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 grassland 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, 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. Overall, 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

South Dakota Badlands

South Dakota Badlands

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, “badlands,” 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 sandhills 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. Further 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 extend 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

Wagon crossing a river

Wagon crossing a river

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 a 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 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.

Perhaps the most distressing phenomena of the Great Plains were the mirages. These were more noticeable in the south, being particularly vivid in the neighborhood of the Cimarron Desert. In the midst of the gray desolation, would suddenly appear a sparkling river, or a gleaming lake. Everything would seem perfect, a breeze rippling the water, the shores distinctly outlined, yet it all faded away upon approach. Occasionally the mirage would assume other forms — a large caravan, or a splendid city, — but, ever it was a dissolving picture, which tantalized many a wearied traveler.

The Flora and Fauna

The flora and fauna of this vast region during the years of its invasion by the white man may be briefly summarized. The most important and practically the only tree was the Cottonwood. The best-known species was the broad-leaved, found along the lower water-courses, where the trunk occasionally attained to five feet in diameter, with a height of seventy. Higher up in the foothills the leaf became narrower. Cottonwood groves were favorite camping-places on the Long Trail, furnishing fuel, as well as logs for huts, and even food for horses. The bark was nutritious, and the animals not only liked it, but throve upon it as well as upon oats. In some of the valleys the quaking ash was found, usually growing in small compact copses. It was good wood for fuel. Toward the mountains pine, spruce, balsam, and fir abounded, while cedars were very numerous but generally distorted and misshapen by the never-ceasing winds. Along most of the prairie streams, there were willow growths, often forming extensive thickets, almost impenetrable, and closely crowding the bank.

Although the plains and most of the foothills and badlands were absolutely destitute of trees, there were occasional extensive forests that became celebrated. The country of the Black Hills was heavily wooded. On the head-waters of the Neosho River was the famous forest of Council Grove, a great camping-spot for caravans bound for Santa Fe. The Big Timbers of the Arkansas River consisted of a large grove of cottonwoods extending for several miles along the northern bank of that stream, a little distance below the site of Bent’s Fort, Colorado.

Prairie Girl

The Cross Timbers, composed mostly of dwarfish, stunted trees, was farther south, extending from the Brazos River in Texas, northwest to the Canadian River. A branch ran westward across the Canadian North Fork. On the more open plains of the north the only growth was sage-brush and grease-wood, while to the south, the cactus and the Spanish bayonet reigned supreme. In Colorado the prickly pear was common, and on the dry plains of New Mexico, the giant cactus took weird, fantastic forms.

But, the most important vegetation of the entire region was the grasses. There were extensive barren spots, dry desolate deserts, but, speaking generally, no region in the world ever excelled the Plains as a grazing country. On the lower prairies and in the stream bottoms the growth was luxuriant, yet even upon the high plains, the table-lands and hills were found grasses of value. One peculiarity of these grasses is that they retain their nutritive power after the season of growth is over, even under the snow of winter. The three chief ones were the gramma grass, the buffalo grass, and the bunchgrass. Of these, the last was most widespread and valuable.

In this extensive region, the most important animals were the buffalo, not only because of their number but also owing to their value to the Indian. The buffalo furnished sustenance for all the tribes of the Plains. Almost everything the Indian required was furnished by the buffalo — his food, his bed, his clothes, his weapons of war and chase, his boats, his saddles, and most of the articles required for domestic use. The story of the buffalo can never be written in its entirety. Beyond doubt, the range of these strange shaggy beasts, called by the first Spanish explorers “deformed cattle,” at one time extended from the Rocky Mountains to the Alleghanies.  But, steadily they were forced westward. It is impossible to contend that this retreat was caused by the advance of the white man, for it largely predated white occupancy.

As early as 1807 the range of the buffalo had receded as far as the 97th meridian. When first known to early explorers of the Plains the great herds roamed from the Missouri River to the Rockies, and from near the Gulf to 60 degrees north latitude.

