In his study of the Colorado Gold Rush, Elliott West discovered that historians have generally focused their attention on “what was rushed to rather than what was rushed over” (West xvii). His basic argument is that the influx of goldseekers changed the Great Plains as well as the Rockies, and that “the Indians were partly responsible for their own difficulties” (West, xvii). West asserts that the history of the Great Plains changed over time primarily through people’s perceptions of it:
People use their brains to create mental variations of the places they observe, variations that exist only inside their heads. They imagine changes in the world as it presently exists outside themselves; they visualize new connections and relationships that are not there yet. So besides the perceived environment in the first sense – the outer world as humans encounter it through their senses – there can be many alternate environments existing simultaneously as imagined places (West xx).
Consequently, for changes on the Great Plains to occur, people must first imagine the area differently. West describes the many changes that transpired on the Great Plains, and the factors that propelled people to change their perceptions of the Great Plains.
The first occupants of the Plains were “part of the Clovis complex” around 9500 – 10,000 B.C. (West 19). At this time, the Plains were “wetter and cooler” (West 18). But soon after their arrival, the climate changed and became warmer. This caused the tall grasses to give way to shorter, and led to the extinction of many species the Clovis hunters used for food. This extinction (partly caused by the Clovis) led them and the later Folsom peoples to develop a bison-hunting culture.
About 5000 B.C. the climate changed again; the Plains underwent a prolonged drought which caused the land to become more arid, and take on the appearance similar to the present. This caused the hunters to become even more nomadic as they searched for food. The Plains peoples developed a “cycle of movement that united the seasonal offerings of plains, hills, and high mountain terrain” (West 24). At about the time of Christ, the Plains Woodlands people had set up a network of trade “covering most of the United States and well beyond its borders” to obtain commodities they could not obtain locally.
Then around A.D. 700-800, another climactic shift led the Plains into “one of the wettest periods of its history” (West 27). This led to farming communities along the Republican, Solomon, and Smoky Hill Rivers. These farmers eventually moved eastward off the Plains during the thirteenth century as the land suffered a series of droughts. Then new peoples moved onto the Plains to create their own mode of survival. Before European contact, many different peoples had lived and survived on the Plains. They had adapted to the changing climates and exploited the resources close at hand, while establishing trade for what was not close at hand.
Contact with Europeans in the mid-sixteenth century dramatically changed the Native peoples’ perceptions of the Great Plains. The Spaniards envisioned the Plains as lacking “almost everything needed to turn neutral space into a human place” (West 35). Coronado’s reports of the Great Plains resulted in Europeans staying out of the area for two hundred years. However, the Spaniards brought with them two things that would revolutionize life on the Plains: horses and guns. Once the Native Americans understood the capabilities of horses and guns, they “looked at the country and thought it into another shape” (West 55).
For the Plains tribes, the horse turned them into more efficient hunters of the bison, and guns were extremely beneficial for raiding villages. The Indians’ changed perception of the Plains caused a population explosion. The population in the high Plains “rose steeply in the late eighteenth century, then climbed more sharply after 1800” (West 67). Many tribes, such as Comanches, Nakotas, Lakotas, and others, began moving onto the Plains from the east as they imagined the land in different ways.
As the new tribes moved into the Great Plains, “there was a shuffling of power in its crudest form – force used by some people to control, exploit, and kill other people” (West 68). The tribal warfare for control of the area around the Black Hills resulted in the Lakotas displacing tribes such as the Kiowa, Arapahoes, Crows, and Cheyennes. But the migration to the Plains caused the Lakota to come to depend on the horse more heavily. This dependency led to problems since, because of the northern winters, the Lakota often were in short supply of horses. This shortage “helped shape their actions during the years ahead” (West 66).
Up until the mid-nineteenth century, the Great Plains had belonged to the Native Americans almost exclusively. But in 1858, the rumours of gold in the Rockies that had been circulating for decades was confirmed when Green Russell and his followers made “the true discovery of gold in the Pike’s Peak region” (West 105). This discovery, along with other events in America paved the way for a general stampede into the area. Before the settlers could move into this area, their perceptions of it had to change.
Previously they viewed the Plains as a virtual wasteland inhabited by savages ready to kill any white people. Sumner’s victory at the Solomon River in 1856 gave many the impression of “nomads beaten and pacified” (West 100). Therefore, many felt the Indian populations would not be much of a threat to them.
Also the depression of 1857 encouraged people to look at the Great Plains in a different light. It then became a place where they could escape the bad conditions at home and regain economic stability. Newspapers and travel guides immediately set to work to propagandize the Great Plains. One St. Louis editor wrote that the gold fields would be “the evangel to a new commerce” (West 131). In addition to the gold mines, propagandists gave people a view of the Great Plains as a place that would be good for cattle raising and farming. Soon after Russell made his discovery in 1858, the first townsite, Denver City, was laid out. The following spring, “more than 100,000 people headed for Colorado” (West 145).
This invasion of miners caused conflict within numerous Plains tribes when they returned to the South Platte River. As their resources, such as bison, began to diminish, many tribes such as the Cheyennes, Arapahoes, Kiowas, Lakotas, and Comanches were “torn between leaders who called for accommodation with whites and others advocating confrontation, or at least a studied disengagement” (West 194). The tribes’ dependence on the bison and trade with whites thus caused much of their difficulties when miners began filtering into the area, since many trading chiefs favored accommodation. The subsequent warfare, displacement of Indians, and the establishment of reservations further changed the face of the Great Plains. For many thousands of years, the Great Plains underwent a series of changes to reach its present appearance. The common factor in these changes is that before they were implemented, they had to be envisioned.
West, Elliott. The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado. University Press of Kansas, 2000.