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Ted Stillwell: Coming to the prairies - settling the 'sea of grass'

Staff Writer
The Examiner
The Examiner

Just imagine – a couple hundred years ago, America had the greatest grasslands the world had ever seen. They lay between our neighborhood here along the Missouri-Kansas border, and the Rocky Mountains.

Some of the grass stood over eight feet tall. The wind blew the grass in endless waves across the prairie. You could walk for miles and miles and never see a tree, except for those growing along the rivers. The grass and the sky seemed to go on forever. The pioneers called it a sea of grass.

Winters were freezing cold, with blizzards of snow and ice, with freakish hail storms and tornadoes. As the grass dried, prairie fires swept across the open land.

Indians had lived on the prairie for thousands of years. Some who lived along the rivers, like the Pawnee, were both farmers and hunters. Others like the Lakota Sioux, just hunted.

More than 60 million buffalo roamed the prairie. In fact, when they ran, the earth shook. There were also antelope, wolves, bears, prairie dogs and millions of rattlesnakes. As the weather warmed, the air filled with songbirds and millions of butterflies. It was all a part of the Louisiana Purchase.

Those first pioneers who traveled west weren’t going to the prairie. They were going to Oregon and California. But they had to cross the prairie to get there.

As they traveled in covered wagons, all they saw was grass, grass, and more grass. The prairie had almost no trees and very little water. As they got further west, the prairie got drier and drier – so dry, in fact, that they listed it as the Great American Desert on their maps. The pioneers didn’t think anyone, except maybe the Indians, could – or would – live in such a place.

But all that changed after gold was discovered in California in 1848. Suddenly more people than ever were rushing west, hoping to strike it rich. Special kinds of stores called road ranches sprang up on the prairies along the wagon trails. They served hot meals, sold supplies, and cared for the tired oxen and horses that pulled the wagons. The road ranches raised their own chickens and cattle and grew their own vegetables on the prairie which they served with the hot meals. People then began to take notice that you could actually live and survive on this land. Word spread and soon pioneers were living all over the prairies.

With all of this new land as a result of the Louisiana Purchase, people thought the government should give it away to them for free.

That’s what President Abraham Lincoln thought, too. So, in 1862, he signed the Homestead Act. Now anyone could get 160 acres free if he was willing to farm it. Even foreigners could get free land, as long as they promised to become citizens.

People talked about all the wonderful things they could do if they moved west to the prairies. They could own their own farms. They could start a store or other business in a brand-new town. Maybe they could even start a new town! Maybe they could become rich and famous.

Some of the people who moved to the prairie were former soldiers of the Civil War who were looking to make a new start. Others were African-Americans who had been brought here as slaves before emancipation and were looking for a place of their own. Farmers who had struggled to make a living back east without much luck came. Poor folks and religious groups came. The Irish, Germans and Scandinavians came. They all just wanted a chance to make a new life on the great and wild prairie.

Reference: “If You Were a Pioneer on the Prairie,” by Anne Kamma

To reach Ted W. Stillwell send email to or call him at 816-896-3592.