Buffalo on the Great Plains

Buffalo on the Great Plains

The multitude of these animals, within the memory of men of the time, was almost beyond belief. No enumeration was ever satisfactory, but, it is incontrovertible that they numbered millions upon millions. Railroad trains and steamboats have been held up for hours to permit vast herds to pass. Innumerable trails worn by their hoofs remained visible for years. The slight statistics relating to their slaughter in later years are evidence of the vastness of their original numbers. The American Fur Company in 1840 sent to St. Louis, 67,000  robes, and in 1848, 110,000. Twenty-five thousand buffalo tongues were brought to that city the same year. As early as 1860 it was estimated that at least 250,000 buffalo were being killed yearly. As late as 1871 Colonel Richard Irving Dodge wrote of riding for 25 miles in western Kansas through an immense herd, the whole country about him appearing a solid mass of moving buffalo. In that year the animals moved northward on their annual migration in a column from 25-50 miles wide and of unknown depth from front to rear. In the later migrations, as observed by whites, the buffalo columns usually crossed the Arkansas River somewhere between Great Bend, Kansas and Big Sand Creek, Colorado. Colonel Dodge estimated that in the three years between 1872-74, at least five million buffalo were slaughtered for their hides.

Other animals also made their homes on the Great Plains. Along nearly all the streams was to be found the beaver, while out upon the prairies, far from his mountain lair, wandered the ferocious grizzly bear in search of food. The black bear seldom left the foothills. Elk, various species of deer, and antelope were numerous. The wolf was the most ignoble of the inhabitants of the Plains. The gray wolf was largest and most troublesome, although the coyote made the night hideous with its unending yowls. Panthers and wildcats were frequently encountered, while the prairie dog was almost always in evidence in the more desolate regions.

Next to the buffalo, however, the most important animal of the Plains was the wild horse. The horse was a comparatively recent arrival, not native to America, but introduced by the Spaniards into Mexico. It multiplied with great rapidity, overspreading all the southern Plains, where it was captured by the Indians, and gradually taken north. As early as 1700, it was in quite general use. The wild horses ran in droves often of considerable size, under the leadership of a stallion. They were taken usually by the lasso, although occasionally “creasing” was the method employed. This consisted of shooting a rifle ball through the top of the neck so as to cut a nerve, and render the animal for a short time insensible. Thousands were caught for the market in the early days of white occupancy, and as late as 1894, a few bands were still running free in the Texas Panhandle.

Transformation Wrought by Civilized Man

North Dakota Homesteader about 1909

North Dakota Homesteader about 1909

This is how the Great Plains appeared when first viewed by the eyes of white explorers. To those that came later, viewing the prairie from the windows of express trains, the original desolation of the broad expanse could scarcely be conceived.

By then, farmhouses, growing cities, and prosperous towns dotted the miles, railways annihilating the distance, while foreign trees, transplanted and cultivated with care, beautified the changing landscape. The labor and skill of civilized man, the gradual increase of rainfall, the development of irrigation, all combined to work a modern miracle, redeeming the arid waste. The desert was transformed into a garden.

By that time, only occasional evidence could be seen of what once was — a sterile, savage-haunted desolation, in midst of which, adventurous souls toiled and died, or struggled and achieved.

The American Frontier has ever proven a developer of character, and a scene of a constantly recurring contest against the perils of the wilderness and Indians. But, the Plains produced a peculiar type of pioneer, — brother, indeed, to him of the Eastern woods and mountains, yet changed and marked by the environment amid which he wrought his destiny and lived his life. The story of his struggle and triumph is unsurpassed in the annals of white endeavor.

Written by Randall Parrish. Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated December 2020.

About the Author: This article was written by Randall Parrish as a chapter of his book, The Great Plains: The Romance of Western American Exploration, Warfare, and Settlement, 1527-1870; published by A.C. McClurg & Co. in Chicago, 1907. Parrish also wrote several other books including When Wilderness Was King, My Lady of the North, Historic Illinois, and others. The text as it appears here; however, is not verbatim as it has been heavily edited for clarity and ease of the modern reader.

Also See:

The Great American Desert

Plains Indians

Westward Expansion

Historical Accounts of American History