Texas Prairie History
These quotes were assembled by Elenore Goode in order to provide historical context for our work in ecological restoration and regenerative agriculture.
Quotes from the wonderful research on prairies of Del Weniger’s The Explorers’ Texas, The Lands and Waters:
“We are led to think of the prairie as flat, treeless and essentially stark and barren. Yet this is not a true picture of a prairie. How has our conception become so twisted?
The problem begins with a confusion of two different words: prairie and plain. Both of these were originally French terms. They exist because – modern dictionaries not withstanding – they mean two different things. The opportunity for confusion of the two is great, for you could have a plain included within and part of a large prairie, but hardly a prairie within and considered part of a plain.
A plain was a flat expanse which was altogether or practically treeless. It was a plain surface in every sense of that word, and also in the sense of the word plane. The prairie, on the other hand was seldom flat or treeless.
The essential difference is shown by the most common way of describing a prairie. This was as rolling. No plain could actually roll, since it had to be flat.
The other difference was the vegetation. While both plains and prairies typically had grass-covered expanses, the plains were treeless, while the prairies had trees as an essential part of them. Nothing shows this better than the fact that Dr. Ferdinand Roemer, one of the most scientific observers of early Texas, could write of “the forests of the prairies…”
This unflat combination of grass and trees, a fusion of the forest and the grassland…
“…If the prairie be small, its greatest beauty consists in the vicinity of the surrounding margin of woodland, which resembles the shore of a lake, indented with deep vistas, like bays and inlets, and throwing out long points, like capes and headlands; while occasionally these points approach so close on either hand, that the traveller passes through a narrow avenue, or strait, where the shadows of the woodland fall upon his path, and then again emerges into another prairie. Where the plain is large, the forest outline is seen in the far perspective, like the dim shore when beheld at a distance from the ocean. The eye sometimes roves over the green meadow without discovering a tree, a shrub, or any other object in the immense expanse but the wilderness of grass and flowers, while at another time, the prospect is enlivened by the groves, which are seen interspersed like islands, or the solitary tree, which stands alone in the blooming desert.”
Karl Anton Postl wrote under the pen name of Charles Sealsfield about the prairies west of Houston as they were in 1832: “…we distinguished some dark masses, which we afterward discovered to be groups of trees; but to our eyes they looked exactly like islands in a green sea, and we subsequently learned that they were called islands by the people of the country. It would have been difficult to have given them a more appropriate name or one better describing their appearance..These islands are one of the most enchanting features of Texas scenery. Of infinite variety and beauty of form and unrivalled in the growth and magnitude of the trees that compose them, they are to be found of all shapes – circular, parallelograms, hexagons, octagones – some again twisting and winding like dark-green snakes over the brighter surface of the prairie. In no park or artificially laid-out grounds would it be possible to find anything equalling these natural shrubberies in beauty and symmetry. In the morning and evening especially, when surrounded by a sort of veil of light-greyish mist and with the horizontal beams of the rising or setting sun gleaming through them, they offer pictures which it is impossible to get weary of admiring…I passed several beautiful islands of pecan, plum, and peach [laurel cherry] trees. It is a peculiarity worthy of remark, that these islands are nearly always of one sort of tree…the vine only is common to them all and embraces them all alike with its slender but tenacious branches. I rode through several of these islands. They were perfectly free from bushes and brushwood, and carpeted with the most beautiful verdure possible to behold.”
That these prairie mottes were not figments of early imaginations is clear. That modern poet of nature, Donald Culross Peattie, wrote a whole book, A Prairie Grove, about one of them, and his words of introduction match those of the explorers exactly: “The prairie island and its grove are like the hammock in the everglades, like an atoll in the sea, like an oasis upon the desert….”
This blending of trees and grass which was prairie is made even clearer for us from further descriptions which use another analogy. Dr. Ferdinand Roemer, in 1849, expressed it most simply. Writing about present Harris County, he said, “After passing through the forest, I had my first view of a Texas prairie…The oft-made comparison with an English park on a grand scale appeared very appropriate to me.”
