2017 Governor's Lecture Transcript
I want to talk about the idea of the great plains Nebraska and more widely speaking the Great Plains as being at the center of American history not as a margined history, even though margins play a role in this story, but at the center of American history and how Americans have argued about what the country is all about.
I want to start at a moment which is very familiar to me from writing [Custer’s] biography. June 1, 1867, which found Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer in Nebraska at Fort McPherson, where he had marched from Kansas on his first campaign against Native Americans on the Great Plains. There he met an Ogallala leader named Pawnee Killer whom he'd encountered before.
Now this meeting is one that really became a turning point in Custer's life, but also comes at a key moment in the history of the Great Plains in the history of Nebraska. What I'm going to do is to go back through the history of what led up to this moment from the perspective of both of these men and then what led out of it. So I'm going to talk about not two individuals quite so much as two world systems...
Both of these men represented different world systems that were coexisting in the same place. And the Great Plains is where they came into collision.
So let's go back hundreds of years to the moment when the Europeans arrived in North America. The Spanish: first they came up from Mexico into New Mexico and California. The French came down the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes region, and the English of course landed on the Atlantic shore.
But there is this large zone that they left largely unoccupied: the Great Plains and in particular the High Plains, the region west of the 100th meridian. This was an area that was an interstitial space not merely between empires but also between Native peoples and Native nations.
The reason is that even though there were rich resources on the High Plains, they were hard to get. There were prohibitions that kept people from exploiting those resources. And so Native peoples ventured onto the Plains and people from those European empires ventured onto the Plains but they resisted human settlement.
That began to change around 1700, led by the Comanche. The Comanche adopted the horse, which they got from the Spanish to the south, and they began to develop what became the classic High Plains nomadic culture.
You see evidence of that in this great [George] Catlin painting <<<<1985.66.346_1a.jpg>>>>> (George Catlin, Comanche Village, Women Dressing Robes and Drying Meat, 1834-1835, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr., 1985.66.346) showing a village with those great lodges called teepees formed by the careful treatment and expert arrangement of buffalo hides. You see the work that's being done there that the women performed in treating these hides. They found a way to exploit the great resource of bison herds on the plains.
Of course, they were able to do this because of the horse. Both bison and the horse made use of this enormous energy resource on the plains grasses. Grasses were very huge resource, but they're very difficult to exploit. You needed grazing animals to exploit them. The bison were an enormous resource that provided many, many benefits to the nations that hunted them. But again, they were hard to get at. Archaeologists have found elaborate traps that before the advent of the horse, which Native peoples had built to dry buffalo herds and trap just a few.
The Native peoples of the eastern Plains, including where we are today — Pawnees, Omahas, Osages and others — would venture onto the Plains, but when they were foot-bound, they could only go so far, and they could only hunt so much. So the horse really began to change this and allowed them to become a fully nomadic culture, and this culture is spread beyond the Comanche.
Another thing that the horse allowed them to do was to become aggressors, and to become what one historian calls an imperial power in and of themselves, starting with the Comanche, the great mountain warriors.
It is important to understand something about those nomadic peoples: they were enmeshed in relationships with their neighbors. The idea that as nomads, they were isolated from civilization (which is the way a lot of Americans wrote about them in the 19th century) is not true. In fact, the horse itself represents a global movement of livestock and technology.
Those horses weren't merely from Spain. The Spanish brought them over. They were developed from North African breeds that had been bred specifically to be adapted to very arid low moisture conditions, which made them perfect for the Great Plains.
When General Custer gets back to the Great Plains, he later wrote about how the Indian pony is an insignificant variant of the equine species. You know, it was a scrawny little pony, and yet it could subsist on grazing alone and all of those northern European horses needed grain and hay to be able to survive. So [the Comanche] not only adopted the horse from the Spanish by raiding and by trade, they also were acquiring an African-derived horse very suited their environment.
