The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado

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The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado. By ELLIOTT WEST. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence. 1998. xxiv+422 pp., figures, table, notes, bibliography, index. $34.95 (cloth, ISBN 0-7006-0891-5).

The Contested Plains is a significant contribution to the growing field of environmental history. Elliott West takes the reader through the many millennia and varied adaptations of the central Plains, emphasizing its physical and biological constraints on hunter-gatherers, prehistoric farmers, horse-- pastoral nomads, and American pioneers. His major focus is the cultural and environmental impact of the Colorado gold rush, temporally bracketed by clashes between Cheyennes and American military forces in 1857 (on the Solomon River) and 1869 (at Summit Springs). His central premise is that the vast landscape of the region, with its vagaries of climate and the nature and availability of resources, is the ultimate master of its human inhabitants.

West's exploration of a dynamic process that proved to be nation-building for Americans and cultural destruction for Cheyennes has garnered several major awards in his discipline: the Francis Parkman Prize, Ray Allen Billington Prize, Caughey Western History Prize, Caroline Bancroft Prize, and the Spur Award of the Western Writers of America. Knowing the book had received such kudos, long possessed by a passion for good narrative history in general, and as a Plains archaeologist with a particular interest in environmental perspectives, I was prepared to be swept away. Indeed, this happened when I read the portions of the book where West was in his element, the historic period on the Central Plains, less so when he was in mine, the prehistory of that region. The author's occasional missteps regarding the latter reflect his rather shallow penetration of the sea of archaeological literature available about the past 12,000 years of human life there.

I have welcomed the relatively recent development of environmental history. At the same time, I have been somewhat bemused that historians have belatedly embraced a perspective of the human past that anthropologists, particularly those of the Plains, adopted long ago. One wonders why it took them so long to discover not only the importance of the ecological aspects of the human story, but the rich archival record concerning them that many members of our discipline have been tapping for some time. Thus, anyone who has read anything (and those of us who have read everything) by Waldo Wedel will find West's review of prehistoric adaptations almost quaint. In the heart of the book, he exhausts a wealth of primary documents regarding the mid-nineteenth century central Plains. In the early sections, however, he relies heavily on secondary sources, particularly regional archaeological overviews, and some literature that is rather dated (e.g., regarding the Altithermal). Therein, the author commits a few errors, though none that affects the central premise of the book.

For example, the influence of the extensive trade of exotic commodities that bound Hopewellian cultures of eastern North America is overstated for their contemporaries on the Central Plains. Thus, we are told that "large villages around Kansas City apparently played a key role as a collecting point in this exchange" (p. 27). In fact, exotic goods of the "Hopewell Interaction Sphere" are very rare at Kansas City Hopewell sites. This and other aspects of that Woodland culture attest to its peripheral relations with eastern groups. West is too eager to see Plains Woodland groups in the region as precursors to mid-nineteenth century pioneers who would bind the settlements of the Front Range to those of the lower Missouri River.

Regarding later cultures, we are told that the villagers of Quivera (protohistoric Wichita) "lived a variation of the two basic patterns on the central plains" (p. 37), these being bison-hunting nomadism and sedentary horticulturalism. …