The references here are to parks and orchards, and they are echoed time and again by others. William Carleton, leaving early Victoria in 1855, said, “The country about here was very beautiful indeed, but farther on and until we got to Gonzalez it was beautiful beyond description. I thought I had seen beautiful scenery here before, but what I passed on this route surpassed anything I had ever seen before or imagined. No ornamented ground, no lordly park I have ever seen can be compared with it…”
At about the same time, J. De Cordova was even more specific in drawing the comparison for east Texas. He said, “…But by far the richest and most beautiful district or country I have ever seen, in Texas or elsewhere, is that watered by the Trinity and its tributaries. Occupying east and west a bet of one hundred miles in width, with about equal quantities of prairie and timber, intersected by numerous clear, fresh streams and countless springs, with a gently-undulating surface of prairie and oak-openings, it presents the most charming views, as of a country in the highest state of cultivation, and you are startled at the summit of each swell of the prairie with a prospect of groves, parks and forests, with intervening plains of luxuriant grass…”
Even the southwestern stretches which we do not think of as prairies at all today were described in the same terms. Witness Cora Montgomery’s description of Maverick County in 1852. She put it this way: “Our embryo town [Eagle Pass] lies on a sloping prairie, sprinkled with mesquite trees like a vast and venerable orchard, and falling in successive platforms or terraces down to the river’s edge.”
This, then, was the original Texas prairie. Imagine, those of you who know the lakes and bays and oceans, who have seen capes and headlands and islands, these scenes transposed into similar configurations, with slopes and hillocks and hollows of grass and flowers, and skirts and groves of trees in place of shores, points and islands.
Time and again the explorers expressed feelings of relaxation and relief in moving out of either forest or large plains into prairies.
The Quantity of Trees in the Original Prairies
But on to some details of the prairies. First, what was the relative amount of trees and grass in a prairie? No simple answer to this question arises out of the early accounts. It appears that this is because the proportions were so variable.
There were prairies described which had so many trees that the explorers threaded through the narrow straits between the forests, and the openings were those beautiful little, locked-in meadows we have already described. Other prairies had the trees as only scattered islands…Then there were prairies with their trees few and standing singly…There were even prairies with large flat, treeless spaces – the plains within the prairies – between fingers of forests.
Olmstead stated that the proportions of grass increased and trees decreased from east to west across prairies. This is as it should be if the prairie is actually the zone of juncture of the eastern forests and the western grassland – or the strip between them which neither can totally claim.
There is general agreement that the prairies of east Texas were about equal part wood and grassland. Kennedy stated this for the whole country watered by the Trinity and Brazos, the upper San Bernard, the San Andres and Cummins Creek. We have seen that De Cordova corroborated this about the land in the Trinity River watershed as did Mirabeau B. Lamar…
In central and south Texas were many prairies. Kennedy calls them “A vast chain of prairie, extending from the western bank of the Colorado to the mountains…” This word – chain – is very well chosen, for in this region one apparently found the prairies strung out in a row from east to to west. Abbe Domenech says of this area, “the prairies are divided by forests which extend along the rivers.” But here these forests were not wide. Kennedy says, for instance, that “The Colorado bottoms differ much from those of the Brazos and the rivers of Eastern Texas, which are always covered with a heavy growth of timber. Many of the richest bottoms of the Colorado are prairie of extraordinary fertility…” Olmsted concurs, saying, “We struck the Colorado at Bastrop…The bottom was here narrow, the surface rising rapidly to open prairie or post-oak… The scenery along the river is agreeable, with a pleasant alteration of gently-sloping prairies and wooded creek bottoms.”
The Grass of the Prairies
Another crucial question about prairies arises – how much grass was in their meadows, and what was it like?
