Early Spanish Invasions of the Plains

The Great Plains is the huge area in the central portion of the North American continent which stretches from the Canadian provinces in the north, almost to the Gulf of Mexico in the south, from the Rocky Mountains in the west to the Mississippi River in the east. This is an area which contains many different kinds of habitat: flatland, dunes, hills, tablelands, stream valleys, and mountains. It is a dry region and lacks trees except along rivers and streams.  This was not a vacant land when the European invasion began, but a region inhabited by and utilized by many different Native American groups. Along the rivers, there were many American Indian villages whose people raised many different crops, including maize (corn), beans, squash, and sunflowers. There were also nomadic and semi-nomadic hunting and gathering groups whose primary beast of burden was the dog.

The first Europeans to enter the Great Plains were the Spanish who began their initial explorations of the Great Plains of North America in the 1500s. A group of Spaniards under the leadership of Hernando de Soto crossed the Mississippi River and entered what is now Arkansas in 1541. Here they encountered the highly fortified Indian village of Casqui. These Indians were not the horse-mounted buffalo hunters which would be later stereotypes used by movies and textbooks as “Indians,” but rather they were farmers who lived in permanent villages.

The Spanish then turned south, and somewhere on the Great Plains de Soto died. His expedition left a legacy of the torture, mutilation, and killing of thousands of native peoples.

While de Soto’s expedition entered the Great Plains from the east, at the same time Francisco Vásquez de Coronado began his journey north from Mexico seeking the mythical Seven Cities of Cibola. In what is now New Mexico, Coronado was told of the great wealth that was supposedly to the east, on the Great Plains. One Indian slave known as the Turk described the country of Quivira which lay to the northeast and was said to be so filled with gold that even common table service was made of gold and silver.

The Turk was probably a Pawnee who had been captured in war and was a slave in Pecos Pueblo when the Spanish arrived. The Spanish gave him the name El Turco (The Turk) because they thought his headdress looked Turkish. The Turk’s goal was obvious: he wanted to return to his people and by telling the Spanish what they were eager to hear, he felt that they would take him back to his homeland.

Somewhere in the Staked Plains of West Texas, Coronado began to distrust The Turk and had him placed in irons. The Spanish, with another Indian (Ysopete) as their guide, crossed into what is now Kansas. At the Kansas River, the Spanish stopped and sent messengers ahead to summon Tatarrax, the Harrahey chief. When Tatarrax arrived with 200 warriors, The Turk tried to convince him to attack the Spanish. The Spanish responded by strangling The Turk to death.

Most anthropologists feel that the Spanish designation “Harrahey” actually referred to one of the Pawnee tribes. The Pawnee, a Caddoan-speaking people, had migrated north from Texas into northern Oklahoma and southern Kansas at a fairly early date.

The Spanish expedition into the Plains was a dismal failure and the Spanish returned without finding any of the rumored gold. The stories told by The Turk, however, continued to inspire Spanish greed.

In 1601, Juan de Oñate led an expedition of 70 men with ox-drawn carts from New Mexico in search of the fabled land of Quivira in present-day Kansas. While the expedition was not successful, it did encounter Apache and buffalo. The Spanish estimated the population of one Apache hunting camp at 5,000 people. The Apaches were Lipan Apaches who the Spanish called Vaqueros (“Cowboys”). The expedition did not encounter any of the Teyas (Caddo) groups found by Coronado sixty years earlier.  The empty spaces encountered by Oñate seem to suggest that European diseases, such as smallpox, had resulted in massive depopulation.

Using Apache guides, the Spanish arrived at a Wichita village. The Wichita, another Caddoan-speaking group, were an agricultural people who raised corn, beans, and squash. They lived in permanent villages with houses made of grass that looked like large conical haystacks.

While the Wichita greeted the Spanish in a friendly fashion, the Apache and the Wichita were enemies. The Apache told the Spanish that the Wichita had killed earlier Spanish explorers and that they were still holding one captive. When a Wichita delegation visited the Spanish, they were taken captive to exchange for the reported Spanish captive. The Wichita, concerned that the Spanish were working with their enemies, withdrew from their village. The Apache then burned the village and took a number of women and children captive. The Spanish ordered the women released, but kept the children so that they could become Christian.

One of the prisoners was a young boy that the Spanish called Miguel. He was actually Tonkawa and had been taken captive by the Wichita in north central Oklahoma. The Tonkawa homeland was in Texas and southern Oklahoma.

Somewhere in Kansas, the Spanish had a conflict with an Indian group they called the Escanxaques. The Spanish would later report that they engaged in a 4-5 hour battle with 1,500 Escanxaque warriors. The Spanish, unlike the Indians, had horses and their horses were fully armored, including face masks. As the Spanish soldiers rode into battle they were met by a cloud of arrows. Most of the men and the horses were quickly wounded and the Spanish withdrew from the battle.

While the Spanish were successful in establishing colonies in the Southwest and California, they failed to establish a lasting presence on the Plains. The Plains Indians actively resisted Spanish attempts to convert them to Catholicism and they preferred to trade with the French who came in later and seemed to understand the Indians better.

Northern Plains Agriculture

The common stereotype of American Indians paints a picture of them as horse-mounted, nomadic, buffalo hunters. This stereotype is often based upon the Northern Plains Indians which the American traders, missionaries, and military encountered in the nineteenth century. However, not all of the Indian nations of the Northern Plains were buffalo hunting nomads: the tribes of the upper Missouri River Valley-the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara-were sedentary agriculturalists. These villages raised corn, beans, sunflowers, tobacco, pumpkins, and squash. They produced not only enough agricultural products for their own use, but also a substantial surplus which was traded to other tribes, and later to the Europeans and Americans. Their agricultural surplus brought them wealth and political power.