By expanding onto the plains, they were not only staking out space for themselves and seizing hunting grounds, but they were also motivated by commerce. The Comanche and then the other High Plains nations were trying to control trade routes. They not only controlled trade between other Indian nations, they began to be the middlemen in trade between the European powers that came on to the North American scene.
The Comanche especially were very aggressive in controlling the trade that crossed their territory. They have their own world system, and yet they're in contact with the European system. They're interacting with their trading and their warring. This is not an isolated or ancient lifestyle, but one that was very dynamic and developed only in the 19th century.
The Europeans, obviously, are moving into the interior of North America, but also Natives themselves are moving and seizing opportunities, warring with each other and trying to exploit resources. The Comanche move out of the Rocky Mountains and then move south and east. They begin to stake out a space called the Comanche Empire on the southern plains. They become the great middlemen between the Spanish in the south, whom they raid and plunder, the French in Louisiana, the English who become the Americans, as well as other native peoples.
The Cheyenne moved south from the Black Hills in the early 19th century, and they began to occupy the middle plains along with their allies, the Arapahos. I'm just talking about some of the largest nations; there are also Okiawas, Plains Apaches, and other nations that were allies of these larger nations. The Western Sioux, the seven tribes of the Lakotas, moved west out of Minnesota out of the middle Missouri River territory into the Black Hills, fighting against their neighbors.
This is a story about their whole world. You've got the Pawnees, the Osages, the Crows, Blackfoot, Buttes, and other nations which are in conflict with and struggling with the High Plains nations, who for a while are at war with each other. They are exploiting and adapting to the environment that they're living in. In the Low Plains, it's a lusher environment, so the nations there build permanent settlements and engage in horticulture. They would venture onto the plains only seasonally. A warfare for control of these bison hunting grounds becomes key to the state of affairs in Native America.
Now, this map is a little bit more familiar to you. << us1850>> This shows the United States at around 1850. So this is a nice little neat little map. You see the boundary with British North America or Canada in a neat straight line. You've got the boundary with Mexico to the south the concord, of course, Texas won its independence and was absorbed by the United States a large portion of Mexico was conquered by the U.S.
It shows the United States running from coast to coast by 1850. But there was a huge difference. This is [a map] as defined by the European world system that the U.S. was a part of. They've got their own idea of what boundaries are. They've got their own ideas on how you acquire control of territory and what that means, what sovereignty is…The U.S. made treaty agreements with their neighbors and they drew up these boundaries, and yet it was a very different thing from the human reality.
This [map] <<>>> shows the actual population density in 1850, and it shows how the reality of where Americans lived is very different from that [other] map. This is where we really see the interaction between the Native world system and the European world system as represented by the United States.
Now in this map, we see some important things which is there's this boundary of settlement that you can clearly see the western boundary of Missouri, of Arkansas, and of settlement in Texas. There is a general belief in the United States that the Great Plains, because it's so hard to extract those resources, that the grassland is so bare and sparse it's so resistant to settlement that this is just a great desert.
And yet what do we have? We have a settlement on the Pacific Ocean. Why? Because gold was discovered in California and an astonishing migration of people went across the Great Plains as well as through Central America and by sea and around South America. So you have this settled boundary which stops at the edge of the Great Plains and then you have these peoples actually staking out new settlements out in California.
By 1850, San Francisco is a city of about 50,000 people. They have opera companies that are coming and performing. It takes them a month to get there from New York, but they're performing in California in this vast space. People of the United States are crossing the Great Plains and that crossing becomes a problem. It's going to lead to conflict.
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You have the Great Migration to Oregon in 1843. In later years as the Oregon trails opened up, you have the migration to cross to California in the Gold Rush, and later on there are other gold rushes that carry people from the United States across the Great Plains. Before we get to the point of occupation, that crossing is going to lead to conflict.
Now I'm beginning to stray over into the story of Custer the Ogallala and Pawnee Killer and the Cheyennes, his allies.
If we're going to understand Custer's path to this moment, this meeting in Nebraska, we have to understand the conflict that defined his life and that defined American history to this day was centered initially upon Kansas and Nebraska.