Kennedy’s observer, Hall, is most specific of any about this. He tells us, “In the summer the prairie is covered with long coarse grass, which soon assumes a golden hue, and waves in the wind like a ripe harvest.” The point is that rather than a close-cropped, velvety sward, the prairie grass was a tall and stalky crop. By the middle of summer it had turned the gold of ripeness. The scene was, for most of the year, that of a standing or later and unharvested, falling grain field, with the breezes rippling the tall stalks like it does the ripened wheat on much of the same ground today.
But if this is so, how could the pioneers call these fields lawns? We moderns are once again tricked by the narrow image a word may give to us of so little experience. Only for those of the last fifty years or so since the development of mechanical mowers had a lawn been merely inches high.
Just how tall was this harvest? Hall is specific here also. He continues:”…In the low, wet prairies…the centre or main stem of this grass, which bears the seed, acquires great thickness, and shoots up to the height of eight or nine feet, throwing out a few long, coarse leaves or blades, and the traveller often finds it higher than his head, as he rides through it on horseback.“
If we are ever to imagine the low prairies of east Texas west to Dallas and the Blackland Belt, we must force ourselves to see these grass forests with the heads of their grasses often nodding as high as our own. The degree of difficulty we find in imagining this scene as we stand outside any of our Prairie Views or Grand Prairies today, with the grass hardly to our boot-tops, measures how far removed we are from Texas as it was.
And so it was in the mixed-grass prairies, with the grammas, the dropseeds, lovegrasses, etc. topping out at three to five feet tall. They will still do it wherever they are left uncropped and the soil is yet undepleted.
It was only the prairies of northwestern texas which originally had the short grass standing only a foot or so high. These were usually called by the explorers mesquite prairies, after the mesquite trees whose presence helped make them prairies instead of plains and after the excellent grass which grew associated with these trees.
North Texas prairies had grass tall enough to hide all but the antlers, necks and tails of bounding deer or the humps of grazing buffalo, while south texas prairie grass was tall enough and thick enough to hide men crouching on sleds being pulled through it by oxen. What luxuriant cover this was! What a commentary on our greed is the naked, almost barren state of our overgrazed prairie pastures today, which will hardly hide a rabbit.
Perhaps someone objects. Someone who appreciates flowers may think of all this grass as monotonous and insist that the blanket of flowers on our modern, almost grassless prairies is preferable. I must hasten to state that there were plenty of flowers in those grassy prairies – probably even more than today. Frederic Gaillardet, in 1839, stated that, “For nine months of the year Texas is a green carpet decorated with wild flowers.”
Hall’s observations brought to us by Kennedy detail the scenes through the whole growing season: “The first coat of grass is mingled with small flowers, the violet, the bloom of the strawberry, and others of the most minute and delicate texture. As the grass increases in size, these disappear, and others, taller, and more gaudy, display their brilliant colours upon the green surface; and still later, a larger and coarser succession rises with the rising tide of verdure.
The whole of the surface of these beautiful plains is clad, throughout the season of verdure, with every imaginable variety of color, from grave to gay. It is impossible to conceive of greater diversity, or a richer profusion of hues, or to detect any predominating tint, except the green, which forms the beautiful ground, and relieves the exquisite brilliancy of all the others.
The only changes of colour observed at the different seasons arise from the circumstance that, in the spring, the flowers are small, and the colours delicate, as the heat becomes more ardent, a hardier race appears, the flowers attain a greater size, and the hue deepens; and still later, a succession of coarser plants rise above the tall grass, throwing out larger and gaudier flowers. As the season advances from spring to midsummer, the individual flower becomes less beautiful, when closely inspected, but the landscape is far more variegated, rich and glowing.”
Sealsfield (Postl) confirmed this description of northern prairies as applying also to Texas by writing of a scene he witnessed in 1832, in western Harris or Waller County: “…the part of the prairie in which I now find myself presented the appearance of a perfect flower garden with scarcely a square foot of green to be seen. The most variegated carpet of flowers I ever beheld lay unrolled before me – red, yellow, violet, blue, every color, every tint was there – millions of the most magnificent prairie roses, tube-roses, dahlias, and fifty other kinds of flowers. The finest artificial garden in the world would sink into insignificance when compared with this parterre of nature’s own planting. My horse could scarcely make his way through the wilderness of flowers, and I for a time remained lost in admiration of this scene of extraordinary beauty. The prairie in the distance looked as if clothed with rainbows that waved to and fro over its surface.”
