“The Prairies are All on Fire”: Indians, Fire, and Forage Across the Upper Missouri Country

The Upper Missouri Country encompassed all of the lands within the Missouri River drainage basin that lay north and northwest of the Platte-Missouri River confluence. The environment of this region differed in significant ways from that of the Lower Missouri watershed.

For example, the Upper Missouri Country experienced unpredictable, violent weather. Between April and August each year, cyclonic thunderstorms, accompanied by hail, tornadoes, and drenching rains, frequently struck the region. And in some years, biting cold and blizzards began as early as October and did not end until the following May.

There was only one constant in the weather, and that was the wind. It never seemed to subside.

In June, winds carried warm, humid air up from the Gulf of Mexico, smothering everything in a sweaty embrace. In late July, dry southwesterlies did the exact opposite, pulling moisture from the land and dissipating it aloft. In January, howling northers came down from Canada and put the Upper Missouri Country into an ice box, where it remained until the Chinook winds of March released it.

The Upper Missouri Country’s sandy rivers, such as the Cheyenne, Heart, and Lower Yellowstone, ran high and fast in April, sky high and steady in June, and low and slow in August. Shovelnose sturgeon, channel catfish, shortnose gar, and bigmouth buffalo swam in these streams and many more.

Trees only grew down in the big river valleys, along small streams, or in the tight confines of gullies. Grass grew everywhere else. Big bluestem, little bluestem and buffalo grass blanketed the Upper Missouri Country from the Loess Hills to the Bighorns and beyond. Those grasses fed bison, elk, deer, and pronghorn.

The Upper Missouri Country had been molded for ions by powerful climatic, geological, and hydrological forces. Those forces gave the region its mountains and plains, its sluggish rivers, its soil types, and its extremes in weather.

But nature wasn’t the only thing to give form to the Upper Missouri Country. Humans also shaped the region. Specifically, Indians manipulated the land in order to encourage an abundance of wildlife. They accomplished this through nomadism, a conservation ethic, a low population density, and most importantly, through the use of fire.   

Each year, first in the early spring and then again in the late summer, the tribes of the Upper Missouri Country burned large swaths of the grassland to suppress the growth of trees, kill plant pests, and nurture the growth of grasses, herbs, and forbs – the fodder of millions of wild grazers.

In March or April, the Indians set fire to the dead grass accumulated since the previous fall. These fires fertilized the soil with nitrogen just before the start of the growing season.

Thaddeaus A. Culbertson, who traveled to the Upper Missouri Country in 1850, recalled that by mid-April the area’s prairie grass had become primed for fire. On April 16, 1850, while in the vicinity of today’s Vermillion, South Dakota, he wrote “Almost as far as the eye could reach there was nothing to be seen but wide spread level land covered with the dried grass of last season.”[1]

Just one day after Culbertson penned that diary entry, the prairie near the Vermillion River went up in flames, likely because the Yankton Indians had decided to set it alight in preparation for the coming growing season. Culbertson wrote of this big fire, “We saw before us to-day for a long time the smoke of burning prairies; at length we came in sight of the flame which must have been miles in length and in a short time our road lay right through it.”[2] Culbertson made it through the fire unscathed, but the size of the fire and its movement across the land deeply impressed him.

Almost two years to the day after Culbertson witnessed an Indian fire along the Vermillion River, Rudolph Friederich Kurz viewed the burning of the prairie south of Fort Clark (a fur trading post along the Missouri near today’s Stanton, North Dakota). On April 26, 1852, he wrote, “We rowed about 25 miles farther downstream [from Fort Clark], passing by great numbers of prairie fires. At this season of the year, Indians set the prairie on fire in order to remove the old, dried grass and provide room for the young, tender growth.”[3]

Unaware of the expertise required to properly set fire to the prairie without accidently destroying human life, or inadvertently killing game animals, and ignorant of the long history of Indian agriculture within the Upper Missouri Country, Kurz then rather dismissively remarked that setting fire to the grassland, “constitutes the Indians’ total cultivation of the land they are accustomed to wander.” With this statement, Kurz implied that the Indians did little to manage their land – a common belief among Europeans and European-Americans at the time. His conclusion could not have been further from the truth. The super abundance of bison and other wildlife across the Upper Missouri Country during the first half of the nineteenth century offers irrefutable proof that the Indians properly managed the land for not only their own benefit but for the overall health of the entire ecosystem.

On his downriver trip in 1852, Kurz had a close encounter with a prairie fire. He observed that the flames moved slowly over the dried prairie grass, about as fast as he could walk at a good pace. And the depth of the line of fire wasn’t greater than three feet, which meant that the flames did not burn intensely enough to damage the soil. Kurz did admit that the flames moved faster when a gust of wind came up. But overall, he didn’t believe anyone could die in a prairie fire unless they found themselves trapped in the midst of tall, dried grass when the flames and smoke came upon them.[4]

In late summer, the Indians burned the prairie again. This second annual burn usually took place in the last two weeks of August and the first two weeks of September, or just weeks before the start of the fall rainy season. The Indians wanted this burn to clear away the dried and dead grass of summer, fertilize the soil again with nitrogen, and with the help of fall rains, spur the growth of a fresh batch of forage. The new plant growth that emerged in late September and October provided ungulates an infusion of nutrients and protein before the onset of harsh winter conditions. In essence, this second annual burn, and the grasses that sprouted in its wake, gave many of the grazers of the Upper Missouri Country an energy boost that enabled them to survive another brutal winter.

