Spear-toting nomads hunted mammoths here 11, 000 years ago, long before cannon-toting Spaniards introduced the horse (accidentally) around 1630. Fur-frenzied French explorers, following the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, claimed most of the land between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains for France. The territory passed to Spain in 1763, the French got it back in 1800 and then sold it to the USA in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase.
Settlers’ hunger for land pushed resident Native American tribes westward, often forcibly, as in the notorious relocation of the Five Civilized Tribes along the 1838–39 ‘Trail of Tears, ’ which led to Oklahoma from back east. Pioneers blazed west on trails such as the Santa Fe across Kansas, and cowboys made their myth on the cattle-drivin’ Chisholm Trail from Texas to wild towns like Dodge City.
Earlier occupants, including the Osage and Sioux, had different, but often tragic, fates. Many resettled in pockets of Oklahoma (the Osage luckily found their plots to be above the world’s richest oil wells), while others fought for lands once promised.
Railroads, barbed wire and oil all brought change as the 20th century hovered. The 1930s Dust Bowl ruined farms and spurred many residents to say: ‘I’ve had enough of this crap – I’m heading west.’ Even today, many regions remain eerily empty.