A Brief History of the Prairies
Where have all the prairies gone?
Part 1:The Pre-Settlement Prairie An "Ocean of Grass"
When the first European explorers crossed the middle of the North American continent they were met with an awesome expanse of grassland. They didn't even have a word for it - the French, in a characteristically dismissive vein, described it as a meadow. The English were apparently more awed; they adopted the romance of the French language, if not its literal meaning, and called it a "prairie." Later, one of the early settlers wrote, in 1841, that "for miles the prairie gently sloped, hardly presenting a bush to relieve the eye. In the distance, the green skirting of woods, which fringed either border of a large stream, softened down the view. Occasionally a deer would jump suddenly from his noonday rest, and scamper off..."
Before the arrival of the Europeans, this sea of grass is estimated to have contained approximately one person per 5000 acres. The native peoples lived off the land, as hunters of vast herds of bison and the pronghorn antelope, deer and elk that roamed the prairies. They used hides for their clothing and shelter, and supplemented their diets with native plants; some built homes using the abundant prairie grasses.
Their relationship to the land was a spiritual one; they said that the trees spoke to them, and that the animals were their brothers and sisters. The sky was their father, and the earth was their mother. It was a relationship that lasted perhaps 10,000 years before the white man came.
Before 1850, the great mid-continental grasslands stretched from southern Wisconsin to western Montana, from central Texas to Canada. In wet periods the tall grasses of the eastern edge of the prairie might advance deeper into the midgrass territory. In years of drought the hardier short grasses, which extended all the way to the foot of the Rocky Mountains, might expand their range to the east.
These grasslands had existed, in one form or another, for millions of years, as a result of the innumerable interactions of sea and wind and earth which formed the world as we know it today. Fossil evidence indicates that most plants of the modern prairie were present during the Pleistocene time, about a million years ago. At the time the United States was being settled, however, few of the settlers had any botanical training, and most descriptions from journals of the time are written by people who described the grasses in layman's language. Those who did know plants were not very much better off - these New World species were for the most part unfamiliar to them. Whatever we know today about the composition of these prairies must be inferred from the few relicts which have survived the grazing, agricultural and urban uses of the past hundred and fifty years.
Because of the geographic position of Texas, and its complex biotic history, it contains a great diversity of both plant and animal species. The state is located at the crossroads of the eastern deciduous forest, the coastal plain, the grasslands, and the Sonoran desert and Tamaulipan biogeographic provinces. Over 5000 vascular plant species occur within Texas, and over 500 species of grasses. More species of animals occur in Texas than any other of the continental states.
The natural landscape of Texas is, in fact, rarely the unbroken stretch of grassland which characterized much of the native tallgrass prairies to the north. Because of the heterogeneity of soil and climate conditions and the presence of many river systems, the Texas grasslands, except some portions of the High Plains, have always been part of a mosaic which includes riparian areas, bottomland woods, and intermittent streams, making them unique in all the prairie regions of the country.
Part 2: The 1800s The Rise of "King Cotton" and the End of Indigenous Civilizations
The European settlement of the prairie marked the end of the civilization that had sustained it and been sustained by it for thousands of years. The settlers were pioneers in the truest sense - with a determination to survive and thrive under the harshest of conditions, and to use the bounty of the earth to enrich not only their own lives but the lives of others on this continent and around the world. But the end of the first peoples' civilization was a violent and bloody one. During the process the land also changed dramatically, and in an incredibly short time.
Before the Civil War, between twenty and sixty million bison roamed the North American plains. By 1900, less than a thousand were still alive. As Black Elk, the famous Sioux Indian chief recalled, "I can remember when the bison were so many that they could not be counted, but more and more Wasichus (white men) came to kill them until there were only heaps of bones scattered where they used to be. The Wasichus did not kill them to eat; they killed them for the metal that makes them crazy, and they took only the hides to sell. Sometimes they did not even take the hides, only the tongues; and I have heard that fire-boats came down the Missouri River loaded with dried bison tongues. You can see that the men who did this were crazy..." The activity of the white man in slaughtering the buffalo was as incomprehensible to the natives of the plains as was their own "primitive" lifestyle and nomadic behavior to the European settlers.
An old holy woman of the Wintu tribe, reflecting on the strange ways of the settlers, said, "The white people never cared for land or deer or bear. When we Indians kill meat, we eat it all up. When we dig roots we make little holes. When we build houses, we make little holes. When we burn grass for grasshoppers, we don't ruin things. We shake down acorns and pinenuts, we don't chop down the trees. But the white people plow up the ground, pull down trees, kill everything... How can the spirit of the earth like the white man? Everywhere the white man has touched it, it is sore."
It was only a matter of a few years before the European settlers, with their belief in man's "dominion over the earth," and their ingenuity in finding ways to conquer and exploit nature and its resources, had fundamentally changed the character of man's relationship to the land, and with it, the character of the prairies themselves.
The first Caucasian occupants of the Texas Blackland Prairie were not farmers; the thick sod and heavy, droughty black clay soils - later to be called the "dinner bell" soils, too wet to plow before dinner and too dry after dinner - were almost impossible to cultivate with the wooden mold-board plow in use at the time. So those who wanted to take up farming when the Spanish first opened Texas to colonization in the early 1800s settled in the southeastern part of the state near the Gulf Coast, where the soils were more amenable to cultivation with wooden implements.
Early land grants in the Blacklands were mostly taken by cattlemen, where the tall grasses - "high enough to hide cattle and long enough to tie in a knot around a horse's back" - made excellent forage. The grazing patterns of the cattle differed from those of the buffalo, and this introduction of domestic livestock was the first major disruption of the grasslands. While the buffalo grazed the land intensively, they soon moved on, giving the grasses time to recover. Under human management, cattle grazing was concentrated in smaller areas, over longer periods of time. The natural species competition and succession of the flora was disturbed, favoring weedy annuals, the shorter, more grazing-tolerant species of grass and species unpalatable to cattle.
