Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

The Tallgrass Prairie in Illinois


by Ken Robertson

When European settlers began moving westward from the original eastern States, they encountered large expanses devoid of trees but covered with a sea of tall grasses and wildflowers undulating in the wind. The settlers adopted the French word 'prairie.'

The early settlers, originally from the forested regions of Europe, found the prairies to be rather frightening. They were not used to the hordes of biting insect, intense summer heat and high humidity, bleak, windy winters, and periodic raging prairie fires. Because no trees grew on the prairie, the settlers at first considered the prairies to be infertile. This, plus the need for firewood and construction timber prompted them to build homes at the edges of the prairies and along rivers, where trees persisted. It was not long, however, before the settlers discovered that the prairie soil was more fertile than forest soil, and was in fact among the most productive soils in the world.

Prairie schooner resembles a ship going over land with its canvas covered wagon

The settlers often came by way of prairie schooner. The prairie was sometimes called a "sea of grass", and schooners are small, sea-going sailing ships. Prairie schooners were also called covered wagons or conestogas.

A difficulty the settlers encountered was that their plows, made for forest soils, were not able to cut through the dense prairie sod. It was not until 1837, when John Deere invented the self-scouring, steel-bladed plow in Grand Detour, Illinois, that it was possible to break the prairie sod and farm the prairie on a large scale. Then, in a remarkably short period of perhaps 50 years, the vast majority of prairie in Illinois was plowed and converted to agriculture. Prior to settlement, more than 60% of Illinois, approximately 22 million acres, were covered with prairie. Today, just over 2,000 acres remain, less than one-hundredth of one percent.

Prairie Formation    > Types of Prairies in Illinois

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