Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version



Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 29, No. 2, Spring 2009, pp. 91-94


Copyright 2009 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska- Lincoln


12,000,000 years afo: On the grassy plains of what is now northeast Nebraska, the ordinary circumstances of life buckled under the sudden, steady fall of volcanic ash, abrasive and glassy, that was the harbinger of catastrophe. An eruption much farther west in Idaho had spewed ash up into the upper atmosphere where winds carried the particles eastward. Seventeen species of prehistoric animals would meet their death near a watering hole. The smallest animals succumbed first, their lungs quickly overcome by the cutting particles; the larger animals lived on up to five weeks before the ash killed them. When the event was over, "[one] or two feet of this powdered glass covered the flat savannah-like grasslands of northeastern Nebraska.1 For millions of years, this fatal story, wrapped in the hard embrace of bone and rock, remained undiscovered until geologist Mike Voorhies found the skull of a baby rhino emerging from the landscape.

October 20,1541: A nobleman from Salamanca, Spain, and ambitious politician-warrior in New Spain, Francisco VaZqueZ de Coronado complained in a letter to his king, "I travelled five more days as the guides wished to lead me, until I reached some plains, with no more landmarks than as if we had been swallowed up in the sea . . . there was not a stone, nor a bit of rising ground, nor a tree, nor a scrub, nor anything to go by."Coronado's entrada was searching for Quivera, reputed city of gold, but Coronado discovered only a group of Caddoan people living off the land. The many indigenous people, who suffered violent death at the hands of Coronado's men, marked the Spaniards' bloody passage into Kansas and the commencement of contact and imperial conquest on the central Plains.