This is the great struggle over slavery. The struggle is not over whether to abolish slavery but whether it should be expanded or not. This is key to understanding the great political debate that leads to the Civil War. The Republican Party, which emerges after the events I'm about to talk about, and many in the north are not abolitionists. They are opposed to expanding slavery into western territories. That westward movement is so key to the American ideal, getting land for farmers and expanding and getting a piece of this continent for yourself. The question is: is it going to be a free labor West like the North? Or is it going to allow for slavery as reigns in the South?
If you look at the white South, it's actually the richest part of the country per capita. The investment in slaves in 1860 is larger than the total investment in railroads and manufacturing in the United States. So the slave-owning South isn't on the defensive, it's on the aggressive foot, and it sees no reason why it shouldn't be allowed to carry this human property into the West.
Senator Stephen Douglas, <<<>>> is a senator from Illinois in the 1850s and the connection to California becomes a major national issue. Congress begins debating possible routes for a transcontinental railroad. [Senator Douglas] wants to give Chicago an advantage. It will have an advantage if settlers move into the unorganized territory west of Iowa and Missouri. In other words Kansas and Nebraska.
But [he had] to placate the southerners, especially Missourians where there aren't many slaves, Slavery is a very important part of the economy, the second most valuable form of property after land. [Missourians] want the territory next of them to be slave territory also. So in order to get this settlement through Congress, Douglas breaks with the Missouri Compromise,and he secures, in the Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854, the idea of popular sovereignty: whether the slavery will be allowed in New Territories will be up to the settlers. They can vote on it.
Well, this leads to basically a civil war. From the north, people rush into Kansas and Nebraska hoping to settle it and fill it with free soil settlers to make it a part of the great free soil system and stop slavery in its tracks.
In the south, there's a different attitude. In 1854, Senator David Rice Atkinson of Missouri, one of the great proslavery ideologues, said, “We are playing for a mighty stake, if we win we carry slavery to the Pacific Ocean.” (So it's not just about the Great Plains: the Great Plains is the first point in a great battle.)
[Atkinson continued,] “We are organizing to meet there. We will be compelled to shoot, burn and hang but the thing will soon be over.”
Well, you know what, it wasn't over very soon. Bleeding Kansas — because Kansas was immediately next to Missouri, more directly than Nebraska — that was the focus of the proslavery forces, and a civil war broke out there in the 1850s. Two hundred people died. As an after-effect of this, this is a great decisive moment in leading to the civil war. This is the first outbreak of bloodshed over slavery and it occurs just south of where we are now in Kansas, and people are moving into where we are now out of a desire to make this free territory.
This is actually the center of where the conflict over in the Civil War started. It was a fight for the West. When Lincoln was elected, the South seceded. Civil War erupted, and yet the conflict that began on the Great Plains also consumed Missouri, that neighboring state. A vicious guerrilla war erupted in Missouri that had in part the character of a border war with Kansas. In this guerrilla warfare, which again was mainly a civil war within Missouri between Confederate guerrillas and Union forces, many of the Confederates had been border ruffians who had invaded Kansas in the 1950s to put slavery there.
During this war, a large group of Confederate guerrillas crossed onto the Great Plains, went to Lawrence, Kansas, to attack it because it was the capital of the abolitionist movement in Kansas. They murdered 200 men and boys and they burned the town to the ground. Well, naturally there was a federal response, three and a half counties that bordered Kansas within Missouri were ordered depopulated in the Civil War by the federal government, by the U.S. Army, and they were ordered out because this was a hotbed of the secessionist guerrillas of Missouri.
The viciousness of the civil war in which many civilians were killed had many profound consequences for the region as well as for Missouri. One result is that the families of many prominent Confederate guerillas were banished from the state.
For example, Jesse James and his brother Frank James were Confederate guerrillas. They’re from a slave-owning family in Clay County which is basically a stone's throw from the Kansas border. They had taken part in a vicious massacre at Centralia (Missouri), and Frank had taken part in the Lawrence massacre. So the Union provost marshal in their home county ordered their family banished from the state.
