Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Winter 1981


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 1, No. 1, Winter 1981, pp. 16-38.


Copyright 1981 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


First viewed by white men in 1541, the North American Great Plains remained little known and largely misunderstood for nearly three centuries. The newcomers from Europe were impressed by the seemingly endless grasslands, the countless wild cattle, and the picturesque tent-dwelling native people who followed the herds, subsisting on the bison and dragging their possessions about on dogs. Neither these Indians nor the grasslands nor their fauna had any counterparts in the previous experience of the Spaniards. Later Euro-American expeditions, whether seeking gold, converts, or furs, added many details of much interest, but likewise found no wealth of minerals, too few heathen peoples to proselytize, and no other strong inducements to permanent occupation. Exploitation rather than settlement and development was the primary objective, and the region remained a zone to be traversed as expeditiously as possible.

Partly by reason of their remoteness from the main areas of white settlement, the native peoples of the plains retained their tribal identities and often colorful lifeway’s long after the entry of Euroamericans. Since early in the nineteenth century, following acquisition of the Louisiana territory by the United States, pertinent observations by such persons as Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, Zebulon M. Pike, Stephen H. Long, George Catlin, Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied, and a host of others less well known, have left a wealth of ethnographic information of prime importance to the scholar. Much later, the intensive field investigations by numerous competent scholars with professional training produced impressive numbers of monographs and shorter papers sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, the American Museum of Natural History, ,the Field Museum, and other educational and scientific establishments. These dealt with the material culture, social organization, religion, art, language, and cultural relationships of the Plains Indians. They involved both the nomadic, horse-using bison hunters of the western plains and their semi-sedentary, maize-growing, village-dwelling neighbors in the eastern plains. Largely neglected were such problems as the prehistoric occupations of the region and the time depth of such occupations, the very existence of which was doubted by many scholars until a surprisingly recent period.

It is my purpose to examine the beginnings and early development of professional interest in the pre-white and pre-horse peoples of the plains. It has not been possible to review exhaustively or to detail all of the widely scattered and often very obscure records pertaining to the subject, but major developments in thinking on these matters can be sketched. Emphasis is on the earlier activities, up to and including the River Basin Surveys salvage program immediately after World War II. My task has been made immeasurably easier because of several previous papers concerned in varying degrees with the early development of plains archeology. These involve particularly William Duncan Strong for Nebraska, Waldo R. wedel for Kansas, David M. Gradwohl for Nebraska and Iowa, and George C. Frison for the entire region.1


In contrast to the numerous and prolonged researches on the lifeway’s of the historic plains tribes, systematic investigations 111 plains archeology are principally a development of the last seven or eight decades, that is, since 1900. As recently as 1930, little was under way as a planned and sustained ongoing program. Interest in the antiquities of the region, however, was manifested from the beginning of American explorations of the trans-Mississippi West, soon after AD. 1800. Much of this early work was antiquarianism, some of it arrant vandalism by later standards; but it reflected a natural and growing curiosity about the visible relics of the past, in their recording or collecting for pastime or for eastern cabinets of curiosities, and often in wide-ranging speculations regarding their age and authorship. Until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the attention given to archeological remains was essentially a part of the general story of western discovery and exploration in which the antiquities were seen as one aspect of the natural history of the region.

As early as 1804, mindful of President Jefferson's instructions that they note any aboriginal monuments along their route, Lewis and Clark reported on ancient village sites at many points along the Missouri River.2 At the mouth of the Nemaha, they described the Leary Oneota village and nearby burial mounds, leaving their initials (still unfound today) on a nearby rock ledge. Most of the upriver sites they apparently attributed to the tribes still inhabiting the region or their immediate ancestors. Like later travelers along the Missouri, they provided few details and appear to have attempted no excavations.