Human Interactions:
European Explorers

Next | Back
 As European settlers moved westward, they encountered the Grand Prairie of Illinois, which was their first exposure to a vast treeless expanse that went beyond the horizon and frequently was the source of inspired narrative. Early accounts of the prairies by both explorers and settlers almost always include descriptions of a flat or rolling topography, tall grasses, and occasional groves or savannas. Travelers often made analogies between the prairie and the ocean, particularly in rolling, or undulating, grass covered terrain. Upon seeing the Grand Prairie of Illinois for the first time, Edmund Flagg wrote:

Here indeed, were the rare and delicate flowers; and life, in all its fresh and beautiful forms, was leaping forth in wild and sportive luxuriance at my feet. But all was vast, measureless, Titanic; and the loveliness of the picture was lost in its grandeur. All was bold and impressive, reposing in the stern, majestic, solitude of Nature. On every side the earth heaved and rolled like the swell of troubled waters; now sweeping away in the long heavy wave of ocean, and now rocking and curling like the abrupt, broken bay-billow tumbling around the crag (Thwaites, 1906)

Gerhard, in his book (1857) “Illinois As It Is” described the tall grass of the prairie as:

Attaining a height of nine feet, so that the traveler on horseback will frequently find it higher than his head.

W.R. Smith (1837) described a prairie in extreme southwestern Wisconsin (Lafayette Co.) as:

An ocean of prairie surrounds the spectator whose vision is not limited to less than thirty or forty miles. This great sea of verdure is interspersed with delightfully varying undulations, like the vast waves of the ocean, and every here and there, sinking in the hollows or cresting in the swells, appears spots of trees, as if planted by the hand of art for the purpose of ornamenting this naturally splendid scene.

George W. Ogden, a traveler in the early 1820’s, wrote:

The extensive valley, watered by the Illinois and its branches, is level or gently undulating. The prairies, on this river, are numerous, and many of them very large, extending further than the eye can reach; and some of them for sixty or seventy miles. These savannas or prairies, ....resemble large flat plains-here the traveler is struck with wonder and amazement - here he may, in many places, travel from the rising of the sun, until the going down of the same, without once having a hillock or a tree presented to his eye - nothing but grass of luxuriant growth, waving in the breeze (Ogden, 1966).

Ruggles (1835), a lieutenant stationed at Fort Winnebago in Columbia Co, Wisconsin, wrote:

In some instances, prairies are found stretching for miles around, without a tree or shrub, so level scarcely to present a single undulation; in others, those called "rolling prairies," appears in undulation upon undulation, as far as the eye can reach presenting a view of peculiar sublimity, especially to the beholder for the first time. It seems when in verdure, a real troubled ocean, wave upon vave, rolls before you ever varying, ever swelling; even the breezes play around to heighten the illusion; so that here at near two thousand miles from the ocean, we have a facsimile of sublimity, which no miniature imitation can approach.

In describing parts of Ohio and Indiana, and all of Illinois, another traveler, Bradbury (1809) wrote that:

This region is an assemblage of woodland and prairie or savannas intermixed; the portions of each varying in extent, but the aggregate area of the prairies exceeding that of the woodland in the proportion of three or four to one. The soil of this part is inferior to none in North America, or perhaps in the world. In a state of nature, these prairies are covered with a luxuriant growth of grass and herbaceous plants, affording a most abundant supply of food for the stock of the new settler; and it is worthy of notice, that any part of these prairies, when constantly fed on by cattle, becomes covered with white clover and the much esteemed blue grass, . . . as frequent pasturing seems to give those plants a predominance over all others. In geological formation, this county also differs in some degree from the one entirely covered with wood in its natural state. The surface is much more level, and the strata more regular and undisturbed (Bradburry, 1966).

Not all of the descriptions of prairie by the early settlers and explorers were favorable. The vastness of the prairie was, to some, overwhelming, and the vegetation monotonous. The lack of a sheltering forest, which provided timber for houses, tools, and fuel was viewed as a daunting obstacle to settlement of the prairies. Problems arose with traversing the areas of tall grass, and some of the wet prairies were considered to be unhealthy.

Next | Back
Illinois State Museum State of Illinois IDNR Search, Last modified September 1st 2011, 03:13PM.