Where have all the prairies gone?
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Part 2:
The 1800s
The Rise of "King Cotton"
The End of the Red Man's Civilization

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 red man's 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.

Cattle Country
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.

The Sodbusters
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.

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