Catlin Mandan

Shown above is a painting of a Mandan village by George Catlin.  

Agricultural Fields:

Sensitive to the ecological demands of the Northern Plains, fields were established in the fertile bottomlands where the tillable soil was renewed annually by flooding. The brush which was cleared for the planting was spread over the fields and burned. This practice softened the soil and added nutrients. Hidatsa elder Buffalo Bird Woman, speaking about 1910, says:

“It was well known in my tribe that burning over new ground left the soil soft and easy to work, and for this reason we thought it a wise thing to do.”

In addition, fields were taken out of production and allowed to lay fallow for two years in order to let the land rejuvenate.

Among the Arikara, each family worked a plot of land from a half acre to an acre and a half in size. The plots were separated from each other by brush and pole fences. These fields tended to be irregular in shape. Among all of the tribes, the fields were tended by the women. Since no fertilizer was used, the fields were periodically abandoned and new fields were cleared and put into use.

In preparing the fields for planting, the Mandan used rakes and digging sticks. Some of the rakes were made from deer antler and some were made from long willow shoots. In cultivating the fields, the Mandan used a hoe that was often made from the shoulder-blade of the buffalo or elk, which was attached to a long wooden handle.

Among the Mandan, there were watch platforms scattered throughout the fields. These platforms were staffed by young boys who kept a careful eye out for enemy warriors who might threaten the unprotected women who were working in the fields.

Crops:

Sunflowers – black, white, red, sand striped – were the first crop planted in the spring and they were the last crop harvested in the fall. The sunflowers were planted around the edges of the field. The Hidatsa name for April is Mapi’-o’ce-mi’di which means Sunflower Planting Moon.

Sunflower seeds were parched in a clay pot and then made into meal. Some of this meal was used to make sunflower balls which were an important item in the diet. Warriors would carry a sunflower-seed ball wrapped in a piece of buffalo-heart skin. When tired, the warrior would then nibble at the ball. Hidatsa elder Buffalo Bird Woman describes the effects of nibbling on a sunflower-seed ball:

“If the warrior was weary, he began to feel fresh again; if sleepy, he grew wakeful.”

Corn planting began after the sunflower seeds were planted. When the gooseberry bush began to leaf it was time to plant. Corn was planted in hilled rows with the hills about four feet apart. This spacing was tuned to the local rainfall. Closer spacing would bring higher yields only if the growing season were unusually wet. A second planting of corn was done when the June berries were ripe.

Most families kept enough seed corn for two years. After two years the corn would not come up well and after four years the corn seed was dead and worthless.

The village tribes of the northeastern Plains planted between nine and eleven different varieties of corn. The Indians also observed some basic plant genetics. According to Hidatsa elder Buffalo Bird Woman:

“We Indians knew that corn can travel, as we say; thus, if the seed planted in one field is of white corn, and that in an adjoining field is of some variety corn, the white will travel to the yellow corn field, and the yellow to the white corn field.”

The corn grown by the Missouri River tribes was extremely hardy. It adapted itself to varying amounts of moisture and produced some crop under drought conditions. It was also resistant to the unseasonable frosts which are apt to occur in the region.

One of the main varieties of corn was flint corn, which was well-adapted to the semi-arid Northern Plains climate. This corn took about 60 days to mature and, because of its short stalk, was able to withstand winds fairly well. This corn is usually eight rowed, occasionally ten or twelve rowed. It is high in protein and the grain is very hard and heavy.

The tribes also grew flour corn which is softer and lighter. It is largely composed of starch and is deficient in protein. The advantage of this species of corn, however, was that it could be easily crushed or ground and it was much softer than the flint corn when eaten parched.  

The farming efforts of the village tribes on the northeastern plains produced surplus crops which were used in developing trade with other tribes and, later, with the European immigrants. The Sioux, for example, would make yearly trips to the Arikara villages to trade buffalo robes, skins, and meat for corn. During the 19th century, the Arikara produced 2,000 to 3,000 bushels of corn annually. Even when drought and early frost killed part of their crop, they had surplus to trade.

Squash was planted in late May or early June. To prepare the seeds for planting, they were first wetted, then placed on matted red-grass leaves and mixed with broad-leaved sage. Buffalo skin was then folded over the squash bundle and it was then hung in the lodge to dry for two days. During this time the seeds would begin to sprout. The sprouted seeds were then planted in hills about four feet apart.

Immediately after planting the squash, the beans were planted in hills about two feet apart. The beans were often planted between the rows of corn. Five different varieties of beans were planted.

Tobacco was also raised by the tribes. Among the Hidatsa, tobacco was planted only by old men. According to Hidatsa elder Buffalo Bird Woman, young men did not smoke as

“they were taught that smoking would injure their lungs and make them short winded so that they would be poor runners. But when a man got to be about sixty years of age we thought it right for him to smoke as much as he liked.”

The Hidatsa tobacco fields were about 18 feet by 21 feet.

Storage and food preparation:

The village tribes stored their crops for winter in cache pits. These pits were shaped like a jug with a narrow neck at the top.  Among the Mandan, the storage pits would be from 6 to 8 feet deep. The cache would hold 20 to 30 bushels. They were lined with grass or woven plants to prevent spoilage from moisture.

In preparing the corn for storage the ears would be braided into strands. The length of the braids was standardized: the length was from knee down around the foot and up to the knee again. Once braided, the corn would be hung on the frame of the drying scaffold.

One of the popular ways of preparing the corn for eating was making corn balls. In one version of the corn balls, pounded sugar corn was mixed with grease. Another kind of corn ball was made using pounded corn, pounded sunflower seed, and boiled beans. It is reported that this tasted like peanut butter.