So there were enough forbs to sprinkle all this grass with flowers all the growing season. The ones we know had their season, and perhaps some of them grew in that rich mulch far taller than we see them today, while even taller ones may have disappeared along with the tallest aristocrats of the grasses.
There were, in Texas, some special kinds of prairies. These seem to indicate special environmental situations prompting special biological communities, or else prairies with unusual topographic features.
One of the most interesting of these was the “wee prairie.” The name does not indicate any tiny size of these prairies, but is a curious corruption of the term, “weed prairie.” These were apparently localized situations where little grass grew and forbes ruled exclusively. They were described in 1839, by Kennedy, as follows: “In their ‘wee prairies’, the counties of Robertson and Milam possess a characteristic of the soil peculiar to themselves. These prairies, unlike most of those in other localities, are covered with a thick growth of weeds instead of grass. These weeds are generally from ten to fifteen feet high, and so dense that they are almost impenetrable to man or horse, resembling in some respects, the cane-brakes of the alluvial region. The settlers highly estimate the productive power of the weed prairie.” De Cordova is the only other early writer to mention these, speaking of the “…immense bodies of fine weed-prairies, so proverbial for their fertility,” in present Falls County. As far as we know, these peculiar prairies were limited to the three counties named in these passages.
A strange passage exists which can do little more than intrigue us. It consists of two sentences written by the Abbe Domenech about a situation encountered when travelling in what is now Cameron County at the southern tip of Texas. The Abbe relates: “We then passed over glades and prairies where the earth was so light and soft that sometimes it gave way under our horses’ feet. The rancheros call these tierras falsas (treacherous grounds): after rain they are very dangerous; man and horse sometimes sink and disappear in them, as in shaking prairies.” Was this soil so fine and sandy that it could form a quicksand-like mass after rains, or were there at that time old resacas so choked with partly decayed plant material that horse and rider could sink into them? Who knows today? At any rate, there must have been something unsteady enough that we can add the term, shaking prairie, to the list of strange Texas locales.
The Wetness of the Undrained Prairies
The result of all of our modern activity has been to improve the drainage of wetlands. Our agriculture and our desire for convenience cannot tolerate water standing anywhere except behind our dams or in rice fields, and so we forget what the country was like before drainage projects. We therefore don’t realize what the low-lying prairies, on many of which we now have nice, dry cities, highways and farms, were originally like in the wet season.
Dr. Roemers account of the traveller’s tribulations in 1849 on a wet prairie should enlighten us: “Hardly had we left the city [Houston] when the flat houston prairie loomed up as an endless swamp. Large puddles of water followed one another and at several places a large section of land was under water. All of the low coastal region presents a similar picture during this time of the year…darkness fell and still we had not reached the end of the prairie, nor did we find a dry place to lie down…[in the morning] we proceeded on our journey. We were confronted with the same obstacles met with on the previous day. An extensive, level prairie, now and then broken by a sparse grove of oaks, partially covered with water, lay before us…Night overtook us in a wet, open prairie, where not a stick of wood could be found to kindle a fire.”
These were the prairies of Texas. They made up a larger part of the State than any other natural community. There was much variation in them, as they were themselves a curious blending of hills and plains, forests and grassland, forbes and grasses.
The Early Destruction of the Prairies
By late in the 1850s these prairies were vastly altered – so much so that by the end of that decade descriptions were not of the prairies in their original state anymore. By 1860 many of the trees on them were cut and much of the grass had disappeared. Although actual cultivation was ripping into them by then, two other forces accomplished the first destruction of the prairies even before the plow.”
