The wheels of westering settlers moved through an ocean of grass. It was a rich natural heritage, but within a century we almost destroyed it
April 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 3
“As far as the eye could reach, in every direction, there was neither tree, nor shrub, nor house, nor shed visible; so that we were rolling on as it were on the bosom of a new Atlantic, but that the sea was of rich green grass and flowers, instead of the briny and bottomless deep.” Thus James Silk Buckingham, a British traveller, described America’s Great Plains in 1837. This was the same “Atlantic of grass” that the homesteaders saw, and the longhorns when they spread over the open range up from the South—an ocean of grass to be grazed. There were homesteads to be developed, cattle empires to be expanded, and wheat fields to be plowed deep and combined. The grass grew naturally; it did not need to be cultivated. Who could imagine the broad green ocean drying up?
The Great Plains used to be one of the richest natural grasslands of the world. From the SaskatchewanManitoba line it extended south along the ninety-eighth meridian to the Gulf of Mexico and all the way west to the Rockies, taking in eastern Montana, Wyoming, Golorado, and New Mexico, the western part of the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma, and the Texas Panhandle—“The Great American Desert,” it was designated on the maps of the early iSoo’s. And it was all public domain. AVe owned the grass and had a rich heritage, but within a century after Buckingham’s visit we had almost destroyed it.
The grass kept the Plains in place, kept them from becoming a real desert. It was as simple as that. Jn an environment with a maximum annual rainfall of only twenty inches and an evaporation rate as high as sixty per cent, there was a hairline balance between sun, water, rivers, soil, wind, and grass. The grass—putting down its roots four, even six feet into the soil, improving its structure, ventilating it, letting water penetrate it, keeping moisture loss low—held the balance of power and kept the environment from destroying itself. During the summer months the rain fell in thunderstorms, hailstorms even; water rushed in torrents down from the Rockies, carried by the Red River, the Platte, the Missouri. Against that force of water nothing could stop the erosion of the soil, nothing but a good thick carpet of grass to hold it down.
Through the ages, nature had laid dosvn such a carpet—native grasses capable of withstanding the special conditions of the environment. They lay dormant through drought and came back above ground when water came again. Some grasses grew in the warm seasons, others in the cool. They could grow with little moisture, hoarding what they got. Over the centuries they had struggled for survival in the Great Plains, adapted to the environment, and thrived.
The environment is diverse. The Great Plains are not all on one level: from an altitude of 5,500 feet up against the Rockies they flatten out going eastward at ten feet per mile. They embrace sand hills, loessal plains, buttes, “badlands,” depressions, and rolling Oatlands treeless and without protection from the sun except for the grass. The precipitation is uncertain. Temperatures range from 60° below to 120° above. The Plains were formed when the great Cretaceous seas withdrew along the continent and the Rocky Mountains were uplifted, preventing moisture from the Pacific from penetrating eastward. The area gradually dried up; mountain streams cut valleys and ridges through it and grew into rivers that spilled out onto the Plains. There evaporation was so high, rain so scarce, and the land so flat that the rivers lost their force, deposited their burden of mountain soil in aprons over the land, and dribbled on into shallow streams and mudholes or buffalo wallows, where many a settler’s wagon got stuck up to its axles.
The grasses that took root and kept the soil from washing away were of several types. In the Northern Plains (roughly Montana, Wyoming, and the western Dakotas) and in the High Plains (the eastern third of Colorado and Xcw Mexico and the western part of Oklahoma) there were the short grasses: bulfalo grass, blue grama, three-awns, curly mesquite. Farther east, the longer mid-grasses took root: little blucstem, needle grass, wheat grasses. In the Low Plains—the region’s eastern third, along the twenty-inch rainfall line that runs from the eastern Dakotas southward to western Texas—big bluestem and other tall grasses thrived. The plainsman will recognize minor grasses in the kingdom with colorful names like bottlebrush, red ray, fool hay, pancake, jungle rice, panic grass. The environment created these grasses; they are natives—the original natives, which were there even before the bulfalo and the Indian came.
Coronado saw the grasses in 1541 in his abortive search for gold in the Seven Cities of Cibola. He and his army almost got lost among them; as soon as they passed, the grasses straightened. Men who wandered away from the army train got lost. Finally Coronado gave up on the Plains; there was no gold there, and it was too cold. The grass was good for the expedition’s cows, but there was no civililation there to conquer.