By early 1865, when they were banished, the front line was too far to send them into the Confederacy, and so Jesse and Frank James's mother and her family, including their younger siblings, were banished to Nebraska. Which to her was about the worst possible fate she could imagine.
I think that's actually a compliment to Nebraska. No offense to the James younger fans in the audience.
Jesse James was actually wounded a month after General Lee's surrender in a confrontation with a Wisconsin cavalry patrol in Missouri. [He was] shot through the lungs, and he came to Nebraska to recover from it until his family was finally allowed to return to Missouri in late 1865.
Even though the center of this conflict is in Kansas and in Missouri, you know Nebraska is very much a part of this. The Great Plains are what's at stake. The fight over the Great Plains is what leads to this vicious conflict. It flows back into the Great Plains after the Civil War.
So many of these Missouri guerillas — they're called bushwhackers — many of them went on and led lives as criminals not only in Missouri but in Texas, where they spent the winter and on the Great Plains. Jesse James liked to rob things inside Kansas, not being a big fan of Kansas, and also on the other side as well.
We see people coming out of the Missouri conflict. This gentleman, Wild Bill Hickok, earned his reputation as a Union scout and a lawman as a expert pistol shot. He began his armed career as a Union scout in Missouri, and he took part in the first classic Main Street walkdown against Dave Tutt. They faced off at each other on the main street of town, their hands ready to pull their pistols, walked toward each other and they both drew. Tutt missed; Hickok didn't. That took place not in the Great Plains but in Springfield Missouri.
Dave Tutt was a former Confederate guerilla, and Hickok had been a Union scout. And even on the lawmen side and on the union side we see the way this conflict that got started even before the war flowed back out onto the Plains.
There's a historian named Richard Maxwell Brown, a great mentor to me, who looks at all these conflicts like the ones that Wild Bill Hickok was involved in on the Great Plains. He sees what he calls a western civil war of incorporation as the West, the frontier, and the Great Plains and the Southwest were incorporated into American society. There were people who resisted, who often had personal or family background and allegiance to the Confederacy, and people who were in favor of that incorporation of nationalizing, and they had tended to be identified with the Union.
Wild Bill Hickok is a classic example of that.
Custer has graduated from West Point in 1861. He went off to fight in the eastern theater in Virginia. Through luck and through personal merit he was elevated to be a brigadier general of U.S. volunteers at the age of 23 in 1863. And he goes on to have an extremely successful career as a cavalry commander in the eastern theater. He earns his reputation as a great soldier. In fact, he was a very good combat commander, and soon he will arrive on the Great Plains.
So what's going on in the Great Plains? Well you've got settlement that's going on close to the Missouri River in eastern Nebraska and in eastern Kansas. And this is one of the great success stories of the plans for developing the West, from these eastern regions where there's better rainfall where there's better farming and the mode of the lands and settled East. This is a very successful development. The question is: what about the western half of these states, the High Plains?
The main federal priority was, “We have to get across them.” It's developing those crossing routes and protecting them. So you've got these wagon trains, you've got railroad crews from Union Pacific, and also from the Kansas Pacific, building across Kansas.
And how are they getting West? They're going where there is water and where there's timber, following the rivers that basically go east west across the Great Plains. These river bottoms are only seven percent of the land area of the High Plains and yet they're absolutely critical to the survival of the nomadic lifestyle and economy of the High Plains peoples.
By 1840, these nations of the High Plains — the Lakotas the Cheyennes, the Comanche and others — they've actually made peace with each other, and they're great allies and warring against the nations that lived where we are now and also those of the West. But their lifestyle is actually very fragile. This economy depends on both bison herds and horse herds surviving the winter when snow covers the grass, or at least it did then. They need water, and they need grazing and the grazing animals could eat cottonwood bark. They've got timber for fires, they've got water in the river bottoms, and so those narrow strips of rivers are key to the survival of their nations.