One of the first agents in the destruction of the prairie was the so-called domestic animal. It was the practice of the pioneers to turn as many cows, sheep and goats as they could acquire loose in the prairies and reap the gain in offsprings of the prolific, semi-wild herds. In south Texas the missions pioneered by introducing the Spanish open ranching system full-blown, and the hers were prodigious. By the 1760s the five mission ranches in the San Antonio area were working a total of more than 5,000 cattle and 17,000 sheep and goats, while the mission Espiritu Santo, near present Goliad, had a total of 16,000 cattle by 1768. In north and east Texas the other settlers needed no old-world systems. They managed in their own ways to get the cattle and sheep and goats out onto the prairies and re-capture a part of the increase.
One can imagine the destruction worked upon the prairie vegetation by such herds. There was a respite as the mission activity dwindled and failed by the end of the eighteenth century, but soon after that the settlers flooded in, each establishing his herd and turning it onto the prairies. Add to these the myriads of wild horses grazing everywhere by then, and one must envision the tall grasses being whittled down year by year. The tall, standing biomass, the life of the prairie as surely as the trees are the life of the forest, was being eaten away. By the 1850s this process was far enough along that the prairie was often stripped, naked and dying, and it sometimes took some of its tormentors with it.
Olmsted describes a scene of such an early death of some prairies. When he was travelling down the Guadelupe River, he said, “On the 20th February  we reached Gonzales. The prairies through which the road passes were cropped very close, and we passed many carcasses of cattle that had miserably perished by the road of cold and starvation.”
There was another destruction being wreaked upon the prairie by this time.
Carl, Prince of Solm-Braunfels described it in 1854 – and notice that he recounts the practice as a happy one, making the farmer’s life easier. “Throughout the entire winter the prairie sare covered with green grass. When it becomes dry, it is burned, after which the prairie looks black, producing a rather dreary effect. Only one food shower is necessary to erase the black appearance and to enable the fresh grass to shoot up and cover the plain with its refreshing greenery.”
The extent of this burning of the prairies must have been great. Olmstead, in his 1854 travels, while in present Leon County, said, ‘Most of the prairies have been burned over. Both yesterday and today we have been surrounded by the glare of fires at night.”
Already in 1849, Dr. Roemer said, “The grass had been burnt nearly all the way from San Felipe to this point [on the San Bernard River] The monotonous black ground extended as far as the eye could see. A few deer which were cropping the tender stubble were the only living things we saw. AT another place several prairie chickens (Tetrao cupido L.) fluttered out of a strip of long yellow grass which had not been burned, owing to the moist soil found there.”
And in 1846, McClintock, while traveling through what is today western Limestone and eastern Falls Counties, said: “Scarce any timber today, a few scattering musquit trees, many quite dead, others dieing. The gray and bleaching trunks and boughs present a melencholly appearance…The Timber is of slow growth, and easily killed – great quantities are destroyed by the burning of the prairies.”
This fire was a new enemy of the prairie. McClintock’s mesquites were just dying from it in 1846. There is no evidence that the prairie fire started by lightning was ever any more than a freak happening of local consequence. Nor, contrary to many statements, is there any evidence that the Texas Indians ever used fire to drive out game until they learned the practice from the Spanish. But they learned that technique quickly, and the ranchers burned after them in their turn. Thus the prairies capital was repeatedly reduced to ashes. Herds of cattle and sheep and goats were always ready to chop off the new growth when it came back, and the prairies could not rejuvenate themselves. So by 1860 the grand prairies existed only in pitiful remnants, and we leave them here.
The prairies of Texas were as grand as the sea, with moods and vistas as variable, but with a grace and tidiness which would do justice to a civilized park. They were as fruitful as an old-fashioned orchard field. They waited here, a home away from home for the wanderers, some of the most hospitable scenes for any settlers to enter. And they could have supported many humans while surviving as prairies. But we destroyed them in our greed. Where would you go to see a real prairie today?”