online book
Book Cover to Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park
Cover Page


Table of Contents


A Grassland
Preservation Ethic

The Pottawatomie County Park

Reconsidering the
Flint Hills Options

Kansas Flint Hills
v. Cherokee Strip

Kansans Divide:
The Winn Bills

The Osage Prairie
National Preserve

The Spring Hill
Z Bar Ranch

H.R. 2369

The "Kassebaum Commission"



Note on Sources


Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
Legislative History, 1920-1996

Introduction: Contrasting Images of the Prairie Landscape

During the nineteenth century, the midcontinental plains were alternately disparaged as an inhospitable desert and rhapsodized as a verdant garden, depending on the mindset of the viewer, the vantage point, and the motive for recording an observation. Ever since explorers Zebulon Pike and Stephen Long created the image of the Great American Desert that emblazoned early maps of the West, writers and artists have been recording contradictory human responses to the prairied landscapes of America. [1]

After traveling from the Atlantic seaboard to the Wabash River through "a thousand miles of gloomy forest," George Flower found the "beautiful and light expanses" of the eastern Illinois prairie "most enchanting." To Washington Irving, whose native habitat was the eastern forest, there was "something inexpressibly lonely in the solitude of the prairie." Charles Dickens found nothing in the American prairie landscape remotely pleasing or even interesting: "...its very flatness and extent, which left nothing to the imagination, tamed it down and cramped its interest." Walt Whitman's imagination, conversely, led him to wonder whether the prairies and plains, more than Yosemite, Niagara Falls, and Upper Yellowstone, were not truly "North America's characteristic landscape." The vast majority of Euro-Americans who explored and settled the mid-continent, however, mainly saw economic potential inherent in the prairie. Louis Joliet, exploring the Upper Mississippi Valley in 1673, noted that "a settler would not there spend ten years in cutting down and burning the trees; on the very day of his arrival, he could put his plough into the ground." [2] Writing 250 years later, Herbert Quick compared the fertility of Iowa's tallgrass prairie to mother's milk: "Bird, flower, grass, cloud, wind, and the immense expanse of sunny prairie, swelling up into undulations like a woman's breasts, turgid with milk for a human race." [3]

Artist George Catlin stands virtually alone among those who confronted the undomesticated prairies in suggesting that a portion of them be preserved, and his nineteenth-century appeal found an audience in the twentieth. As much ethnographer as artist, Catlin understood the impending fate of those American Indian cultures he rendered meticulously on canvas and of the vast grassland plains that sustained them. His attitude toward Native Americans was typically ethnocentric for the times. Nonetheless, he genuinely lamented the anticipated loss of dramatic "wilderness" that indigenous peoples inhabited and gave life to. As early as 1832, Catlin called for a government policy that would create a "nation's park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature's beauty." [4]

A century passed before the loss of prairie landscape reached proportions that could no longer be ignored. By then, the economic value of the prairie was not only fully understood; it had been fully appropriated.


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