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One of the first things that the new colonists must have known, as anchor chains rumbled down through hawseholes, was that they had never really seen trees before. Wherever they had begun - in the snug shires of England, the meadows of Brittany, or the diked fields of Holland - they had seen nothing to compare with this wall of forest that rose behind the coast of America.
It loomed abruptly from rocky shores, or stood farther off beyond the salt marshes and open savannahs of pine, or behind coastal grasslands. But it was always there, a limitless wilderness of trees, the infinite and forbidding sweep of forest that extended from the portals of the New World as far west as any man knew, and beyond, the greatest forest that western man had seen during the Christian era.
It was a vast crazy quilt of trees in which forests of broadleaved hardwoods alternated with pure stands of white pine growing from old burns and storm-tom parts of the deciduous forests; there were communities of oaks and maples, and other communities of hemlock, beech, and basswood that drove deep into the unknown heart of the continent for a thousand miles, bordered on the north by the spruce-fir wilderness of Canada and on the south by southern hardwoods that opened into the savannahs of the Gulf Coast.
This infinity of trees reached from the Spanish Sea to the barrens of Hudson Bay, and westward into lands scarcely imagined, with some trees towering nearly two hundred feet above open forest floors that were too shaded for undergrowth. Many years later, Francis Parkman would call it "vast, continuous, dim, and silent as a cavern." It was said that a gray squirrel could travel inland from the Atlantic coast for nearly a thousand miles and never touch the ground. Old novels tell of the "pale woodsmen" of the eastern forests - not a reflection of race, but of lives spent under trees. An old Wyeth illustration for Last of the Mohicans has Leather-Stocking coming into a small glade in such forest and looking up at the sky, cap in hand, his face lit with sun and wonder.
But about six hundred miles inland, something began happening to the thick fabric of deciduous forest. It began to show rents and gaps, with occasional openings. There were fewer tulip-trees, chestnuts, magnolias, and evergreen hemlocks. More and more, the forest consisted of oaks and hickories on the uplands, and maple and basswood on lower ground. There were places where the trees thinned and were undergrown with coarse grasses and strange shrubs. And here and there the trees ceased entirely, and the land opened up into meadows of tall grasses.
The earliest land-lookers moving west from New England pushed through great forests of oak, chestnut, and white pine. South of Lake Erie they began entering forests of hard maples and beeches. In what is now Ohio, they skirted great swamps and found small grassy openings in the forests beyond. Something was happening - no one was sure what. But out there back of beyond, far past the coastal ranges and the leagues of forest, the land changed and began opening to the sky. The Dutch and English colonists did not know just where this happened, or what it looked like, and they made little effort to learn more. It was a confused rumor, a vague impression of new lands lying out there beyond the familiar, of strange deserts and mountains in the Spanish country.
And north of the English settlements, certain churchmen and soldiers were growing restless in Montreal, looking westward and wondering about a water passage to the Pacific.
* * *
The French were first to break free from the eastern settlements, voyaging west and southwest of Montreal and Quebec in a quest for new lands, new routes, and heathen souls.
Late in the seventeenth century they plunged into the wilderness up the St. Lawrence and Ottawa, and west across the chain of Great Lakes. Past walls of fir, spruce, and pine they drove their canoes up dark rivers, across vast new lakes, through Lake Huron, and across Lake Michigan to Green Bay and the mouth of the Fox River, or down to the headwaters of the Illinois and south into the Mississippi. Staying with the water routes, traveling steadily on lake and river, they left the brooding conifer forests of the north and began to break out into a strange new world of sun and endless meadow.
From the first, the French reports effused over the fertility and beauty of the opening landscape.
Roughly written by the light of smudge fires, or scrawled in secret because writing might be regarded as sorcery, these journals were kept by leaders with no time to waste - men constantly concerned with supplies, illness, repair of canoes, discipline, the uncertainty of their goals, and with Indians who had never seen a white face. Yet, in spite of all that, many of the early reports are almost boyish in their wonder and delight with the new country.
Louis Joliet, after his epic 1673 exploration down the Illinois and Mississippi, reported to his superiors:
At first, when we were told of these treeless lands, I imagined that it was a country ravaged by fire, where the soil was so poor that it could produce nothing. But we have certainly observed the contrary; and no better soil can be found, either for corn, or for vines, or for any other fruit whatever ... There are prairies three, six, ten, and twenty leagues in length and three in width, surrounded by forests of the same extent; beyond these, the prairies begin again, so that there is as much of one sort of land as of the other. Sometimes we saw grass very short, and, at other times, five or six feet high; hemp, which grows naturally here, reaches a height of eight feet. A settler would not there spend ten years in cutting down and burning the trees; on the very day of his arrival, he could put his plough into the ground.