But what happens? The migrants move through. Simply by passing through, they’re degrading this critical resource. They’re cutting down timber ,they're destroying the grazing, they're churning up the water.
When the army in the1850s builds posts to protect migrants, what are they doing there going to the most resource-rich spots, these lush areas where there’s lots of timber, where there is plenty of grazing and nice water holes. These become deserts, because the troops are occupying them and the migrants would camp next to them. They cut down all the timber, they chew up all the grazing. This makes the bison herds more vulnerable to predators due. Their populations become more unstable, and the horse herds are also having trouble surviving the winters.
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As the army marches onto the plains in 1867, Major General Winfield Scott Hancock was sent out in order to intimidate the High Plains people so they won't wage war on the U.S. His mission is to say to them, “You've got to let our people through. That's all we're doing, passing through.”
They have fascinating conversations, because they don't get what the High Plaeins peoples are telling them. For example there is a Kiowa leader Setanta, one of the allies of the major nations larger nations, who says to Hancock, “All those High Plains nations are my brothers. This country here is old and all belongs to them. But you are cutting off the timber and now the country is of no account at all.”
[Setanta continued], “Other tribes are foolish. They make war and are unfortunate, and then call upon the Kiowa to aid them and I don't know what to think.”
It's a fascinating moment where he's explaining exactly what's going on. Simply by crossing you are making our nations, our lifestyle, our economy untenable, and at the same time I recognize your military power. And so I'm obliged to side with my allies, and yet I know it’s disastrous.
He is saying, in very simple words, very complicated and civilization-wide ideas of what's going on in the Great Plains. Exactly because the Great Plains are region in which the resources are so hard to unlock. And that makes the peoples who live here are very vulnerable.
So, they're trying to stop all this movement. They begin to wage battles to stop all of this, but meanwhile they're also facing locals, especially in Colorado who are talking about extermination.
In 1864, one of the most notorious massacres in American history occurred at Sand Creek in Colorado, when U.S. troops attacked a peaceful band of Southern Cheyennes led by a peaceful leader named Black Kettle. They actually had a U.S. flag over their lodges when they were attacked. But these U.S. troops were volunteers; they were Colorado troops. We read in Colorado newspapers about calls for the outright extermination of Native peoples. So you’ve got federal policy, but then you've got militant locals who want to wage war against the Natives.
Hancock and Custer and the other troops arrive at a great village of Southern Cheyennes and Ogallalas on Pawnee Fork in Kansas. They've been warned not to come. They've been told, “Please, after Sand Creek, we don't want you anywhere near our village.”
Hancock sees this as insolence. He insists on marching up to the village to intimidate them. They flee. The [troops] find the village empty, so Hancock does two things.
He orders an inventory of all the goods in their village, and it's fascinating. For example, in about 272 lodges they find 243 wet stones, and Native peoples did not have iron mills. They find 165 frying pans, 49 coffee mills. So even though they are another civilization on the Great Plains in a very different environment, very different economy, they are interacting with the world economy. Coffee isn't grown in the U.S.; it's a world commodity, so these Native peoples are partaking in a worldwide trading coffee even though they're not a part of the U.S. world system.
Hancock does this inventory. Then he orders the village burned to the ground. Every lodge that's the product of countless hours hunting, skinning the animals, treating the skins weaving them together into lodges finding the lodge poles, building them — everything is completely destroyed and naturally sparks a war.
Custer goes off with the Cavalry to try to find them. He's unable to; he's misled by false trails. While getting excited about hunting his first buffalo, he manages to shoot his horse in the head. It's actually one of three horses of his own that he kills that year on the Great Plains.
He's going through a great turmoil himself because he's created problems in his marriage and he really wants to get back to his wife, so she doesn't find out about a little affair he's had with her best friend who's there with his wife. So when he finally meets up with Pawnee Killer the one thing Custer wants it does not want to do is fight. He wants to go back and settle all of his personal business.
