Volume IX, No. 3, Spring 1982
HISTORY AND HABITAT OF OZARK PRAIRIES
Written and illustrated by James Heck
Missouri is a border state in more ways than one. Besides having been in the middle of the north-south controversy of the Civil War, it is a geographical border between the eastern deciduous woodlands and the western prairies. As settlers traveled westward, the forest through which they had traveled for a thousand miles gradually began to disappear into wide open spaces of grassland in western Missouri. Missouri is the transition from trees to prairies.
Most people thinking of a prairie probably visualize a huge stretch of treeless, flat grassland populated with animals like buffalo and antelope, such as in Kansas and Oklahoma-- Most people haven't thought that buffalo and antelope were ever on prairies in Missouri. Western Missouri is the edge of the Great Plains, but in the Ozark border region, early settlers found quite a few prairies of fairly extensive acreages. There are still some left that have been protected from farming, grazing and other practices that destroyed most native grasslands.
Though south central Missouri was mostly wooded when the settlers arrived, as they moved farther west, the natural grassy areas, or prairies, gradually increased to the point where trees grew only along streams.
A prairie is a climax vegetation type dominated by a unique assemblage of specially adapted grasses and forbs (herbaceous, broad-leaved plants), subject to periodic wildfires. When surveyers first started mapping the territories, they designated the prairie as a fairly level, possibly rolling piece of land which had characteristic plants such as members of the composite family--asters, blazing stars, coneflowers, goldenrods and sunflowers, and the legume family--clovers, psoraleas and wild indigo. There are also some animals which are characteristically prairie life such as bison or buffalo, prairie chickens, certain butterflies and insects.
Since the region of prairies covers such a large area, the climate varies greatly. Summer temperatures reach over 100°F. and winter temperatures go as low as -30°F. Most prairies receive from twenty to thirty-five inches of rain yearly, the rain falling mostly during the summer. The eastern prairies, such as in Missouri, receive more rainfall than the western prairies and consequently display more luxuriant plant growth. Farther west the vegetation becomes progressively shorter and more drought adaped to compensate for the decreased annual rainfall.
The upper layers of prairie soils are commonly deep, dark and richly fertile as a result of centuries of growth and decay of the deep roots. But some of the Ozark prairies are not so fertile, being very rocky.
There are several different kinds of prairies, depending on the moisture and underlying rock. A very wet area is called a prairie marsh or a bottomland prairie. The average prairie on good moist soil, a Mesic Prairie, is considered ideal farming soil. There are also dry prairies, sand prairies and hill prairies.
Most experts believe prairies were caused by either not enough moisture or too much. Compared to natural woodlands, prairies are either drier or wetter, even marshlike. The plants in these areas have adapted to the climate and soil conditions, making a solid grassy sod which excludes the growth of trees.
The most widely accepted theory of the creation of the prairies is that they were originally formed back in the Glacial Age in the post-Pleistocene xerothermic period when there was a very hot, dry climatic period which was almost desert-like. Since it was too dry and hot for tree growth, our prairie environment evolved thousands of years ago. Then when the climate changed and the forest type environment of today developed, the prairies continued to exist largely because of regular wildfires.
Today in many areas where the prairie sod remains unbroken, fire suppression has allowed the invasion of hordes of spindly trees which will eventually suppress the original prairie flora. Many times the land looks like scrubby woods, but a search back in the original land survey records shows that it was once a prairie that had been surrounded by farms and grew up as a scrubby deformed woods. Because prairies depend on fire to burn off excess grass and kill out young trees and other undesirable non-prairie plants, when fires were put out, trees and weeds invaded. The prairie plants could not compete with these foreign plants and eventually died out.
Prairies are one of the most fragile types of plant communities. Prairie plants as a rule require fire to keep out other plants. They are long-lived perennial plants, and in some virgin prairies, some of these plants have lived for centuries in the same place. Each plant has its own niche, so very few new seeds germinate because there is no room for new plants. Prairie plant life is very diverse. An undisturbed prairie might have a carpet of wild flowers blooming from early summer through fall with perhaps 150 to 200 different species of wild flowers in an acre.
The first human occupants of the prairies, of course, were Indians. The last Indians to utilize the prairie lands of southern Missouri were the Osage who wintered in southern Missouri. During spring and summer they traveled to Kansas and Oklahoma for their major hunting of buffalo where the buffalo were in greater abundance, but they also hunted buffalo in the prairie regions of Missouri. Some people believe that the Osage burned the prairie to keep the grasses flourishing and thus enticing the buffalo to stay. Because of a treaty in the early 1800s, the Osage withdrew farther west, so that by 1820 when white settlers began coming in large numbers, there were very few Indians in Missouri.
The early settlers found in southwestern Missouri the true border region of woodland and prairie. The eastern part of the Ozarks was heavily wooded, typical of the land they were used to, but as they went farther west, there were larger and larger patches of prairie, or finger like grasslands projecting into wooded areas. These were more like fields or natural meadows. As settlers went farther, the prairie areas became larger and larger, though still interspersed with woodlands until reaching the western tier of counties which were pre-dominately prairie with trees hugging the low places and streams where fire did not reach.
