Lecture 5:  Trails Across the Plains


Transportation is important to any developing frontier, and to any settled society, but transportation played a distinctive role on the Great Plains frontier and continues to do so in regional society.


Outline of Lecture

Introduction: The Interstate Syndrome

The Santa Fe Trail

The Santa Fe Trail, pioneered in 1821 by William Becknell, followed the Arkansas River across the central plains in order to connect the border towns of the Missouri River with the Mexican towns of New Mexico. Its purpose was commerce—hence the title of Josiah Gregg’s classic travel narrative, The Commerce of the Prairies.  Documents of the Santa Fe Trade, nevertheless, reveal much more about experiences on and attitudes toward the plains than just business considerations.

The Oregon Trail

The Oregon Trail is also known as the California Trail and also as the Mormon Trail.  It began its history in the 1840s as the Platte River route across the plains for farm-family emigrants to Oregon.  After 1849 it also was the principal overland route for argonauts heading for the California goldfields.  Following the same general path, but trekking up the other bank of the Platte, came Mormon pilgrims bound for the valley of the Great Salt Lake.

Flat Bottoms

Steamboat traffic on the rivers of the plains, particularly the Missouri, was important in the earliest phases of white penetration of the region.  Steamboats carried the goods and provisions of the fur trade and supplied early military posts.  The difficulties of navigation on shallow streams of intermittent flow, however, made steamboat transport inadequate for subsequent settlement.

Wheels & Wires

The story of government subsidy to western railroads is familiar; less commonly recognized is that any transportation venture into a new land requires government assistance.  This was true of stagecoach traffic on the plains, which operated by virtue of mail contracts, and also of freighting, which thrived by transporting government supplies.  The colorful experiment of pony express communications was but a brief episode preceding the advent of electronic communications across the plains.

Parallel Lines to the Horizon

Railroads across open country, no customers in sight—it hardly seems to make sense.  It didn’t, in fact, which was why the US and Canadian governments provided massive subsidies (cash along with land) for the construction of transcontinental railroads.  Railroads across the plains were considered to be in the national interest, connecting east and west and developing the interior.  Along the way the railroads left indelible imprints on both town and country.

Paving the Plains

Construction of roads and highways, too, also required federal support.  This commenced with the historical coincidence of Progressive activism and automotive transport in the early 20th century.  The result was the Good Roads Movement.  Following the Second World War came massive road construction aimed at establishment of the interstate highway system.  Like the railroads of previous generations, the interstates, too, reshaped human patterns on the prairies.




To go along with remarks in class, have a look at my singing text of Sweet Betsy from Pike, housed in my HIST 103 site. Also make use of my maps of the overland trails and the transcontinental railroads.

         Sweet Betsy from Pike

         Overland Trails

         Transcontinental Railroads


In Facebook281: Great Plains Highway / ND 200: Highway at the Heart of North Dakota


The Santa Fe Trail and the Oregon Trail are magnets for History buffs. So hitch up your browser to the Santa Fe Trail Association. Then wander into the camp of the Oregon-California Trails Association.


Thinking About the Great Plains

Spry, Irene. “The Great Transformation: The Disappearance of the Commons in Western Canada,” Canadian Plains Studies 6 (1976): 21-45.

The Great Plains at the Grassroots

Pacific Railway Act, 1862

Selected Bibliography

Recommendations pending


Powwow Highway


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