Pawnee Killer says, “Hey, you know there's a big misunderstanding. It's those horrible Cheyennes who are fighting you not us Ogallala.” Of course, they're allies! Pawnee Killer knows they're at war. Custer doesn't. And so he says, “You know what? I'll bring in my band, and we'll surrender but we need some supplies.”
So he collects supplies from Custer and says, “Thank you, see you tomorrow.” Of course he never comes back.
Custer then leaves for [Fort] McPherson. He goes off to the headwaters of the Republican River, hunting these people who are raiding stage stations, who are ambushing army detachments, who are basically showing the army that in the summer it cannot win on the Plains. Custer once again encounters Pawnee Killer, who attacks his camp.
Custer wants to have a parley. Pawnee Killer rides up, “Oh, another misunderstanding. Tell you what, at this time you come to our camp and then you can bring us back with you.”
So the army saddles up the cavalry, and they ride. The Ogallala is a little faster. Pretty soon, the calvary lose sight of them, and after finally giving up go back to their camp. The cavalry finds that the Ogallala have circled around and looted the camp.
I think Pawnee Killer had a really good sense of humor. However, he was also lethal. Custer actually finds that Pawnee Killer has ambushed a detachment that was carrying orders for him from Fort Sedgwick from General Sherman, and that a dozen men have been killed. He finds out just how lethal warfare on the Great Plains can be…
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I want to note also that the result of the Civil War — as America wages this great conflict over reconstruction — that Custer and his family represent this on the Great Plains. This is not just a story in the south. For example, Fort Riley in Kansas, which was the 7th Cavalry’s base, which Custer left.
He left behind his wife and his cook — really his household manager. His wife was Libby Custer, a very well educated woman. His household manager was Eliza Brown who had been a slave in Virginia but who had escaped. [She] really became a dominant figure in his household.
Libby found that out when the 7th Cavalry left, a black regiment moved in. And again we have to remember that yes, this was segregation, but actually the black regiments, the Buffalo Soldiers, were created as a way of forcing the army to take black troops. They said, “You have to set aside these regiments for black enlisted men.” It was a way of Congress recognizing that after emancipation, with the passage of the 14th Amendment especially, that the black man was an equal citizen with a white man.
Now of course in practice that was overcome within about ten years. And yet, Congress acted in the West where most of the black troops are deployed. It acted to show the results and to bring reconstruction out onto the West. And this was a very interesting moment because Libby was very distressed about her husband and the problems they were having and then that distress manifested itself in really a racial fear.
She was terrified of these black men who occupied the fort all around her and she actually relied on Eliza Brown as her protector, who was about this tall and was about twenty years old, even though Libby’s brother-in- law Tom Custer, who won two medals of honor in the Civil War, was living in the same house with them. Libby was not comfortable with the new world that was emerging and neither was Custer himself.
But reconstruction really was also a story in the West, where the federal government played such a large role in where it deployed so many of the black troops that played a key part in the frontier army.
Now as I said, this was a moment when Custer basically gave up. Libby comes to Fort Hayes with Eliza Brown to try to find him. Custer is desperate to save his marriage. He leaves his men in the field, takes a large escort, and returns to find Libby back in their home base in Kansas, hundreds of miles. The army is very upset by this. He is court-martialed and convicted, which now would end the career. Back then, he got a year suspension for this and many other crimes that he'd committed.
So when Custer had a chance to come back [to the army] a year later, he was desperate to prove himself. And he takes part in the next phase of wars in the Plains.
Custer leads an attack on a Southern Cheyenne village at the Washita in 1868, which ironically turned out to be the village led by Black Kettle, the key war leader. Black Kettle dies in that attack.
It's a very controversial battle. Women and children die. Custer is ordered to bring back no fighting-age men alive, and he doesn't. There is an atrocity there: he tried to save the women and children, but he makes sure that they have no male prisoners.
As much as it's controversial, this battle played a key role in basically bringing hostilities in the central Plains to an end. Custer went out on another attack, another attempt to catch the remaining Southern Cheyennes, actually encountered them in the Texas panhandle. This time he took hostages rather than attack. So Custer, ironically, through his creative approach to getting control of this village showed that his earlier attack wasn't even necessary.