Barbed wire was introduced in 1874, and within 15 years most of the state was fenced, which concentrated livestock and resulted in even more overgrazing of the grasslands. In 1885 the combined influences of overgrazing and drought were so severe that hundreds of thousands of cattle starved to death in Texas. By 1890 the grazing capacity of many grasslands was reduced by one-half or more, and the pre-settlement vegetation was permanently altered.
It was not until the 1870s and 80s that farmers became interested in cultivating the Blacklands, when the development of the steel plow and other implements had made it possible to cut through the thick prairie sod. The roots were so dense - up to five miles or more of roots might be found in one square meter of grasses - that the prairie literally rang, or twanged, when the steel plows turned over its dense underlayer - "a storm of wild music" was the poetic description given by one wheat farmer's daughter several decades later.
By 1900 most of the Blackland Prairie was under cultivation and was recognized as one of the foremost cotton producing regions of the world. Ellis County in Texas was at the center of this extraordinary accomplishment, and many grand old Victorian homes in the cities of Waxahachie and Ennis still exist, as reminders of the fortunes that were made in those times.
Cultivation was also, however, a catastrophic disruption of the prairie ecosystem. It was a common farmers' joke to tell the story of an old Indian who, having seen a plowed field for the first time, said to the farmer, "Wrong side up." The story was taken to be an illustration of the Indian's ignorance, but in fact when the native grasses are turned under and the soil aerated, the organic matter decomposes faster. This creates a flush of nutrients available to cultivated crops, but when the crops are harvested the nutrients are removed with the harvest, and the soil continues to be depleted year after year. Today's dependence on chemical fertilizers is evidence that perhaps there was more wisdom in that old Indian's statement than was recognized at the time.
Certainly in terms of recovering the lost prairie, his statement was true. Once the roots of the prairie are broken, and its recovery cycle interrupted by conventional agriculture, the grasslands never heal unaided. The prairie ecosystem is so vulnerable to manmade disturbances that the wheel ruts left by the migrations of the mid-nineteenth century are still visible, more than 140 years after the covered wagons carried pioneers on their westward journeys. Similar traces can be seen in prairie remnants of the Chisolm Trail in Texas, including one site near Waco where signs of the wagons which accompanied the great cattle drives can be seen.
Part 3: The Prairie in the 20th Century A Vanishing Ecosystem
Although overgrazing and cultivation were the most dramatic disruptions of the natural prairie ecosystem, there have been a number of simultaneously occurring phenomena which have contributed to the destruction of all but a few isolated prairie relicts, and to the degeneration of many of these surviving remnants.
In the early days of cultivation of the Blackland Prairie, mules were the source of power. Many farms maintained a hay meadow where the native grasses were cut for hay or used for pasture. As late as 1930 the practice of maintaining these hay meadows was still common. And although the mowing and grazing altered the species composition of these small "prairies," their root systems and seed banks still contained a living map of the complex prairie ecosystem that had once spanned the continent from north to south, and covered more than 13 million hectares in Texas alone. However, with the advent of tractors most of these meadows and pastures were plowed.
Another very significant early disturbance was the settlers' natural desire to eliminate fires. Periodic prairie fires had for centuries kept woody species to a minimum and had cleared the ground of dead vegetation, enabling the tall grasses to thrive and creating new opportunities for secondary and tertiary grasses and forbs to establish themselves. Once the fires were eliminated, a rapid invasion of woody plants followed.
Most of the prairie remnants found today are those in out-of-the-way places, difficult to cultivate. These too are often invaded by woody species, along with exotic non-native plants which have been cultivated or allowed to spread on nearby land, and then introduced by wildlife or carried on the winds to these otherwise native areas. The Kachina Prairie in Ennis is a typical example of these surviving remnants, and is in the process of being managed back to health through controlled burning and selective weed control in the hope that it can serve as a seed source for prairie restoration efforts on land acquired for the Superconducting Super Collider Laboratory.
The Texas Blackland Prairie: Situation Critical
Before the European settlers arrived, the moist eastern prairies of Texas were dominated by the tall grasses such as big bluestem, Indian grass, little bluestem, eastern gamagrass and switch grass. The short grasses such as buffalograss, blue grama and common curly mesquite were dominant in the drier western regions. And in between, mid-grasses such as sideoats grama, little bluestem, silver bluestem and Texas cupgrass were abundant. Running through these belts of grasslands were the Post Oak Belt to the East, and the East and West Cross Timbers to the west of the Blackland Prairie. Throughout the Blacklands, as well, could be found rivers, streams, and bottomland hardwoods.
Today, more than 90% of the area of the main belt of the Blackland Prairie of Texas has been plowed. Many areas, because of exhaustion of the soil or soil erosion, have been returned to permanent grass. But in most cases these lands have been planted to exotic pasture species such as African bermuda grass and lovegrass, Eurasian "King Ranch bluestem," and Mediterranean Johnson grass.
In 1970, a survey was conducted by graduate students of Texas A&M University, across the main belt of the Blackland Prairie. Approximately 100 ungrazed, excellent condition prairie relicts were located, totaling nearly 5000 acres in all. Most of the sites were small, but a few were as large as 700 acres.
In 1980 the area was resurveyed. The number of sites had decreased from 100 to 35, and the area from 5000 to 2000 acres.
The Blackland and associated prairies and woodlands in Texas contain four out of the ten most threatened or endangered plant community series in the United States, as recognized by the Natural Heritage Commission. The total area of fair or better condition plant communities is lowest for the Blackland Prairie, at 0.004% of the area originally covered by this complex ecosystem.