“When We First Come Here It All Looked Like Prairie Land Almost”: Prairie Fire and Plains Settlement1

For centuries prairie fire was a formative environmental force on the Great Plains. In the nineteenth-century, however, Euro-Americans brought to the region dramatically different settlement practices. In an effort to “civilize” the Plains, settlers attempted to suppress the unique fires that so frequently swept the land. Even so, prairie fire, through its symbolism and its absence, continues as a force on the Great Plains today.

IN OCTOBER 1878, RUMORS OF AN IMPENDING Indian attack sent the settlers of south-central Nebraska into a panic. Someone had seen a war party in Phelps County and neighbors urged neighbors to pack up and flee before the massacre began. One group of refugees went so far as to construct a fortress around a home in northwest Kearney County. Their actions seemed justified when a passing rider told them that he had seen the Indians on the prairie doing a war dance around a fire. After a tense night waiting for an attack that never came, settlers discovered that in fact the threat was not from the Indians, but from the fire. As residents were fleeing the rumored attack, a prairie fire had started in southwestern Phelps County. The “war dance” seen by the rider from a distance had been a group of settlers jumping around, yelling, and using wet gunny sacks to beat out the flames.2

Although in this instance, blinded by false panic, these early Nebraskans could not see the fire before their eyes, most nineteenth-century residents of the Great Plains were well aware of the impact that prairie fire had both on the landscape and on their attempts to settle and prosper on the land. The fires were sometimes so intense that one adventurer called prairie fire the “master of the prairie.”3 Today, although the threat has diminished, modern Plains people retain an awareness of the historical fires that helped shape their region. Occasionally, modern fires help remind them. Blazes in Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas swept over the prairie in 2006, scorching thousands of acres, burning barns, fences, and even homes that stood in the way. Hundreds of people were forced to evacuate as the fires threatened their towns.4 The media, perhaps more accustomed to reporting on forest fires, replaced the historical term “prairie fire” with a more neutral “wildfire,” or occasionally with “grass fire,” but the name change did not alter the event. Prairie fires, both present and past, are a presence on the Great Plains.

Other events, more pleasant than the threat of evacuation, serve as subtle nudges—linking the legacy of fires to the consciousness of the region’s people. In some areas, particularly in the Flint Hills of Kansas, controlled burns are still used to maintain the prairie. The annual firing of the prairie, known to locals as “burnin’ pasture,” is at once a necessary agricultural task and a traditional folk custom.5 It provides a stunningly beautiful reminder of fire’s role. The people of Wichita, many of whom have never set foot on a ranch, understand the cause of the burnt grass smell that drifts into the city from the northeast every April. Artists and photographers capture the images to preserve regional culture, while journalists dutifully note the legacy both of Indian and Euro-American burning, but rarely dig deeper into the historical record. Prairie fires, through remnant burns, art, literature, vernacular, and an intangible awareness that comes with roots in the region, are part of the identity of Plains people. The reasons are entirely historical. In this way, the “master” never gave up its hold over the prairie.