- The topography of the Great American desert was arid, flat with very few trees. Before the 1860s, the region was considered unfit for farming and uninhabitable by the European settlers.
- In the 1890s, the Ogallala Aquifer was discovered, and it became the primary source of water in the Plains.
- In the short period spurning about five decades over three million families had settled on the Plains.
Topography and Early Days
An expedition in between 1819-1820 by the US Corps of Topographical Engineers and a few representatives of the army, when to survey the region by order of President Jefferson and completed in 1823. The expedition developed a map that showed native settlements, current at the time and provided other information useful for encouraging European settlers to inhabit the region. It was also the first step to encourage future frontier settlement.
The topography of the Great American desert was arid, flat with very few trees. Before the 1860s the region was considered unfit for farming and uninhabitable by the migrating white settlers. The first emigrants to America had settled on the East, and very few ventured beyond the Mississippi River. To the West where the Great American dessert existed vast portions of land yet to be exploited by the white emigrants.
The geographical area the Great American desert covers has over time slightly varied depending on the historical timelines. At the beginning of the 19th Century, the region to the West of Mississippi river was known as the Great American desert. At this time, the people inhabiting the area were the indigenous/native Indian tribes who occupied this part of North America well over 10,000 years ago. The native/indigenous Indians took good care of the Great American desert ecosystem making good use of every resource without wastage. The source of food for the indigenous/native Indians in the Plains was bison. Bison also provided hides for the Native Indian tribes which they used for shelter and clothing. Their bones made weapons and tools while their horns were used as utensils. The bison tails were used as whips, and the stomachs as containers to hold waters. The Great American desert was home herds of bison who roamed the plains. Other animals like the black – footed ferret, pronghorn antelope, foxes, deer and grassland birds inhabit the Plains.
The primary source of freshwater in the region was streams and aquifers. Later on, around the 1890s, the Ogallala Aquifer was discovered, and it became the primary source of water. The aquifer sits under eight states ranging from South Dakota south to Texas and New Mexico. The early 1900s would see the Ogallala’s aquifer used for irrigation in the Great American desert that would see people practice agriculture in the Great American Desert.
Over time the area known as the Great American desert grew smaller as more people migrated and settled in the Great Plains. Present day, the only place referred to as the Great American desert is the Nevada and Utah plains.
Farming in the Great Plains
Earlier on areas of the Great American desert were considered inhabitable for settlers of America that it led to the establishment of the “Indian Territory” where Native Indians from the East of the Mississippi River were forced to move after the enactment of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Native Indian tribes were forced into what was promised lands that they would be able to keep in perpetuity. However, the first government kept amending its positions and pushing the Natives into smaller reserves in response to an insatiable appetite for land by the Europeans realized that the Plains were suitable for farming, ranching and had minerals. The discovery of precious minerals in the late 1850’s in Nevada and Colorado saw miners rush to Idaho and Montana in the 1860’s.
By the turn of the 1860’s the region witnessed transformation to become America’s economic pivot upon establishment of rich mines as the area was rich in mineral deposits such as gold, silver, and copper. Thousands of people during this time moved West, towards this region. This led to population growth which brought about springing of new towns in the area in America’s westward expansion. There was an economic boom in this period that opened opportunities for farms, ranches and railroad construction for further development. Ranchers in the Great plains wrecked huge profits raising cattle. The great plains lacking rainfall farmers in the Great Plains were innovative to drill wells for farming.
During this time the Great American desert was renamed, “the Great Plains.” It covered North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Kansas, Colorado Oklahoma, Wyoming, Nebraska, part of Texas, and New Mexico. It also covered the grassland provinces of Manitoba, Alberta, and Saskatchewan in Canada estimated to be about half a million square miles.
By 1890 it was announced that settlement in the West had surpassed expectations due to the rapid occupation to the extent that there was no more frontier line to be settled on in the Great Plains. In the short period spurning about five decades over three million families had settled on the Plains.
Alienation of the Native Indian
At first, the Native Indian allowed white settlers into the Great Plains without resistance. Soon after, problems arose due to the depletion of resources in the Great Plains. The white colonists killed bison with impunity to the extent they were not enough for them. Other clashes were for water and land. The white settlers also brought diseases never witnessed by the native Indians before.
In 1862 Congress passed the Homestead Act which encouraged farmers and immigrants to settle in the Great Plains by granting them titles to vast acres of land at a small fee. More people settled in the Great Plains and tried to force the Native Indians out of the Great Plains during what was known as the farming frontier.
Reservations in the Great Plains were established to harbour the surviving Native Indians. These were territorial units retained by Native Indian tribes as their designated ancestral lands following their removal from the majority of it and cession of a huge portion of it to the majority white American settlers. The first reservations for Native Indians were established in the 1820s to 1830’s but were later revoked after the enactment of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. The Native Indians restricted to small areas recognized in treaties, laws, or executive orders where they would self-govern.
The “Great American Desert” now known as the Great Plains flourished even more by the 1940s due invention of mechanized pumping to tapping water from the now popular Ogallala Aquifer. The arid land thrived as a result of the irrigation water from the Aquifer. Agricultural production was from thereon high and in large scale.
Today the Native Indian reservations are generally poor but abundant in mineral resources and obtain most of their revenues from casinos. Most of the Native Indian culture has been eroded but they still maintain burial sites for their ancestors and have sacred places. Some of their cultural heritage has been maintained. Modern day has witnessed a resurgence of the Native Indian population due to the job opportunities brought about by casinos in the reservations. The Native Indians have begun reclaiming some portions of the land in the Great American desert they were once the alienated from.
To date, the once Great American desert is revered as the breadbasket of America feeding its huge populous.