Land of Fire: The Upper Missouri Country in the Nineteenth Century

Throughout much of the nineteenth century, Indian fire and the Upper Missouri Country were synonymous. Fire was as much a part of the region’s landscape as bison, big bluestem, and wide-open spaces. Every European and European-American who spent any length of time in the region, especially before the era of agricultural settlement, saw multiple fires during their stay.

The reason for the ubiquitous presence of fire across the Upper Missouri had to do with the many uses the Indians put to it. They employed fire to enhance wildlife habitat and foster the growth of forage plants. They also used it as a weapon of war, a means of communication, an aid to hunting, a resource conservation tool, a method of pest control, and an instrument for the improvement of mobility.

Fire has a long and sordid history as a weapon of war.

Across the Upper Missouri, the tribes employed fire to flush enemy warriors out of thick brush or tall grass, to burn down an enemy village or fortification, to frighten game animals away from an enemy encampment, and to destroy the food stores of an opposing force, knowing that warriors cannot fight on an empty stomach.

Late fall or winter represented the most strategic time of the year to set fire to an adversary’s village or destroy an opponent’s grazing lands or food stores. The loss of shelter and food immediately prior to, or during the winter months, could render an Indian band destitute, hungry, and vulnerable, just as the weather became deadly.

On November 12, 1812, fur trader John Luttig, stationed at an American trading post on the west bank of the Missouri in present-day Corson County, South Dakota, witnessed a prairie fire set by a group of Indians who had become angry with the Americans. Luttig wrote, “…3 Rees [Arikara Indians], which had camped with us last night went away displeased, getting not enough to eat and set the Prairie around us a fire….” This fire had a sinister purpose. Specifically, it occurred so late in the year that the burned area would not foster any new plant growth until the following spring. Consequently, the land would remain denuded for months on end, and would not attract any bison to the vicinity of the fort. Thus, the fire would force the Americans to travel further to find game animals. And during the winter months that meant more work, especially in deep snow, and more danger, particularly from war parties and snowstorms.[1]

In 1818, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun sent the Yellowstone Expedition up the Missouri to reaffirm United States dominion over the Upper Missouri Country. Expedition members eventually encamped at Engineer Cantonment, near modern-day Council Bluffs, Iowa. During their stay, fires repeatedly raged across the hills and prairies nearby. Although the reason for those fires will never be known for certain, the Oto Indians who lived in the vicinity of the cantonment probably set the fires to drive away the game animals and deny the Americans a food source. Or, knowing the Americans had a reputation for wantonly slaughtering any creature within range of their rifles, the Oto may have driven the animals away from the fort so that they themselves could hunt the creatures at a later date.

Besides depriving an enemy of food, Indian fire, and the destruction of grass that accompanied it, hindered the mobility of enemy war parties by depriving their horses of fodder. Additionally, the smoke from a prairie fire could conceal the retreat of an Indian band confronted by a superior force, or conversely, the smoke could obscure the advance of horsemen on an adversary’s village or campsite.

On April 28, 1811, Englishmen John Bradbury, observed a series of large fires near today’s Omaha, Nebraska, that he believed had been set by a band of Indians in retreat. He wrote, “…we saw…indications of war parties having been recently in the neighborhood, and observed in the night the reflection of immense fires, occasioned by burning the prairies. At this late season, the fires are not made by the hunters to facilitate their hunting but by war parties; and more particularly when returning unsuccessful, or after a defeat, to prevent their enemies from tracing their steps.”[2]

Fire also assisted in the stealing of horses, a practice participated in by all the region’s tribes for the simple reason that horses were vital to both hunting and warfare on the open plains. Whenever a band lost all the forage surrounding its village to a fire, it was forced to move its horse herd to a new location, further away from the watchful eyes of the village’s residents. The transfer of the herd across the plains, and its establishment on fresh pasturage, increased the opportunities for pilferage by thieves. Fire was also used to frighten and scatter an enemy horse herd, making it possible for bandits to steal the strays.

In spring 1859, Henry Boller, a trader at Fort Atkinson (east of Fort Berthold on the north shore of the Missouri) recalled how frightened the Hidatsa became after they lost their pastureland to a fire. “The dry rushes in the prairie bottom had been set on fire and were burning steadily, threatening to spread far and wide. This was a fresh cause of alarm, for by the destruction of their pasturage the Indians would be compelled to drive their horses to a great distance, thereby increasing the risk of their capture.”[3]

The tribes utilized fire as a means of communication. But contrary to portrayals in American popular culture, Indians did not tap out some kind of Morse Code with blanket and smoke. Rather, they set simple fires to warn other members of their band of the approach of an enemy, to inform strangers of their own presence, or to convey any number of pre-determined messages to comrades.