In 1821 when Missouri became a state, about one half of the state was tall grass prairie. Much of northern Missouri and large tracts of southwestern Missouri were prairie and parts of the Ozarks were barrens or large areas of wild grasses. Today there are only about 75,000 acres of native prairie left in Missouri, almost all of it in the southwestern part. Only 330 acres of unplowed prairie is known to exist today north of the Missouri River where millions of acres once thrived.
Since man has moved into the prairies, it has usually been to the detriment of the prairies. He has done things to wear out soil and kill plants. He has plowed under the sod, overgrazed the grass, stopped the fires and introduced plants like fescue, dandelions and sweet clover that the prairie plants can not compete with. Distroying the prairie has also distroyed many plants and animals.
The few prairie remnants we have in Missouri that we call virgin have usually been hayed. They were saved because the farmer never turned his cattle on them or plowed the original prairie sod. They were his hay pastures which he would cut once a year. This practice was not bad because haying had about the same effect as fire--taking off the excess fuel or grass and controlling woody plants. Haying did not disturb the delicate balance as grazing did. Most prairie plants could not tolerate cattle tromping on the plants, distroying the roots, nor could they live if constantly grazed down. The prairie community can survive as long as it is not broken by grazing, weeds, fire suppression or other disturbances.
Though the abundance of six to ten feet tall grass for their livestock was a definite asset, after they got through Missouri, westward settlers shied away from the extensive grassland because of the myth that they were not habitable. People believed that land that would not grow trees was worthless. They were not accustomed to the scarcity of trees for building and the lack of water. They were frightened of the wide open spaces of the prairies which offered no protection from the weather and fires. For generations they had been used to living in a woodland type area, cutting down trees to plow fields and build homes. The sea of grass was too open and desolute for them. They didn't know how to farm the grasslands. So for many years they used the prairies only to cross for the Pacific regions.
But the prairies in Missouri were not as formidable as the ones in Kansas and Oklahoma since they were scattered in with woodland where there was sufficient water. The objections to the wide open spaces and lack of trees on the more western prairies did not exist in Missouri, for there were many more trees, springs and rivers. Even from the larger prairie tracts, it was not far to timber. Consequently, settlers in the border areas continued to cling to the rich river bottoms and flat wooded areas they could clear and plow as had a generation of settlers before them, and though they used the natural grasslands to advantage, their presence was not the determining factor for choosing their land. They looked for water and springs that were not always in the grasslands, but usually in the wooded terrain. Therefore, the prairie did not really influence the early settlers as it did in the West where it was a prominent feature that changed their thinking and their whole life style.
Actually, far from changing the life style of the settlers, the existence of prairies in Missouri made it a bit easier for the early settlers. They had open spaces, which they did not have to clear, spaces where they could pasture their stock or plant a crop without the labor of clearing off the trees and grubbing out the stumps, though breaking prairie sod for the first time was a laborious job.
Most Ozark farms were small, 160 acres or less. The prairie regions that did exist were usually not all owned by one farmer as the land was surveyed in one mile squares. Since these survey lines did not follow natural geographic lines, there might be ten, twenty or forty acres of natural grassland on one farm, the rest of the prairie tract being on other farms. Often the farmer would plow the grassland first because he wouldn't have to clear off the trees, but not always. The sod was hard to break and farmers were conditioned to think prairie land was not as fertile as cleared woodland.
The settlers of the Ozarks built log cabins from available trees, but as they moved on into the almost treeless regions of Kansas, they built their homes of sod. They cut square chunks of sod from the prairie, piling the layers on top of each other and cutting holes in the walls for a door and windows. They used wooden poles for rafters and laid sod across for a roof. The sod walls held up to storms well because of all the roots in the soil.
Obviously the first thing a settler had to do was to plant at least enough to feed his family and stock. Because of the great amount of organic materials and the deep rich soil of prairies, many tended to hold moisture, so it would often be late in the spring before they could be plowed.
Plowing virgin prairie sod was difficult. In the prairie soil the matrix of grasses was so coarse, and there were so many roots that the settlers had to use a special single plow called the moldboard plow to break up the soil and turn it over. This plow had a V-shaped blade, or plowshare, that was angled to cut into the soil. A five to seven foot curved wooden moldboard caused the sod to turn over.
Some settlers brought a plow with them when they moved to break the ground on their new farms. But others couldn't bring a plow because there wasn't enough room on the wagon. Also, since these plows sold for about twenty-five dollars, not many settlers could afford one. So it was popular to hire men to plow their ground the first time. These men were called sodbusters. Moving west to the location they wanted to settle, they started a new business by hiring out to plow virgin prairies with their plow and team of horses or oxen. Usually one man plowed most of the sod around where he lived, charging about two dollars an acre. In just a few years these men changed the prairies forever.
Plowing the prairies not only prepared the ground for their crops, but also provided good fire protection. Once a farmer had enough neighbors that plowed their land around him, there wasn't as much fear of fires.
Stock would graze on the prairie, unless a farmer had it fenced off to put in a crop. With open range for livestock, farmers had to fence out the livestock since all stock roamed free.
