Reflections: Prairies and plains astonished early settlers

Roger Matile

Back in the 1960s, young German relatives of good friends of ours visited the U.S. They flew into California, planning to travel from there to the (then) small rural town of Oswego to visit their American relatives.

But when they told our friends they planned to take a bus from California to northern Illinois, our friends tried really hard to talk them out of it, explaining just how many miles separate California and Illinois. But the German visitors were adamant. After all, they insisted, they’d taken buses all the way across Germany and California to Illinois was only about two-thirds of the way across the U.S.

Three days later, they arrived in Chicago, thoroughly tired of being bounced around in uncomfortable bus seats, astounded by the size of the fraction of the U.S. they’d just traveled across, and having gained a new appreciation for the shear size of North America.

I thought about those two German girls as I recently read Ian Frazier’s Great Plains, a book recommended to me by my friend Judy Wheeler. “It reads like fiction,” she said, and I did find it really entertaining. Although first published 34 years ago, Frazier’s book stands up extremely well as he weaves stories of the Great Plains’ residents and ecology, their Native People, White traders and trappers, military personnel, and pioneers who arrived with great hopes that so many of them saw dashed in the end.

As Frazier notes, no state lies entirely in the region officially termed the Great Plains. Instead, the area includes eastern portions of Montana, Wyoming, and Texas; and western portions of North and South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma.

The Great Plains are drier than their prairie neighbors to the east, and are often sometimes called the shortgrass prairie to describe the former dominant plant life that grew there. That differentiates them from the tallgrass prairie, called the Prairie Peninsula by geographers, that starts in the eastern portions of the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas and then extends east in a rough triangle that includes western Minnesota, nearly all of Iowa and northeastern Missouri, almost all of Illinois north of the state’s heavily forested southern tip, and a small triangular point reaching into northwestern Indiana.

The Great Plains and the Prairie Peninsula share something in common—besides almost limitless grasslands—and that’s the awe they inspired with the pioneers and often continue to inspire today.

In Frazier’s book, he recounts taking a friend visiting him in the mountains of Montana east to see and experience the Great Plains, something she was entirely unprepared for.

“We left the park [Glacier National Park] and turned onto U.S. Highway 89. A driver coming down this road gets the most dramatic first glimpse of the Great Plains I’ve ever seen,” he wrote. “For some miles, pine trees and foothills are all around; then, suddenly, there is nothing across the road but sky, and a sign says HILL, Trucks Gear Down, and you come over a little rise, and the horizon jumps a hundred miles away in an instant.

My friend’s jaw—her whole face, really—fell, and she said, “I had no idea!”

The earliest pioneers had pretty much the same reaction to the Prairie Peninsula when they emerged onto the Grand Prairie from the Eastern Deciduous Forest of huge hardwoods in western Indiana. For some, it was a vision of farming without the intense labor of cutting timber and laboriously removing stumps before crops could be planted. Others, meanwhile, worried about where they’d find the trees to cut to supply the vast amounts of timber pioneering technology in the first half of the 19th Century required. Still others were nearly overcome by the shear amount of open space, their vision extending to the far horizon, interrupted only by a few tree-lined creeks and isolated hardwood groves.

One of the earliest accounts by folks leaving the eastern forest and emerging on the Illinois prairie was left in 1817 by Englishman George Flower. He and his partner Morris Birkbeck established a British colony in southeast Illinois. His account was included in The Early Illinois Prairie by William Roger Harshbarger, written for the Douglas County, Illinois Historical Society in 2016: “Bruised by the brushwood and exhausted by the extreme heat we almost despaired, when a small cabin and a low fence greeted our eyes. A few steps more and a beautiful prairie suddenly opened to our view. At first, we only received the impressions of its general beauty. With longer gaze, all its distinctive features were revealed, lying in profound repose under the warm light of an afternoon’s summer sun. Its indented and irregular outline of wood, its varied surface interspersed with clumps of oaks of centuries’ growth, its tall grass, with seed stalks from six to ten feet high, like tall and slender reeds waving in a gentle breeze, the whole presenting a magnificence of park-scenery, complete from the hand of Nature, and unrivalled by the same sort of scenery by European art. For once, the reality came up to the picture of imagination.”

Orlando Walker had arrived here in Oswego by wagon train from Smyrna, New York in 1843. In 1906 his granddaughter, Helen McKinney Pogue, recounted how the rest of the Walker family made it to Oswego and why: “Orlando Walker wrote such glowing accounts of this beautiful prairie country to his brothers Seth and Lauriston Walker in Belchertown, Mass. that they packed their belongings and came to Illinois…When these people who had come from New England, saw the beautiful, smooth prairies covered with thick grass and a sprinkling of wild flowers, with the woodland in the distance, they thought it a paradise compared with the rocky country they had left.”

And even though Illinois’ prairies are now covered by corn and soybean fields, you can get an idea of what the land looked like by driving south on I-55 into the flatlands from the Des Plaines River all the way to the Mississippi River Valley—in fact, there are probably more trees in that region these days than back in Morris Birkbeck’s day.

Putting ourselves in their shoes for a moment, it’s easy to understand the feelings of shear astonishment of those folks, born and raised in densely forested areas, when they finally emerged from the trees onto those open prairies some two centuries ago.

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