Contrary to popular belief, the West, or the Great Plains region, was not found in the so-called voyage of discovery by Capt. Meriwether Lewis and Lieut. William Clark in the 19th century. The region had already come into contact with Europeans in the 18th century and seen environmental, demographic, and cultural transformations. What were those? And, what did the Natives make of it?
Let’s focus on the elements that drove the change that was taking place during the 18th century in the Great Plains—long before Lewis and Clark and their imagined discovery of the West.
Trade Networks of the Great Plains
The guns the French first traded to the Anishinaabeg far to the north above the Great Lakes eventually arrived on the Plains through Hidatsa and Mandan trade centers. Their villages, located along the Missouri River in present-day North Dakota, served as important centers of exchange between Prairie and High Plains people. From there, the Cheyenne introduced guns deeper into the Plains by way of trade with the Arapaho. Meanwhile, traders based in St. Louis also channeled guns onto the Plains through the Osage, Wichita, and Caddo.
Similarly, Spanish horses were traded from Mexico and Texas to the Apache, and from there channeled through the Pueblo to the Ute, Shoshone, and then to the Nimi’ipuu, Blackfeet, and Crow. To the east, the Wichita and Pawnee traded horses to the Caddo.
And in the heart of the Plains, the Comanche, who adopted horses and moved into the region during the 18th century, traded with the Kiowa-Apache, who carried horses to the Arapaho, and northward to the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara living in sedentary villages along the Missouri River.
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Transformative Impact of Horses on Native America
Increased mobility was among the most profound changes brought about by the introduction of horses. A great example of this is the travois, a kind of drag fashioned from wooden poles that was used to carry supplies. When horses came onto the scene, they invented larger travois to take advantage of the horses’ increased carrying capacity.
Indeed, horses became a new standard of wealth. They became central to redefining the roles of men and women, accentuating the former’s responsibilities as hunters and warriors. Giving horses as gifts became integral to courting and marriage. Horse masks were fashioned for decoration and pageantry. The ledger art drawings of the Northern Cheyenne Black Horse show that horses were also woven into their religious beliefs and rituals associated with war.
Impact on Warfare in the Great Plains
While conflict had, for a long time, revolved around access to hunting grounds, they intensified with increased mobility, competition over resources, and redefinitions of social status and wealth.
Combat also became more lethal, even as the emphasis on counting coup striking, but not necessarily killing an enemy, stealing horses, and raiding for material things, food, or captives endured. Horses made hunting more lethal, efficient, and effective, as well.
Now, Native communities could also afford to travel greater distances for longer periods of time. Horses, in other words, allowed people to occupy the entire Plains as opposed to mostly living on the fringes with only occasional forays into the deepest part of it.
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Increased Mobility in the Great Plains
It wasn’t just trade goods, guns, and horses that were moving through the Plains with transformative consequences through the 18th century. So, too, were Native people. Among the most powerful recent arrivals in the Southern Plains were the Kiowa, Apache, and Comanche, who had made long journeys out of the northwest.
The Kiowa, for instance, were pushed out of the Black Hills area in present-day Wyoming and South Dakota by the Lakota and Cheyenne in the late 18th century. This led them to venture onto the Southern Plains, where they built a way of life predicated on raiding, trading, and hunting bison.
The Comanche, after their arrival in the Southern Plains during the 1730s, pushed the Apache who had established their presence earlier deeper into New Mexico and Texas and allied themselves with the Kiowa. The Comanche then turned to building what historian Pekka Hämäläinen refers to as an empire on the Southern Plains, by virtue of their skills as raiders, traders, and diplomats as well as their access to guns through the Caddo and Wichita.
To the north, the Cheyenne and Lakota established positions of prominence in the High Plains, having made their own westward sojourns from the Great Lakes region over the course of the 18th century.
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The Case of the Lakota
The Lakota, one division of a people commonly referred to collectively as the Sioux, serve as an excellent example of the transformations that were taking place. After battling with the Anishinabek and Cree over hunting grounds near the headwaters of the Mississippi River, the Lakota moved onto the Plains. As they moved further west, they pushed out the Omaha, Otoe, Missouria, Iowa, and Cheyenne.
And, by the late 18th century, they obtained guns and horses from the Arikara and emerged as an equestrian bison-hunting people. The Lakota also forged alliances with other Plains peoples, including the Cheyenne and Arapaho. To the east of the Lakota were the other two divisions of the Sioux, the Nakota, and the Dakota, who remained in the Prairie Plains.
The transformation of Great Plains had already begun in the 18th century, something that Lewis and Clark just couldn’t see.
Common Questions about the Great Plains
In Native America, with their introduction, horses became a new standard of wealth and also became central to redefining the roles of men and women. And, giving horses as gifts became integral to courting and marriage.
Native communities could afford to travel greater distances for longer periods of time. Horses allowed people to occupy the entire Plains as opposed to mostly living on the fringes with only occasional forays into the deepest part of it.
Combat became more lethal in the Great Plains. Although, emphasis on counting coup striking, but not necessarily killing an enemy, stealing horses, and raiding for material things, food, or captives endured.