Hard to imagine what it once looked like before the prairie became a checkerboard of farms. In an area that stretched from Texas to Manitoba, and Indiana to the Great Plains, the predominant features were grass and an endless horizon. In places, blades of big bluestem grew higher than a man on horseback. To find a lost pilgrim on the prairie, you needed to head for the nearest hummock and look outward for a rolling splash in the flora.
There were wildflowers galore, including morning glory, aster, roses, daisies, phlox and sunflowers. More than a hundred species of grasses carpeted the soil and fed the estimated 60 million buffalo, which inhabited the region prior to their slaughter in the last half of the 19th century. It was an ecosystem periodically revitalized and sustained by fire. These conflagrations, driven by the prevailing westerly winds, kept the eastern forests in the east, and the Great North American Prairie in the heartland.
Early Euro-American visitors often found the grasslands a disturbing sight. To eyes accustomed to the cultivated lands of Europe and the eastern United States, the prairie was a moonscape. Charles Dickens, who stuck a toe in the expanse in 1842, saw enough to call it "the great blank" and "oppressive in its barren monotony." An early American explorer named William Keating wrote that, "The monotony of a prairie country always impresses the traveller with a melancholy, which the sight of water, woods, etc. cannot fail to remove."
NEXT: Early Settlement
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