The Great Plains

By Randall Parrish in 1907


Pilgrims on the Plains by Theodore R. Davis, 1869

Pilgrims on the Plains by Theodore R. Davis, 1869

From a purely technical viewpoint the Plains properly formed only a comparatively small portion of that extensive area of prairie country of the Midwest. However, in history, the term has become quite generally applied as descriptive of all that vast region of grass land and arid desert which extended like an uncharted sea of green and brown desolation between the valley of the Missouri River upon the north and east, and the foothills of the Rockies.

This truly immense territory, extending from about the center of the Dakotas southward to the Rio Grande River, possessed an average width of five hundred miles. It embraced Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and the larger part of North Dakota and South Dakota, together with a considerable portion of New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming.

While largely similar in topography, it was nevertheless varied by numerous river courses, by the outcropping of low mountains, by shifting sand hills, by occasional strips of woodland, and by the gradual divergence from rolling, luxuriant prairie to level, sterile plain. Over all, however, there remained a peculiar sameness from which there was no escape. Mile after mile revealed the same vast picture of solitude, haunting in its loneliness, baffling in its similarity of outline.

Description of the Surface

Along the rivers — usually shallow streams, the water was often red and the bottoms treacherous with quicksand. There were commonly miles of rough, broken land, frequently terminating in high bluffs, and these occasionally traversed by ravines of considerable depth and abruptness. Trees, growing sparsely, and deformed by wind, clung precariously to these steep hillsides, while cottonwoods and willows fringed the banks of smaller streams, usually visible for long distances. There were considerable areas of sand, constantly shifting before the violence of storms, the mounds assuming grotesque shapes; and were usually destitute of water and vegetation. Patches of alkali, white and poisonous, stared forth from the surrounding green, rendering the streams brackish, and not drinkable for man or beast. To the north and south of the Black Hills, the Wichita Buttes, and the Washita Range rose from out the very heart of the surrounding desolation, tree-covered and rocky. Here and there, “bad lands,” ugly and drear, gave unpleasant variety. In widely remote regions odd growths of black-jack extended for leagues, sometimes nearly impenetrable, so closely interlaced were the trees; while toward the more western mountain boundary, vast canyons formed almost impassable barriers, and isolated buttes arose like ghosts from out of the enveloping plain, assuming fantastic shapes under the relentless chisel of the elements.

A remarkable region was found in the sand hills of what is now Nebraska. These, rounded and possessing a thin covering of turf, often of considerable height, are so exactly like each other that it is almost impossible to distinguish between them. They afford absolutely no guidance, but rather produce the confusing and baffling effect of a maze; and once off the trail, the unfortunate traveler sometimes became completely lost. Farther north, between the Black Hills and the Missouri River, lie the Mauvaises Terres, or White River Badlands of Nebraska. Here, Nature seems to have exerted herself in a search after the repulsive. The whole country is a series of gullies, with hills rising above them carved by the elements into the most fantastic forms, unlike anything to be found elsewhere. The soil appears oily, becoming so slippery when wet as to make the climbing of the steep slopes almost impossible. On these barren, ash colored hills, scarcely the slightest vegetation thrives. Little animal life, other than the snake and the lizard, is to be found, and all about extends a scene of complete desolation.

Emigrants heading West, by William de la Montagne, 1880.

Emigrants heading West, by William de la Montagne, 1880.

Yet, considered as a whole, and as the earlier travelers certainly perceived it, this area was composed of irregular, rolling prairie, bearing the appearance of innumerable petrified waves ever extending toward the western horizon, until, growing continually less and less pronounced, they finally settled down into vast level stretches, forming the Plains proper bordering the Rockies. Throughout this entire distance, although usually imperceptible to the eye, the earth’s surface had a steady upward trend. The land became more arid, the rainfall perceptibly less, the waters of the rivers diminished in volume, the atmosphere grew lighter, and the luxuriant herbage of the Eastern prairies changed into the short, nutritious buffalo grass of the Western plateaus. All tree growth completely disappeared, nothing remaining to break the drear desolation except the ghostly cactus, or the diminutive Spanish bayonet, with here and there, a naked sage bush, the grim flower of the desert.

Three Distinct Belts to be Crossed

To the traveler advancing due west from the Missouri River, there were three distinct belts, averaging about 150 miles each, through which a slow-moving caravan passed before attaining to the mountains. The first was agriculturally rich, a magnificent prairie land, possessing abundant rain, fertile soil, sufficient timber along the numerous water-courses, and in every direction, delighting the eye. The 150 miles, stretching from about the 98th meridian to the 101st, brought a notable change.

The green rolling hills began to sink away into monotonous plains; the soil became less rich, and was streaked with alkali; the waters of the streams diminished and grew unfit to drink; while vegetation became dwarfed and scanty. The cactus, the sagebrush, and the prairie dog were much in evidence. A suffocating dust rose from the trail under the horses’ feet. The third division of the journey, extending to the 104th meridian, was that hilly region which led on to those great mountain ranges already plainly in sight. Here, the traveler was in the midst of rocky, barren desolation, at first a drear, grim expanse of desert, but gradually improving in vegetation and water as he approached closer to the mountains.

Perils of the Journey

Not only did its surface make this a peculiar country, its fierce storms, mirages, perilous prairie fires, and the swiftness of attack by its mounted Indians, rendered it distinct from all other frontiers. Except in the spring of the year the prairie trails were easily followed. In time of rain the fords across the streams became dangerous, the prairie roads were transformed into quagmires, and no shelter was obtainable. The storms, at whatever season they occurred, were fierce and terrific. Those of summer were cyclonic, often working great damage, while in winter the awful blizzard was almost certain death to any unfortunate caught unprotected upon the open plain. During the summer season, after the prairie grass had become long and dry, destructive fires, raging over immense districts, threatened terrible disaster to all in their course.

Prairie Fires by Currier & Ives, 1872

Prairie Fires by Currier & Ives, 1872

When driven by a strong wind such a fire became a veritable traveling furnace, bringing death to everything in its passage. The fleetest horse could not outrun its leaping flames, and the only probability of escape lay in prompt back-firing. At night the glare of miles of flame made a magnificent spectacle if the observer could view the scene from some point of safety.

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