Yet Custer really represents the mainstream of what the army was doing. He was ordered to get control of populations and that's what Custer did.
But again, it's a war which was sparked by mishandling by the army, but also by movement and only at the very end by the advance of settlement. There's many more details I'm not going to get into.
With the end of fighting in Kansas and Nebraska, the decline of fighting, Custer really begins to play a role in turning the Great Plains into the mythologized emblem of all of the West, of the frontier experience. He cultivates this appearance. He wears this buckskin outfit….He leads celebrity hunting parties, since there's not much fighting to be done. He leads hunting parties of celebrities out on the Great Plains to hunt the few remaining buffalo, as shown in a rare photo here from the Kansas State Historical Society.
He's brought in by General Sheridan to be a star when the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia comes in. They go out in Nebraska in 1870 on a grand hunting expedition. Then Custer has this photo of himself taken: he's in a tuxedo with his fur cap from his hunting expeditions in the Great Plains.
This says a lot about Custer. He wants to use his new Western reputation to rehabilitate himself in the east and also to make money. He actually takes leave from the Army for almost a year, and he goes to New York and there he tries to float shares in a silver mining company he started. And the financiers of New York on Wall Street say, “Custer knows what he's doing.”
He's from the West and so that tuxedo with that fur cap that's that symbolizes what Custer is trying to do and what's happening in the West as the new corporate economy is embracing this lightly populated territory and integrating it into the new industrial economy.
Custer actually comes back to the west in 1873 and plays a key role in setting the stage for the final conflict on the Great Plains, culminating in the Great Sioux War of 1876. What happens is that his first assignment is to be with a survey party of the Northern Pacific, one of the second waves of transcontinental railroads, and this goes through Lakota territory. He actually has two battles with the Lakotas, at least one of which we know that Sitting Bull was a leader on the other side.
Ironically, considering the way he died against these very same peoples, he actually performs quite well. He performs with discretion. He performs with keen judgment, as well as bravery, and he keeps his men together. He suffers no disaster. He drives off their attackers in the end, and it again burnishes his reputation as an Indian fighter at a time when many in the army see him as a problem officer.
But for us thinking about the Great Plains, this is a story about the United States grappling with crossing the Great Plains, and the railroad is running right through the Yellowstone basin, a key resource area for the Lakotas to the north of here. Sitting Bull's opposing them because of the environmental threat that this represents. But this is also a moment when federal policy and also Wall Street are coming together. The transcontinental railroads are the richest businesses.
They were kind of a mercantile corporation, the transcontinentals, in the early days in which the government has federally chartered UP. It played a key role in subsidizing and promoting these transcontinental railroads which regular railroad men were not very interested in. One railroad journal said that a railroad a hundred miles long east of the Mississippi River would give more traffic to Cornelius Vanderbilt's New York railroads than the entire length of the transcontinental railroad. This is a federal project to build transcontinental railroads in which they're enlisting the business figures, and it makes it very unstable.
This plays role actually, this instability, the opposition of native people plays a role in bringing down the entire economy in 1873 because one of the key financiers of the day, Jay Cook, is the main man behind the Northern Pacific, and you know the stock market is beginning to stall. The railroad is running into trouble, opposition from natives. He's putting out his own money to keep the company going.
In 1873 he can't do it anymore. He fails, and it brings on all of Wall Street. And it brings on the entire U.S. economy. The U.S. goes into a great depression — that's why they called it before 1929 surpassed it, a great depression, which finds its center in the meeting ground between Native people, federal policy, business interests and that attempt to cross this great landscape of the Great Plains. Key moments in American history, which are shaped by the Great Plains and by the particular conditions and peoples here.
Moving on we get out of the Indian era and we begin to look at Nebraska into the late 19th century and the Great Plains. And again we have that contrast between eastern Nebraska and western Nebraska.
