Life in the Old West

True stories, tall tales, memorabilia of the American West

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Horses, gold prospectors altered Great Plains, historian says

Widespread use of horses by Native American tribal groups and the rampant rush of people hungry for gold in the Rockies ultimately altered the nature of the Great Plains region as much as railroads and farmers may have during America’s westward expansion.

That’s the premise of historian Elliott West’s fascinating look at Old West history titled “The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado.” Originally published by the University Press of Kansas in 1998, this fascinating look at life in the Plains, Colorado Territory, and the Rockies during the 1850s and 1860s is well worth getting, if you’re at all interested in the economic and cultural forces that shaped the American West.

At the time he wrote the book, and perhaps still, Dr. West was a professor of history at the University of Arkansas. His specialty and other published works focus on Western history and everything you can put your hands on by him is both well-written and authoritative. I urge you to look at this book and others he’s written, such as “The Way to the West: Essays on the Central Plains,” and, “Growing Up with the Country: Childhood on the Far-Western Frontier.”

The point West is making in this book is that the entire ecology and economy of the Plains was changed as various Plains Indian cultures, notably the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Comanche, and Lakota, adapted to the use of horses — and as white Americans heard tales of gold in the mountain and raced across the Plains carelessly stripping the landscape as well as leaving their trash behind, the land itself was scarred.

Once the various Indian cultures changed from small semi-nomadic groups to more unified, well-mounted fighting groups who began to value the possession of many horses, they also faced the job of finding adequate food and pasture for their newly expanding herds.

The book details historic events of the 1850s and 1860s, from the settlement of Colorado and early growth of Denver to the various military clashes and treaty efforts. In every case, West examines the causes and effects of tribal groups and white settlements alike on the environment.

This excellent book also has a wealth of historic photos (many of which came from the Western History Collection at the Denver Public Library of which I spoke recently) to give you a better feeling for and understanding of the individuals and groups as they were living out this fascinating chapter of life in the Old West. From gold prospecting supplies to wagon trains, the pictures are great. I urge you to find a copy of “The Contested Plains” for yourself. It’s worth the search!

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