A. D. 1500 was a pivotal time in the history of Nebraska, and there are at least two compelling stories to tell.
First, this is a story of the migration of prehistoric
tribal groups out of the plains and back. Around A. D. 1400, most
of the people who had been living in what would become Nebraska
were forced to move away, probably because drought conditions made
it hard to grow crops anywhere but alongside the rivers. By A.D.
1600, groups of native people began to move back in. Over the next
200 years their cultures evolved into the specific Native American
tribes we know today.
Second, this is a story of tentative European exploration of a new (to them) continent. In 1492, Columbus set foot on an island far to the south of the plains and claimed the "New World" for Spain. The British landed in Newfoundland in 1497, named it and claimed all of North American for the British. The French claimed Canada in 1534. Later the Russians would claim Alaska.
The native people who were just moving back to the Central Plains had no way of knowing that these Europeans had ambitious plans to "conquer the New World." Those ambitions would make all the difference in the world.
The archaeological record has shown that, after tribal people left during the 1400s, they began moving back into the Central Plains around A. D. 1600. This was probably because the weather changed and made it easier to crow crops and hunt for food. Earlier plains residents had lived in small groups. Now, they tended to build semi-permanent towns, planted crops along the rivers and organized large hunting expeditions that took the entire community wandering across the plains, following bison herds. Protohistoric settlements were true towns housing thousands of people.
This period is known as the "Protohistoric." History, of course, is most often defined as the written record of a time period. Tribal groups preserved their cultures through an oral tradition — stories told and passed down from generation to generation — and occasionally through pictorial records — paintings on hides or pictograms on rocks. "Proto" means first. So, this time period is when we can find the first written records of contact between the native people and the newcomers. These records are sketchy, so we still have to rely on archaeological evidence to discover what life was like on the Central Plains during these years.
As we now understand it, this is a story of the evolution of tribal cultures, of the first forays of Europeans onto the vast plains, of sporadic conflict between the Europeans to exert their dominance, and of increasing trade — for better and worse.
It is during the late 1500s and early 1600s that we can, for the first time in the archaeological record, recognize cultural complexes that ultimately gave rise to the historic tribes that we still know today. During the period 1500 to 1850, peoples moved into, through, and out of the Nebraska region. Perhaps these movements were in response to changes in environmental conditions that required new adaptations. The effects of climate changes on the growing season of corn, on bison populations, and on migration were dramatic. But gradually, the tribes settled, and Europeans began to write about their patterns of life. Archaeology and historic documents now give us a good understanding of historic tribes including the Omaha, Ioway, Oto-Missouria, Sioux, Cheyenne, Pawnee and Arapaho.
The first Europeans known to see Nebraska and its people included the Frenchman Étienne Veniard de Bourgmont (1714), the Mallet brothers (1739), and the unlucky Spaniard, Pedro de Villasur (1720). Conversely, the first Nebraskan to see Europe may have been an Oto man who was willingly taken to meet the King of France in 1725.
Trade goods from Europe begin showing up even in the earliest Protohistoric sites. But that doesn't necessarily mean that Europeans had found their way onto the plains. Plains tribes could have gotten European goods by trading with other Native Americans from further east or south, rather than by direct trade with Europeans. But by the early 1700s, native Nebraskans had direct contract with explorers and traders, and written documents come into the historic record. European trade introduced materials that were probably beneficial to native people — horses, metal tools, iron arrow points and later guns — but they also brought disease, whiskey and a thirst for land.
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