In the Ozarks where there were plenty of trees, the fencing that was first used was the split rail fence, which was rails of wood stacked on top of one another. Some farmers fenced their crops by planting a hedge row of Osage orange trees.
Later barbed wire was invented. The first wire was a flat steel band about a half to three quarters of an inch wide on which was attached the barb of the same kind of steel cut in a diamond shape. Putting this wire up on a fence was hard work because the steel band wasn't flexible. Like a steel tape, it would wrap around the worker who would have to watch out for the barbs or get caught up in them. Barbed wire has changed several times since then and is much more manageable now.
Wheat, corn and other crops were raised on the big western prairies, but mostly wheat. Corn did better in virgin prairie soil. The first year or two there was about as much sod as planted crop until the farming killed the root systems of prairie plants.
In the Ozarks corn was usually the crop planted in the small prairie fields. It did well in this kind of field. There wasn't much of a local market for corn because most people raised their own little patch of corn, enough to feed the animals and the family. People used every bit of the corn. When the corn wasn't quite mature, they cut and shocked the top fodder, which was the stalk above the ear of corn. They'd leave the rest until the ear of corn was ready to pick.
Before they were hunted out, and their habitat destroyed, the prairie was a home for a diverse population of birds, mammals, insects, reptiles and amphibians. Some of the smaller animals still live in :prairie regions, but the large animals are mostly gone.
Some of these large animals like buffalo, elk and pronghorn came to the prairie to eat the new grasses in the spring. The Indians and predators followed them. There were other animals that lived there permanently, such as meadow mice, hawks, prairie chickens, bullsnakes, spiders, butterflies and several other animals.
The biggest animal on the prairie was the buffalo or bison which roamed the prairie in the thousands. The bison lived on prairie vegetation and were hunted for food and skins by the Indians. In the late 1800s the bison were almost killed off by the white hunters who shot them for hides and sometimes just for the tongue or for sport. In 1889 when there were only about 551 bison left, concerned conservationists started a program to protect them. Today they are flourishing in protected prairie preserves.
Other large animals that went to the prairie to graze were deer and elk, but they were not as abundant as the bison.
Coyotes, gray wolves and foxes went to the prairie to hunt for mice and other smaller rodents which burrowed down to hide in the grasses. There were animals that fed on either plants or animals, such as badgers and skunks, and animals like ground squirrels that ate plants.
Reptiles such as bullsnakes, prairie king snakes and turles lived on the prairie and ate mice and smaller animals, insects and plants.
There were several different kinds of birds on the prairie, such as meadowlarks, hawks and quail. Perhaps the most unusual is the prairie chicken, a member of the grouse family. It is a little smaller than a farm chicken with under coloring of brown and white stripes and a brownish-yellow back.
There are four different species of prairie chickens--the greater prairie chicken found in Michigan and Indiana west to the Great Plains, which is the one in Missouri, the lesser prairie chicken in the central plains from Kansas to Texas, the almost extinct Atwater prairie chicken on the coast of Texas, and the extinct heath hen.
The best time to see prairie chickens is during the breeding season when they are on the booming ground, which is usually a high knoll with vegetation low enough that they can see each other. There they go through their courting rituals and dances.
The prairie chicken is known for its courtship habits. The male bird erects the feathers on his neck, spreads and raises his tail, stretches out his wings and lets them droop down. Then inflating the pouches of orange skin on the sides of his throat with air, he makes a booming sound, dancing and jumping around during his courting ritual.
There are many other birds, too, like hawks that prey on the rodents that cross in open grass and the usual birds that feed on insects. These birds have to adapt to the large open prairie by making nests on the ground in the grass or in small stunted trees.
Some smaller rodents are the thirteen line ground squirrel, the Franklin ground squirrel and prairie white-footed mouse.
Because of the great diversity of flowers and plants, there are many different insects on the prairie. These include butterflies, beetles, lady bugs, leaf bugs and numerous others. Some of these insects occur only on prairies and are almost extinct today. One spider occuring on prairie flowers is the crab spider, a small spider that sits like a crab. This spider picks a flower to stay on that matches its color and is thus hidden within the flower.
There are lots of different species of butterflies on the prairies that are brightly colored and go from flower to flower.
After a prairie fire, the hawks and coyotes and other predators come to the prairie to catch the tiny animals whose cover has burned off. During the burn the ground squirrels, snakes, mice and other animals burrow in, and sometimes the fires go by so quickly they pass right over without hurting the animal. But after the fire has passed, since these animals don't have any cover, they are easy prey to hawks and other predators.
For many years we thought that prairie fires were harmful, but they actually help protect the prairies from encroaching trees, bushes and other foreign plants. Before settlers first came, the Indians let the prairies burn if struck by lightning or set fire accidentally. They probably even set them on fire sometimes to scare or herd game into traps. But the settlers suppressed the fires. In the absence of fires, trees, bushes and other weeds moved in. Because of farming, cattle grazing, fire suppression and other causes, today there are not very many acres of prairies left. The loss of their habitat has caused the extinction and endangering of many prairie animals and plants.
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