On July 18, 1806, members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition saw a column of smoke off to the south, southeast while descending the Yellowstone River in present-day Stillwater County, Montana. William Clark wrote about this sighting, “…at 11 A.M. I observed a Smoke rise to the S.S.E. in the plains towards the termination of the Rocky Mountains in that direction (which is Covered with Snow) this Smoke must be raisd. By the Crow Indians in that direction as a Signal for us, or other bands. I think it most probable that they have discovered our trail and takeing us to be Shoshone &c. in Serch of them the Crow Indians to trade as is their Custom, have made this Smoke to Shew where they are – or otherwise takeing us to be their Enemy made this Signal for other bands to be on their guard….”[4] Clark never learned exactly why the Indians had set this fire, but he did guess the likely reasons for it.

The Yankton Sioux, who in the early 1800s inhabited the lands between the Upper Des Moines River in the east and the Lower James River in the west, employed fire to kill pests. In the summer months, soon after arriving at a campsite, the Yankton burned the grass to keep the mosquitoes and flies away.

Big bluestem and slough grass grew down in the Missouri Valley bottomlands. If not grazed or burned, the stems of these tall plants died during the fall. Winter snows and freezing rains then knocked the dead grass over and compacted it. After the snow melted in the spring, a tangled mat of dried-out vegetation covered segments of the valley floor. Indians on foot or on horseback found it difficult, if not impossible, to travel through this matted grass. So, to improve their mobility, the Indians torched the dead grass, clearing paths for themselves and their draft animals.

Fire served an important role in hunting. Specifically, all of the Upper Missouri tribes burned the prairie in the vicinity of their villages and encampments to facilitate the growth of fresh forage, knowing that the tender new shoots of grass that emerged from the blackened soil would entice wild grazers, thereby making it easier for hunters to find and kill the animals. Indians even torched the plains in order to herd bison. These herding fires either pushed the animals away from a competing tribe’s territory or drove them toward one’s own territory.

Although the Upper Missouri tribes possessed a great deal of knowledge about fire, its behavior, and its many applications, they did not always get it right. Sometimes their fires accidently killed or wounded the very animals they were supposed to benefit. Several travelers recounted seeing bison that had been blinded by flying embers, burned by flames, or asphyxiated by heavy smoke.

Fur trader Edwin Denig spent years in the employ of the American Fur Company at Fort Union, a major trading post located on the north bank of the Missouri opposite the mouth of the Yellowstone. During his time at the fort, Denig became quite knowledgeable of Indian fire practices. He observed that fires lit too close to the onset of winter could be disastrous for the Indians. He wrote, “[such a fire] destroys their hunting by driving away all game and renders the country unfit for pasturage during the winter.”[5] Passing war parties, carelessness, malicious persons, or the inability of a fire-starter to properly read the weather usually caused these late season fires.

Occasionally, Indian fires got out of control and took off in unintended directions or burned far more territory than planned. Denig commented on these accidental conflagrations. “Sometimes the flames are very destructive and sweep over districts several hundred miles in all directions until extinguished by rain, snow or contrary winds.”[6]

In 1823, German Prince Paul Wilhelm witnessed a large, possibly out-of-control, fire in the Missouri Valley in present-day western Iowa. He wrote, “Both banks of the Missouri soon became the scene of an enormous struggle of the elements, which man had loosened for the destruction of organic matter. It was a truly horrifying but at the same time a magnificent sight, as we drifted along in the middle of the river, and watched the banks of the giant Missouri as it appeared for miles a sea of flames.”[7]

On October 29, 1804, explorer William Clark recalled a deadly fire in the vicinity of the Mandan villages. “The Prairie was Set on fire (or Cought by accident) by a young man of the Mandins, the fire went with Such velocity that it burnt to death a man and woman, who Could not Get to any place of Safty, one man a woman & Child much burnt and Several narrowly escaped the flame….”[8]

As the above accounts attest, fire gave and it took away. But overall, the Indians considered it beneficial. That’s why the Upper Missouri Country had once been a land of fire.


[1] John C. Luttig, Journal of a Fur-Trading Expedition on the Upper Missouri, 1812-1813, ed., Stella M. Drumm, (New York: Argosy-Antiquarian LTD., 1964), 92.

[2] Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., Early Western Travels, 1748-1846, vol. 5, Bradbury’s Travels in the Interior of America, 1809-1811, (New York: AMS Press, 1966), 72.

[3] Henry A. Boller, Among the Indians: Four Years on the Upper Missouri, 1858-1862, ed., Milo Milton Quaife, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1972), 307.

[4] Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and Members of the Corps of Discovery, The Lewis and Clark Journals: An American Epic of Discovery, The Abridgement of the Definitive Nebraska Edition, ed., Gary E. Moulton, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003), 356.

[5] Edwin Thompson Denig, Five Indian Tribes of the Upper Missouri, Sioux, Arickaras, Assiniboines, Crees, Crows, ed., John C. Ewers, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961), 107.

[6] Ibid., 107.

[7] Paul Wilhelm, “First Journey to North America in the Years 1822 to 1824 by Paul Wilhelm, Duke of Wuerttemberg,” trans. Wm. G. Bek, South Dakota Historical Collections, vol. 19, (Pierre, S.D.: Hipple Printing Company, 1938), 443-444.

[8] Gary E. Moulton, ed., The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Volume 3, August 25, 1804-April 6, 1805, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987), 210.

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