Père Louis Hennepin, in his 1683 Description de la Louisiane, gave a loving account of the new country. A boastful man, he neglected self-praise for a time to praise the new country:
There are boundless prairies interspersed with forests of tall trees, where there are all sorts of building timber, and among the rest excellent oak like that in France and very different from that in Canada. The trees are of prodigious girth and height, and you could find the finest pieces in the world for shipbuilding ... the fertility of the soil is extraordinary.
When Allouez set off down the Illinois River to continue the work of Père Marquette, he wrote:
We proceeded, always continuing to coast along the great prairies, which extend farther than the eye can reach. Trees are met with from time to time, but they are so placed that they seem to have been planted with design, in order to make the avenues more pleasing to the eye than those of orchards. The bases of these trees are often watered by little streamlets, at which are seen large herds of stags and hinds refreshing themselves, and peacefully feeding on the short grass.
Similar praise was lavished by many French explorers: Marquette, Membrè, Hennepin, Joutel, Lahontan. And in spite of his incredible hardships in the Mississippi Valley, the great La Salle never wavered in his admiration of the smiling meadows that he and his countrymen called "prairies" from the first.
The word is in common use in France and Quebec in reference to grassland; in Belgium and parts of France, "prairie" may generally mean a grassy orchard or park with scattered trees. In one of the earliest French church reports, Père Hennepin referred to the "belles préries" of the Illinois River valley. The word has lasted, not just as a label for a particular kind of landscape, but as a prefix for place names. The rivers of La Salle and Joliet are still dotted with such towns as Prairie du Chien, Prairie du Rocher, Prairie du Sac, and Prairie du Pont. There's only one departure from this: in Algonquian the word for prairie was "mouscatine," and that name was chosen for a city on the Iowa bank of the Mississippi.
Today, reading through the early French journals and reports, it can be seen that "prairie" meant far more than mere parkland to the adventurers of New France. The coureurs de bois, suddenly become coureurs des préries, showed the joy of men emerging from darkness into light. Behind them were the ambush-threatened portages of the north, and the foaming rivers where hard-traveling men might lose supplies and be forced to live on stews of rock tripe and tree bark. Now they were on broad placid rivers, provided by le bon Dieu for a swift and direct passage. Though still beset by sickness, clouds of biting flies, and the danger of unknown savages, they were in the sun again, with larks above and flowers at their feet, as proper Frenchmen should be. Nameless danger in the dim alder hells of a long portage is one thing; facing it in full sunlight, under open sky and birdsong, is another. No wonder they wrote of "this fruitful champayne countrie" and spoke adoringly of the sunny fields south of Lake Michigan.
Assuredly, there was a vein of French ebullience in all this. But it must be considered that those early reports were not meant as literary offerings to the public; they were official documents intended for tough, no-nonsense bishops, governors, and military commanders. Such men would not take kindly to fabrication and reckless adornment. They required facts, and if the lily of New France wanted any gilding, they would gild it themselves. It follows, then, that the field journals from Louisiane were eminently sincere and responsible. And if certain explorers, such as young Pere Marquette, showed the excitement of schoolboys on holiday, it was surely because they had really found something to be excited about.
The early French reports and their glowing descriptions of the new country were apparently not circulated widely at the time nor for many years after. An Englishman named Croghan, in 1765, wrote of his journey through western Indiana: "It is surprising what false information we had respecting this country; some mention these spacious and beautiful meadows as large and barren savannahs. I apprehend it has been the artifice of the French to keep us ignorant of the country."
But if Croghan was "ignorant of the country," it is doubtful that he had been misled by the French. The French chronicles rarely, if ever, dismissed the prairies as "barren savannahs." If the English knew so little of the new country, they really had no one to blame but themselves.
* * *
Long before La Salle's canoes ever floated on the Mississippi, and for nearly a century thereafter, the English were absorbed in their affairs along the eastern seaboard, chopping trees and hanging a few witches and leaving the vast interior lands to the Spanish and French. They established their ports and snug colonies, and began to pour naval stores, tobacco, and furs across the Atlantic, making little real effort to penetrate much farther inland. At the time, they had little reason to do otherwise; the task of colonial development was a demanding one, and there was no lack of good land where they were.
