Early Views of the Prairie
Perhaps like you, as I drive across our region I often find myself musing over the character of the prairie landscape prior to European settlement. Can you imagine what this area looked like a couple hundred years ago? No transmission lines, no highways, no trees!?
Here is a bit of what George Catlin observed about the prairie while he lived among the Mandan in the early 1800′s: “it gradually and gracefully rises on each side, by swell after swell, without tree, or brush, or rocks…and is everywhere covered with green grass, affording the traveler, from its highest elevations, the most unbounded and sublime views of — nothing at all — save the blue and boundless ocean of prairies that lie beneath and all around him, vanishing into azure in the distance, without a speck or spot to break their softness.”
Joseph Nicolett on his Missouri River Expedition of 1839 saw a similar landscape in the drift prairie:
“There is something magical in the variety of impressions one gets from the sight of the prairies. One never wearies of it. …the sweet verdure everywhere, the flowers bedecking it, the blue of the sky, the variations of the atmosphere operating always on a grand scale, all of these things combine to arouse one, to free one’s spirit.”
But the prairie was not empty. Meriwether Lewis’s journal from April 22, 1805 near present day Williston helps put it into perspective: “I ascended to the top of the cut bluff this morning, from whence I had the most delightful view of the country, the whole of which except for the valley formed by the Missouri is void of timber or underbrush exposing to the first glance of the spectator immense herds of buffalo, elk, deer, and antelopes feeding in one common and boundless pasture.”
If I could have one wish it would be time travel, and the first place I would go is to the North Dakota prairies before European settlement. That won’t happen, of course, so perhaps like you, I will have to settle for just trying to visualize it.
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
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