- Historic Sites
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
The Indians inhabited the Plains before Coronado came and remained after lie passed. Thirty-one tribes held sway there, eacli somehow able to read the landscape so that they recognized one another’s territories. We can order the succession of invaders of the Great Plains like this: first, the soil came from the Rockies, then the grasses grew, then the buffalo came down from the north for the grasses, then the Indians followed the buffalo. The tribes themselves—Blackfoot, Crow, Cheyenne, Pawnee, Arapaho, Apache, Comanche—had an ideal relationship with their environment: the Indian lived off the buffalo; the buffalo lived off the grass. Colonel Richard Irving Dodge reported seeing a herd of buffalo numbering over 500,000. The grass could sustain herds that big without danger of being overgrazed, for by instinct the buffalo moved with the seasonal growth of the grass.
Sometimes, to make their hunting easier, the Indians burned the grass, but the homesteaders, who began to come in 1862, were the first to break the sod. They had to, first to make their sod houses and then to cultivate their 160 acres. Pioneers came in great numbers from the East, from Europe, even from Australia, encouraged by Congress and the railroads. A small registration fee and a five-year occupancy were all Congress required before giving away the land. And the homesteaders plowed away.
The first sight of the tall grasses waving over an expanse of rolling land often inspired the newcomers with a kind of “seasickness,” or fear, or exhilaration, or loneliness. In 1837, Buckingham had noted: “I never felt so strongly the sense of loneliness as here.”
For the homesteaders it was the same. Beret Hansa, in O. E. Rölvaag’s Giants in the Earth , exclaimed: “Why there isn’t even a thing that one can hide behind!” From the door of her sod house the plainswoman looked out on grass whispering in the wind, scorched by the sun, and if she dared go out herself she would get lost. Or the wind would turn her face to leather, as it was turning her man to leather as he plowed up the land around the sod house. The walls of that house were held together by the roots of the grass, and the mud floor was strewn with grass. Sometimes, twisted into hanks and tossed into the stove, the grass even heated the house. The homesteader’s wife worried about water; soon the windmill would bring her water from deep below the topsoil. But what would bring water to the soil?
This was in the eighteen sixties. In 1873, the settlers were hit with the first bad drought. In 1874, the locusts came, Rocky Mountain grasshoppers which ate the leaves and stems of the grasses—and not only every green thing but even the clothes off the line. The settlers panicked; some left, convinced that it would take a special kind of human being to stick it out here in an environment they themselves knew nothing about.
Meanwhile, in southwest Texas, longhorn cattle, originally raised on the old Spanish missions, now roamed wild. The North, hungry after the Civil War, was screaming for beef. Northward cattle drives had begun as early as the mid-1830’s, but those herds were small compared with these that were now beginning. As the buffalo was killed off (and the Indian with him, practically), the longhorns, the cowboys, and the cattle ranchers took over as much open range in the Plains as they could manage. But unlike the buffalo, the longhorns did not move with the seasonal growth of the grasses. They were either fenced in by the ranchers near water, or fenced out by homesteaders protecting their farms. Overcrowding of the range began. Ranchers, finding the grass cheap fodder, let their longhorns graze all year round, and fought for water rights with the homesteaders—who now, under the Desert Land Act of 1877, could have an entire section, 640 acres, provided only that they would irrigate it. (The irrigation provision, alas, was often met by throwing a bucket of water on the grass.)
By the mid-1880’s, cattle ranches had spread north into the short-grass country, into Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. In his pioneering survey of the Plains presented to Congress in 1878, John Wesley Powell had pointed out that this vast area of public domain was not being properly used. In an arid and subhumid climate most of the soil does not contain enough moisture to permit farming by the usual methods. Most of the region, Powell felt, was not suitable for farming at all; grazing was its best use. But not the kind that was then going on: letting the cattle graze all through spring, summer, autumn, and winter, never giving the grass a chance to renew itself. Powell recommended that pasture lands be parcelled out in lots of 2,560 acres and held in common, with all the participating ranchers responsible for the right use of them.
But western politicians in Congress, land speculators, and cattlemen, all of them in a hurry to profit from the bounty of the region, could not halt for planning. Cattle grazing was causing more injury to the land than farming, Powell said. And then there were the sheep. Both the farmer and the rancher turned on the sheepman; they said his animals’ thin muzzles and sharp teeth cropped the grass to the ground, while their spiky hoofs pockmarked the soil.
All—homesteader, rancher, sheep farmer—were busy destroying the grass.
Then, in the eighteen nineties, the sod was really stripped away as huge wheat farms were established in the Red River valley in Minnesota and North Dakota—farms sometimes as large as 65,000 acres.