But the colonies were filling. Between 1700 and 1776 the British colonists swelled from 350,000 to 3,000,000, and the pangs of land-hunger began to sharpen. So did frontier resentment against the Crown's reluctance to permit westward expansion, and there was a new stir among Anglo-Americans east of the Appalachians when a surveyor named Thomas Walker found the Cumberland Gap in 1750. The barrier ranges had been breached just at a time when the colonials were beginning to chafe at any barriers to western settlement, physical or political.
In an attempt to keep the colonists at home and under the thumbs of royal governors and tax assessors, Parliament issued a stern proclamation in 1763 that officially set the crest of the Appalachians as the limit of western expansion. It was a waste of good English ink; the American colonists had caught the heady scent of new lands blowing through the Cumberland Gap. Through this new passage a Pennsylvanian named D. Boone blazed a Wilderness Trail over to the rich promise of Kentucky, and a whangleather breed of Americans began to diffuse westward over the mountains. The first pack train of Kentucky settlers arrived at the site of Boonesborough on April 2o, 1775 - the day after a group of angry farmers had fired on British troops at Concord.
Six years of revolution and bloody border war expunged the royal edicts, created a vast new public domain, and threw open the back doors of the old colonies. Agents of the new republican government journeyed west to the Mississippi for an official look at the United States' back yard, and at the great river that marked our property line. In 1791 Captain Thomas Morris, an emissary to the Illinois country, reported:
Soon after we came into extensive meadows; and I was assured that those meadows continue for a hundred and fifty miles, being in winter drowned lands and marshes. By the dryness of the season they were now beautiful pastures, and here presented itself one of the most delightful prospects I have ever beheld; all the low grounds being meadow, and without wood, and all of the high grounds being covered with trees and appearing like islands; the whole scene seemed an elysium.
Settlers weltering through Kentucky saw something similar when they came into an almost treeless, crescent-shaped meadow that opened nearly 6000 square miles in the heart of the virgin forest. Since it lacked trees and was therefore of questionable fertility, it was promptly dubbed "The Big Barrens." West of this strange grassland the forest closed in again - but it had given some early settlers a taste of things to come, a glimpse of lands ahead.
The heartland of the continent became American property in 1803 when political turmoil in France enabled Thomas Jefferson to buy "Louisiana" - an area as large as western Europe - for three cents an acre.
The President lost no time in dispatching Lewis and Clark to the far Northwest to find a suitable route to the Pacific and explore the immense new holdings of the United States. Other land-lookers were at work, as well, and some of their reports confirmed suspicions that the Louisiana Purchase was something less than a bargain. At about the time Lewis and Clark were returning down the Missouri, Zebulon Pike was ranging through the grasslands of what would be Nebraska and Kansas, which he later described as "a desert - a barrier - placed by Providence to keep the American people from a thin diffusion and ruin." The tone of that comment was echoed by Monroe's personal report to Jefferson that the lands south of Lake Michigan were a rather hopeless piece of property.
Such sour attitudes, however, were not shared by certain geologists, surveyors, and soldiers being sent into the new lands. The reports of those early travelers often shone with admiration for the new country and, like the earlier French journals, carried the ring of sincerity. Many were written by matter-of-fact men for official purposes - they were not literary flights calculated to impress eastern editors, but were objective statements by tough-minded surveyors and explorers. One of these reports, made by a geologist named Owen at about the time the trans-Mississippi prairies were opening to settlement, was apparently meant for a congressional committe. Owen was objective enough, but when he got around to describing the Upper Mississippi, he took wing:
At the Mississippi, the prairie for the most part extends to the water's edge, and renders the scenery truly beautiful. Imagine a stream a mile in width, whose waters are as transparent as those of a mountain spring, flowing over beds of rock and gravel - fancy the prairie commencing at the water's edge, a natural meadow of deep green grass and beautiful flowers, rising with a gentle slope for miles so that, in the vast panorama, thousands of acres are exposed to the eye. Sometimes the woodland extends along this river for miles continuously, again, it stretches in a wide belt off into the country, marking the course of some tributary streams, and sometimes in vast groves of several miles in extent, standing alone, like islands in this wilderness of grass and flowers. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Where the Sky Began by JOHN MADSON Copyright © 1995 by John Madson. Excerpted by permission.
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|Preface to the Revised Edition|
|Pt. I||The Place|
|1||Beyond the Wooden Country||3|
|2||Fire, Ice, and Mountain||29|
|3||The Lawns of God||51|
|4||The Far Gardens||81|
|6||A Prairie Bestiary||125|
|7||The Great Weathers||166|
|Pt. II||The People|
|9||After the Plow||236|
|App. A: Sources||297|
|App. B||Directory of Representative Tallgrass Prairies||299|