Cultural Landscape Case Study: Scotts Bluff National Monument

President Woodrow Wilson’s 1919 designation of Scotts Bluff National Monument recognized that migrants on the Oregon, Mormon and California trails had imbued the distinctive rock formations and bluffs with specific cultural meaning as landmarks on the trails to the west.[1] For much of its existence, the National Monument represented a triumphant, nationalist version of the history of westward expansion, told from a perspective that centered and celebrated the experience of white, Euro-American, predominantly male, pioneers. However, when viewed from a cultural landscape perspective, the National Monument represents far more than the history of a single group and the meanings that they attached to the landscape. The National Park Service considers a cultural landscape as “a geographic area (including both cultural and natural resources and the wildlife or domestic animals therein), associated with a historic event, activity or person or exhibiting other cultural or aesthetic values.”[2] Scotts Bluff National Monument in western Nebraska is a prime example of what cultural landscape interpretation can do to tell more complex, inclusive, and accurate histories of public lands.

Scotts Bluff National Monument Eagle Rock, 2014,  picture from the Public Lands History Center.

The human and natural histories of Scotts Bluff had already been intertwined millennia before the first pioneers set foot on the prairie. Whenever, wherever, and however they live, all humans need natural resources. They rely on and exploit sources of water, hunt animals, collect food, plant crops, and graze livestock. All of these activities create landscapes that are both human and natural. The North Platte River, the mixed-grass prairie, and its abundant wildlife, especially the American Bison, made the area around Scotts Bluff an attractive location for Paleo-Indian groups, who first entered North America between 28,000 and 10,000 years ago. By the 1700s, nomadic and village-based American Indian cultures, including the Cheyennes, Arapahos, and Pawnees, migrated west and adapted to Nebraska’s environmental conditions. In wetter (eastern) parts of Nebraska, agriculture dominated. To the west, nomadic tribes hunted bison on horseback across the arid plains. In the plains economy, bison hides and meat were exchanged for corn and other garden produce.[3] Scarce water meant that the North Platte River held special significance. The Pawnees called the North Platte kisparuksti, or the “wonderful river.” Many of the places the Pawnees hold sacred are located along the river or on its tributaries.[4]

By the 1840s, migrants travelling to the far west on the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails encountered an extreme landscape they struggled to render more familiar. They named the rock formations in and around the Scotts Bluff after symbols of social order and domesticity: courthouses, jails, and chimneys.[5] During dangerous crossings of the Platte or sudden, violent prairie storms, the environment became an adversary.[6] But the land around Scotts Bluff was still a reprieve from the parched plains, and migrants also interpreted the landscape, particularly around the Platte, as a lush, inviting garden.[7]

Overhunting of buffalo herds, overland migration, the whiskey trade, disease, warfare, and federal removal efforts combined to decimate and displace the region’s native population over the course of the 1800s. As the far west filled, would-be settlers increasingly took their chances in western Nebraska’s arid environment. The 1904 Kinkaid Act ( an expansion of the 1862 Homestead Act), gave 640 acres of land free to settlers willing to risk dryland farming on the plains, but permanent settlement in western Nebraska came slowly. Settlers saw constant challenges from locusts, drought, and the isolation and poverty of agricultural life on the plains, and many abandoned their claims.[8]

Scotts Bluff National Monument with museum and Eagle Rock, 1937, picture from the National Park Service.

The advent of the railroad, as well as large-scale irrigation projects in the late 1800s and early 1900s began a new, intensified chapter in the relationship between humans and Scotts Bluff’s landscape. The railroad allowed people to travel west more quickly, aggressively advertised and sold company-owned land next to the railway tracks, and provided a much-needed link to agricultural markets. The Bureau of Reclamation’s North Platte Project allowed farmers to exploit and control the waters of the Platte in unprecedented ways. Industrial-scale agriculture, namely sugar beet and livestock cultivation, brought economic advancement and stabilized the region’s population, but did so at a steep environmental cost. As farms grew steadily larger throughout the late 1900s, the Platte could no longer meet Nebraskan farmers’ need for water. Increasingly, they turned to the Ogallala Aquifer to fill the gap. Currently, climate change and over-exploitation of the region’s surface and groundwater supplies routinely brings farmers and urban dwellers into conflict over water.[9]

In a landscape marked by transience and change, interaction between humans and the land is a constant that runs through Scotts Bluff National Monument’s history. Interpreting this land as a cultural landscape unites what otherwise seems like a fragmented narrative, represents a greater variety of land uses by different groups, and deepens the public’s understanding of the land’s significance and of their own relationship to the natural world at this moment in history. The history of Scotts Bluff is far more than that of the overland trails, and the national monument is increasingly recognizing that in order to remain relevant, it must embrace all of its history. Redesigned and updated exhibits are now on display at the National Monument’s Visitor Center. The National Monument is also the subject of a multi-disciplinary, interactive Story Map and an updated historical booklet for visitors, completed through a Collaborative Ecosystems Study Unit (CESU) project with the Public Lands History Center in 2017.

 

-Ariel Schnee, PLHC Project Manager

 

[1] “Proclamation of Establishment, December 12, 1919,” in Ron Cockrell, Administrative History of Scotts Bluff National Monument, Appendix B.

[2] “Guidelines for the Treatment of Cultural Landscapes: Defining Landscape Terminology,” The National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/tps/standards/four-treatments/landscape-guidelines/terminology.htm. Accessed June 28, 2018.

[3] Poppie Gullet, Ariel Schnee, and Andrew Cabrall, “Challenges to American Indian Lifeways, 1800-1880,” Scotts Bluff National Monument: In-Depth Historical Research and Documentation, ed. Ruth A. Alexander, Poppie Gullet, and Ariel Schnee, (2017: Scotts Bluff National Monument), 53.

[4] Douglas Sheflin, “The Changing River,” Scotts Bluff National Monument: In-Depth Historical Research and Documentation, ed. Ruth A. Alexander, Poppie Gullet, and Ariel Schnee, (2017: Scotts Bluff National Monument), 137.

[5] Nicholas Gunvaldson, “Encountering the Unfamiliar: Society, Geology, and Race Along the Overland Trail, 1840-1869,” Scotts Bluff National Monument: In-Depth Historical Research and Documentation, ed. Ruth A. Alexander, Poppie Gullet, and Ariel Schnee, (2017: Scotts Bluff National Monument), 101.

[6] Nicholas Gunvaldson, “Encountering the Unfamiliar: Society, Geology, and Race Along the Overland Trail, 1840-1869,” Scotts Bluff National Monument: In-Depth Historical Research and Documentation, ed. Ruth A. Alexander, Poppie Gullet, and Ariel Schnee, (2017: Scotts Bluff National Monument),106-109.

[7] Douglas Sheflin, “The Changing River,” Scotts Bluff National Monument: In-Depth Historical Research and Documentation, ed. Ruth A. Alexander, Poppie Gullet, and Ariel Schnee, (2017: Scotts Bluff National Monument), 141.

[8] Douglas Sheflin, “From Highway to Destination: Homesteading the Panhandle 1880-1900,” Scotts Bluff National Monument: In-Depth Historical Research and Documentation, ed. Ruth A. Alexander, Poppie Gullet, and Ariel Schnee, (2017: Scotts Bluff National Monument), 171.

[9] Ariel Schnee, Scotts Bluff National Monument: A Natural and Human History of American Westward Expansion, (2018: Scotts Bluff National Monument).