The fully documented reality that 240 million prairie acres were converted to farmland in a mere 70 years is difficult to grasp. Even with the advantage of today’s powerful equipment and technology, it’s hard enough to imagine completely transforming the landscape and ecosystem of the entire North American interior, a quarter of the continent. But it’s nearly impossible to fathom such a massive undertaking fueled only by human will and the relatively rudimentary methods available in the early and middle 19th century. Yet that is exactly what occurred between 1830 and 1900.
Before settlers arrived, the American prairie was covered with herds of grazing animals, such as buffalo, elk, deer and rabbits. These animals added nitrogen to the soil through urine and feces, and created open areas for plants that thrive on disturbed soil. An army of prairie dogs dug enormous underground tunnel systems that aerated the soil and channeled water several feet below the surface.
Tall grasses – “high enough to hide cattle and long enough to tie a knot around a horse’s back” – made excellent forage (“American Prairie History”). The first major disruption of the American tallgrass prairie was introduced by European cattle with grazing patterns that differed from those of the buffalo in highly destructive ways. Buffalo and other wild herd animals grazed the land intensively, but soon moved on, giving the grasses time to recover. Domestic livestock, which also grazed voraciously, were confined to smaller areas over long periods of time, leading to conditions that destroyed grassland by favoring weedy annuals and other more grazing-tolerant species. Additionally, cattle farmers were obsessed with killing prairie dogs, which they regarded as competitors to their cattle for the lush, nutritious grasses. Along with the extermination of prairie dogs came the loss of their substantial benefits to the grasslands, including: 1. effective soil aeration, 2. mixing of soil types, 3. incorporation of organic matter, and 4. establishment of burrows, which acted as aquifers that prevented water from eroding land while helping it keep cool (“Prairie Dogs and Soil Impacts”).
The second catastrophic disruption of the prairie ecosystem was cultivation. Initially viewed as an obstacle to the nation’s westward expansion and growth, the grassy expanse between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains was once called the Great American Desert, reflecting the early Europeans’ impression that the entire area must be infertile. Accustomed to the forested regions of Europe, these newcomers also found the prairie frightening with its hordes of biting insects, scorching summer heat and high humidity, hard winters and raging fires (Robertson).
It didn’t take long for the settlers to discover that beneath the dense mat of grass, or sod, prairie soil was more fertile than forest soils and in fact among the most productive soil in the world. This realization turned settlers who’d been focused on getting beyond the barrier of the prairie to reach lands farther west into homesteaders wholeheartedly dedicated to finding ways of replacing commercially useless grasses with crops that paid their own way.
Every aspect of prairie life was harsh. Some of the problems homesteaders had to overcome in their battle with the land were plowing the dense sod, low rainfall amounts, figuring out what crops to grow, protecting their crops, fire, insects and year-around weather extremes. The government, too, played a role in a homesteader’s success or failure by regulating the size of landholdings as well as who was eligible to make a claim.
The next section of this Discovery Guide discusses how homesteaders conquered the most critical challenge to their survival and prosperity: the unyielding sods that prevented large-scale access to the rich soil beneath the prairie.
Go To Sod-busting on the Tallgrass Prairie