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Interactive History Feature: 1628 Across the Continent

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Drawing of bison
Bison once roamed across much of the North American continent. By the middle of the 19th century, they were extinct east of the Mississippi.
The first European to reach the Great Plains was Francisco Vasquez de Coronado of Spain. In 1540, Coronado led an expedition north from Mexico, sending out parties that would explore the Colorado River on the Grand Canyon, the present border between California and Arizona, and much of what is now New Mexico. Coronado himself led a group across the Rio Grande into the plains of the Texas panhandle. In search of the mythical golden city of Quivira, he entered what is now Kansas, but found only a small village of what were probably Wichita Indians.

Photo of bison
The nomadic tribes of the Great Plains hunted bison for their meat and hides.
Extensive exploration (and, later, settlement) of the plains and northern Rocky Mountains did not take place until Lewis and Clark began their expedition in 1803. Thus, as of 1628, the only inhabitants of this portion of the continent were Native Americans. Before the influence of Europeans, there were two types of natives in the plains area: sedentary and nomadic. The nomadic tribes subsisted by hunting bison (American buffalo), which they followed on foot, carrying their belongings by means of dog-drawn travois. (A travois was a device used for transport on the Great Plains before the wheel had been introduced to the region.) They also traded bison meat and hides for the corn of the sedentary, agricultural tribes.

The sedentary tribes lived in villages along permanent streams from the Dakotas to Texas, and had a stable agricultural economy that was based primarily on the cultivation of maize. They lived in multi-family lodge dwellings, and made use of farming tools culled from buffalo bones. These communities are the forebears of such tribes as the Pawnees and the Apaches, as well as the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara peoples of the Dakotas, and the Wichitas of the southern plains.

Drawing of travois
Before natives obtained the use of Spanish horses, the travois attached to this horse would have been pulled by a dog.
By 1598, the Spanish had established themselves in the American southwest, and though their presence never resulted in extensive settlements on the plains, their reintroduction of the horse to North America was to have great consequence. Many tribes adopted the horse and converted to a nomadic existence. The Shoshone and Comanche moved to the plains from the west for this reason; on the upper Missouri River, certain Hidatsas took to the horse and split away to form the Crows. In the east, the horse offered opportunity to tribes that were increasingly feeling the pressure of the western expansion of Europeans coming from the Atlantic seaboard. Siouan-speaking nations of the Mississippian tradition abandoned their sedentary, agricultural life for at least part of each year.

Before contact with Europeans, the tribes of the Great Basin (today's Utah and Nevada, primarily) and Plateau (Idaho, eastern Washington and Oregon) were primarily roving hunter-gatherers who lived off salmon and large game such as moose, as well as various plants.

-- John Uhl




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