Introduction

Tens-Kwau-Ta-Waw, the Prophet
Tens-Kwau-Ta-Waw, the ProphetInman, Henry, 1801-1846
Dubuque in Iowa
Dubuque in IowaLewis, Henry, 1819-1904
ADM soybean mill, Decatur, Illinois, April 2007
ADM soybean mill, Decatur, Illinois, April 2007Higbie, Tobias

Over the past four centuries the environment, people, and landscape of central North America have been transformed in many ways. Given the pace of change in our dynamic society, the places we inhabit or read about scarcely resemble what they were even half a century ago.  What connections can we find between the distant past and life today?  Readers can use this timeline as a guide to searching the archive and as a link to the site’s interpretive essays.


Conflict and accommodation between Europeans and the people they called “Indians” dominated life in central North America for much of the three centuries following the arrival of Europeans. In the process of settling what they called the frontier, Euro-Americans pushed Indians to the margins and developed political systems, agricultural and business practices that would in turn change Europe and the world during the twentieth century.

By then the frontier of settlement between whites and Indians was gone. In its place was a new political frontier, the borderline between Canada and the United States running through the upper Great Lakes and Great Plains. The forests and prairies, as well as the iron, copper, and coal beneath the ground propelled economic and population growth beyond what the first European explorers or their Indian trading partners could have imagined. The region’s cities became the diverse and dynamic home to immigrant communities from Europe, Latin America, and Asia, as well as white and black migrants from the North American countryside.  Its factories produced world-changing technologies: steel, tractors, and automobiles.

By the late 20th century, the mobility created by automobiles, and the mass production techniques that made them, helped to disperse manufacturing away from the Great Lakes region. Grappling with the social impact of economic change, many settled on the image of the region as the “Heartland” of America, the sentimental center of a culture that preferred to look away from its problems to a more pleasant, imagined past.  But along with this new economy came a new wave of immigrants to reshape the human communities of the region.