densities right around a mere 10 people per square mile.

Climate & Ecology

Despite its vast size and the fact that the region covers portions of at least nine different states and two countries, the Great Plains share a more or less similar ecology and climate. The flat landscape, hot summers and fertile prairie grasslands make the region ideal for large-scale farming and ranching.

Perhaps one of the most unique ecological features of the plains sits underground. For decades plains farmers have been tapping into a subterranean freshwater deposit called the Ogallala Aquifer. As one of the world's largest aquifers, the Ogallala Aquifer helps farmers to cheaply and easily water their vast farmlands. However, overuse has threatened to deplete the aquifer entirely.

The climate of the plains fluctuates between extremes, with cold, blustery winters and long, hot summers. It is not at all uncommon for average winter temperatures to drop into the single digits in the winter but then peak to nearly ninety degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. Because there are no trees, hills or mountains, the region has no natural protection against wind and erosion. As such, high winds and dust storms are common across the Great Plains.

The climate and geography of the plains also serve as an ideal incubator for one of the more famous and destructive meteorological phenomenon: tornadoes. So many tornadoes touch down across the plains each year that the region is often referred to as Tornado Alley.

A 1999 photograph of a tornado in Oklahoma
Tornado in Oklahoma

History

The first humans to inhabit the Great Plains were Native Americans, who likely settled the region well over 10,000 years ago. One of the most important sources of food for early inhabitants were bison. Prior to the introduction of the horse, Native Americans tribes would work in teams to herd wild bison into pens or corrals for slaughter. Bison provided both food and hides for those that hunted them.

Life on the Great Plains changed dramatically following the arrival of Europeans. The introduction of the horse from Europe forever changed Native American ways of life. Bison hunting, for example, could now be done on horseback by a single man. Once Europeans began to settle the region, they sought to push out the old inhabitants to make room for agriculture and a more 'civilized' way of life.

A depiction of one of the many battles between Native Americans of the Great Plains and US cavalry
Plains Indians and US Cavalry

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