8.1 The Great Plains: The Frontier Era (1850-1900)




(33 states)


(37 states)


(45 states)

North Dakota







South Dakota


































Key events that shaped law and society:


  • The Great Plains were heavily explored during the early 19th century and served from the 1840s on as a route for thousands of emigrants to the Pacific coast, but permanent white settlement of the region did not begin in earnest until after the Civil War. 
  • Immigrants from the northern states and Europe made up the majority of early settlers in the Dakotas and Nebraska.  They were joined in the Dakotas by substantial cohorts of French and English Canadians and Russo-Germans (Russians descended from Germans who had migrated to Russia in the 1700s).  A similar mix of peoples settled Kansas, with a leavening of settlers from Missouri and the South and of freed slaves who believed Kansas was freedom’s promised land. 
  • Oklahoma’s early settlement pattern was unique among American states.  The federal government allotted the eastern portion of the state, then known as the Indian Territory, to the “five civilized tribes” – the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole nations – who were driven out of their eastern lands in the 1820s and 1830s.  After the Civil War, people from Arkansas, Texas and other parts of the South migrated to southern Oklahoma.  After the northwest portion of the state was opened to settlement in 1889, it filled up mainly with Kansans. 
    • Despite their ethnic differences, the Great Plains states shared a strong common bond – climate.  As the region’s name suggests, it was almost entirely prairie: wood was scarce, and other types of fuel and building materials had to be found.  Rainfall west of the 100th meridian (which runs north and south through the center of the Great Plains states) was substantially less than in other parts of the United States.  This made the western Great Plains more suitable for stock grazing than farming.  Nearly all early Great Plains settlers came from heavily-wooded areas of the eastern United States and Europe and were unprepared for the changes in farming techniques and other aspects of life that the new land would require. 

    • The transition was a difficult one, and it has permanently marked the region’s culture and laws.  In particular, early Great Plains lawmakers struggled to find new land- and water-use laws that would accommodate the competing interests of farmers and ranchers and would maximize the region’s chances for prosperity.


    North Dakota

    South Dakota





    1862 – Dakota Territory  created

    Late 1860s – Treaties with Sioux and other tribes open land to settlement

    1854 – Nebraska Territory created; it does not experience turbulence in Kansas because of general assumption that slavery will not flourish.

    1862 – Federal Homestead act encourages settlement; corn and wheat culture spreads

    1854 – Kansas Territory created

    1855-58 – “Bleeding Kansas”:  violent clashes between antislavery and proslavery settlers; competing constitutions created

    1858 – Congress rejects proslavery constitution, refuses to admit Kansas as slave state

    1861 – Kansas admitted as free state

    1862 – Federal Homestead act encourages settlement

    1861-65:  Indian tribes, present in Indian Territory since 1830s and 1840s, divide during Civil War:  some support the Union, some supporting Confederacy; guerrilla war spills over from Missouri and Arkansas

    Late 1860s – White settlement increases despite legal restrictions


    Late 1870s -  “Great Dakota Boom”:  wheat culture expands rapidly

    1889 – Territory divided into North and South Dakota for purposes of statehood


    Late 1870s – “Exoduster movement”:  large groups of blacks emigrate from South to Kansas

    Late 1880s – Drought and poor crops, resentment of railroad practices give birth to Populist movement

    Early 1880s – Increasing pressure to open entire territory to white settlement; extensive white settlement in eastern, southern Oklahoma

    1889 – Last reserved areas are opened to white settlement


    New states:

    Kansas – 1861

    Nebraska – 1867

    North Dakota – 1889

    South Dakota – 1889

    File:Bleeding Kansas Poster.jpg
    Kansas anti-slavery poster (1855) - courtesy Wikimedia Commons


    Sod house (1901) - courtesy Wikipedia

    File:Oklahoma Land Rush.jpg
    Oklahoma land rush (1889) - courtesy Wikipedia

    “The failure to recognize the fact that the Plains destroyed the old formula of living and demanded a new one led the settlers into disaster, the lawmakers into error, and leads all who will not see into confusion. … [T]he man of the timber and the town made the law for the man of the plain; the plainsman, finding this law unsuited to his needs, broke it, and was called lawless.” 
    – Walter Prescott Webb, The Great Plains (1931)