This idea of being a farmer owning a piece of the land of being independent is key to the American ideal of ourselves. And yet those high plains are still resistant to human settlement and so there's a few wet years when people are really able to grow Eastern crops corn and whatnot and wheat out in western Nebraska western Kansas eastern Colorado and the high plains. In 1900 there's more settlement now west of that hundredth meridian.
Yet by the time we get to the 21st century we see that that settlement to a certain extent has receded, that the arid environment, the attempt to impose on the high plains an agricultural economy based on very different terrain fails. And so most of the homesteads that are claimed west of the 100th meridian fail. Even the ranchers they go crazy in the 1980s, and there's a great die-off when again the harsh environment of the high plains kills off most of the cattle herds on the high plains. And one of the victims of that by the way is Theodore Roosevelt whose herds up in North Dakota die off in the harsh winters of the mid 1880s.
So, the nature of the Great Plains: it has an effect on the move on the line of settlement, on the nature of agriculture, on where people are settling, and on the nature of the plains. Yet this sense of Nebraska and of the Plains states is being agricultural states that are cut off from the east, that are misunderstood by the East. This plays a role in the last figure I want to talk about, William Jennings Bryan
Now, Williams Jennings Bryan is known for giving the Cross of Gold speech and that's pretty much it…What they don't realize is that his career is built on a sense that the system is rigged against people in the interior, against rural people.
I won't go into too many details but this has a real reality in the nature of the national bank system erected in the Civil War. There was this imbalance in literally the amount of money you had to transact business. There are parts of the country where people literally didn't have enough cash to conduct business, in which they're suffering deflation, prices are falling every year because of the lack of currency. And it's all concentrated in the bank-rich areas in the Northeast.
At the same time new mechanization is making it much easier to produce wheat. So in the 19th century we see the price of wheat basically collapses by half from 1840 to 1880, little less than half, but close. So wheat is getting cheaper to produce, it's getting cheaper in the marketplace too, at a time when prices are falling. And so farmers are really desperate and they feel like it's a regional issue between Nebraska and the Plains states, and the Northeast.
This gives rise to Bryan's career, and I just want to close out with that Cross of Gold speech because though the whole business about whether silver should be made into money, the silver movement, bi-metalism. These are all technical issues but they're rooted in this idea that there is an imbalance between the center where the forgotten man is and the center of the country, the remote parts of U.S. civilization and the cosmopolitan center in the Northeast.
“The merchant at the crossroads store,” he said in 1896, “is as much a businessman as the merchant of New York. The farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day creates as much wealth as a businessman who goes on the Board of Trade and bets on the price of grain.”
This is almost something you could have come out of the last few elections. And then he says, “Ah my friends, we say not one word against those who live upon the Atlantic coast. But the hearty pioneers who have braved all the dangers of the wilderness, who have made the desert to bloom as the Rose, pioneers away out there (pointing to the west) who rear their children near nature's heart. These people we say are as deserving of the consideration of our party - because this was at a party convention in Chicago - as any people in the country.
And then he goes on he says something very interesting. He says there's two ideas of government. Those who believe that if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below. One might even say trickle down. That's me. The Democratic idea however has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up to every class that rests upon them.
Now Richard White in his new book The Republic For Which It Stands notes that that actually wasn't the democratic idea that William Jennings Bryan is fighting to make that the democratic idea.
Now my point here is not to say,” Oh, wait, William Jennings Bryan is a great American hero. Or to taking a position on current political arguments. The point is, these are words that sound very familiar and actually depending on the words on both sides of the political division today. And so we see here in Nebraska the sense of this region being discriminated against by the nature of the financial system, we see very words in which we argue about politics today are beginning to be formed, in which ideas which people have as their basic principles of politics are beginning to be formed.
And again why. Because of the nature of the landscape, because of the nature of the history that brought people here last to this place that was between empires, between civilizations were world systems overlapped, where people had to confront sometimes in the most violent way what they believed and in the end what they believe about the United States is all about.
Thank you very much.