If the Indians carried out the second annual burn too late in the season, or winter conditions came too soon after a burn and halted the emergence of fresh forage, the results could be disastrous for the region’s grazers. They would go into the winter months thinner, weaker, and more vulnerable to predation and the cold.[5]

Between 1834 and 1839, fur trader Francis A. Chardon kept a diary while stationed at Fort Clark. Over the course of those five years, Chardon repeatedly noted the presence of large fires and smoke in the vicinity of the fort in the months of August and September. For example, On August 30, 1834, he wrote, “Strong South Wind – Weather smok’y.” Three days later, he observed, “Weather continues very smokey.” On September 12, nearly two weeks since the first observation of heavy smoke around Fort Clark, he stated, “The weather continues smokey.”[6]

Two years later, again in late August and early September, Chardon witnessed the presence of big fires near Fort Clark. On August 22, 1836, he wrote, “Smoky weather – the prairies are on fire both sides of the river.” On September 5, 1836, he penned, “Strong south wind – The prairies are all on fire, impossible to see the hills, on account of the thick smoke.”[7]

Although we do not know the origins of the smoke that enveloped Fort Clark in the late summer of 1834 and 1836 (whether from fires caused by lightening, war parties known to be in the vicinity of the fort in both years, or embers from unattended campfires), we can surmise from the timing of the fires (late summer), their duration (almost continuously for two weeks in 1834 and intermittantly over the course of two weeks in 1836), the density of the smoke (what Chardon refers to as “very smokey” or “thick smoke”), and their geographical extent (Chardon’s comment that “The prairies are all on fire”) that the smoke resulted from large fires purposely set by the Indians to enhance wildlife habitat.

American explorer Meriwether Lewis saw firsthand how a late summer fire fostered plant growth and aided wildlife. On September 17, 1804, while at the Oacoma Bottom opposite modern-day Chamberlain, South Dakota, he noted, “…the surrounding country had been birnt about a month before and young grass had now sprung up to [a] hight of 4 Inches presenting the live green of the spring.” Lewis went on to describe the huge numbers of bison, elk, deer, and pronghorn in the area, which had been attracted to the fresh shoots of grass.[8]

In 1811, Englishman John Bradbury offered further proof of the ecological benefits of late summer burning. While along the Missouri Valley in what is now western Iowa, he recorded the following. “As the old grass had been burned in the autumn, it was now covered with the most beautiful verdure, intermixed with flowers. It was also adorned with clumps of trees, sufficient for ornament, but too few to intercept the sight: in the intervals we counted nine flocks of elk and deer feeding….”[9]

Over fifty years after Bradbury’s visit to the region, the tribes of the Upper Missouri Country still burned the prairie in the late summer. On August 28, 1867, Philippe Regis de Trobriand, who was stationed as a soldier at Fort Stevenson (near today’s Garrison, North Dakota), recounted a fire he witnessed not far from the fort. “For three days there has been fire on the prairies about twenty miles away in the direction of [Fort] Berthold. During the day, the only evidence of its advance are the columns of smoke drifting in the air in the distance far above the horizon; but when night comes, a flaming line casts its ruddy reflection on that part of the sky.”[10] Like so many Europeans and European-Americans who witnessed a large Indian fire in the nineteenth century, Trobriand felt a mixture of awe at the strange beauty of the scene and dread at the destructive potential of the flames.

Trobriand knew the cause of the fire near Fort Berthold and others like it. “These fires are not uncommon…the Indians themselves deliberately set the fires, because they believe that the cinders are a fertilizer which will stimulate the growth of grass next season and will thus make better pasture for the horse and buffalo.”[11]

Not long after Trobriand wrote those words, the centuries-long Indian use of fire across the Upper Missouri Country ended.

In the 1870s and 1880s, the United States imposed a different political, economic, and ecological order upon the Upper Missouri Country. That order destroyed the last of the great bison herds, confined the tribes to reservations, restricted tribal cultural practices, and facilitated the European-American agricultural settlement of the Missouri Valley and the plains and prairies on either side of it. Indian fire had no place in that new world of private property, permanent settlements, feedlots, and fences. So just like the great bison herds that it had sustained for thousands of years, Indian fire vanished from the land.


Endnotes

[1] Thaddeus A. Culbertson, Journal of an Expedition to the Mauvaises Terres and the Upper Missouri in 1850, Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of Ethnology, Bulletin 147, ed., John Francis McDermott, (Washington: United States GPO, 1952), 41.

[2] Ibid., 41.

[3] Rudolph Friederich Kurz, On the Upper Missouri, 1851-1852, ed., Carla Kelly, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005), 241.

[4] Ibid., 241-242.

[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] Francis A. Chardon, Chardon’s Journal at Fort Clark, 1834-1839, ed., Annie Heloise Abel, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 7-8.

[7] Ibid., 77, 79.

[8] Gary E. Moulton, ed., The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Vol. 3, August 25, 1804 – April 6, 1805, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987), 80-81.

[9] 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), 74.

[10] Philippe Regis de Trobriand, Military Life in Dakota, translated and edited by Lucile M. Kane, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982), 51.

[11] Ibid., 52.

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