By Patrick Allitt, Emory College of Arts and Sciences
In the early 19th century, the whole area of Great Plains was referred to as “the Great American Desert”. Indians lived there, but only in very low-population density, and the standard notion was that no one will be able to live there because there’s no wood, leaving the population with nothing to build with and nothing to burn.
The settlers who came from back East in the hope of setting up farms had to overcome very formidable hardships and obstacles, but nevertheless land hunger, both among people back East and particularly among European migrants, prompted many of them to take the risk and move to the Great Plains, especially from Britain, Ireland, Germany, Norway, and Sweden.
Sometimes, entire communities would recreate themselves thousands of miles from their point of origin. For example, there are lots of examples of Norwegian communities that moved intact from coastal Norway all the way out to the Minnesota plains.
Other communities were multiethnic right from the start, and a lovely example is presented to us in Willa Cather’s novel My Antonia, one of the great masterpieces of literature about life on the early Great Plains. She described the way in which Anglo settlers, Bohemians, Germans, Russians and some French people were all living together.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Because there was no wood in most Great Plains communities, some newcomers experimented by building houses out of sod. This was literally cutting great bricks of the prairie earth; you need about an acre of prairie sod to do it. The root networks in it were so dense, that it would make something like brick, and then you could pile them together and build a thick and heavy sod house.
These sod houses had the effect of moderating extremes of temperature. Inside one of these sod houses, once you got the stove going, you keep it fairly warm in winter, and because it was dark and relatively cool inside, it could be a blessing in summertime.
There are lots of photographs of early sod houses, and they nearly always have manufactured doors and sash windows. They usually had to be imported, and one of the places one could import their windows and doors from was the Sears, Roebuck catalog. One would import, by train, a couple of windows and a door, and build the sod house around them, using rafters, too, along with beams for the roof.
Dugouts for Houses
Other people lived in dugouts; that is, they’d dig what was in effect a cave into the side of a hillside, and live there.
Willa Cather’s novel My Antonia mentions one of the Bohemian families, the family to which Antonia herself belongs, that is called the Shimerda family, and their first residence out there on the Plains is in a dugout.
Cow or Buffalo Chips for Firewood
Wood was as much vital for fuel and burning firewood as it was an important building material, everywhere back East. Most people believed that the Great Plains were inhabitable because there’s no firewood. But actually it was possible, although not ideal, to use an alternative fuel that was available locally, and this was buffalo chips or cow chips.
Tens of millions of buffalo had wandered the plains for generations, and their manure, once it had dried, made for a usable fuel that would flare briefly and smolder. It certainly wasn’t as good a fuel as wood would have been, but it was possible to keep the fires going through the winter with enormous quantities of buffalo chips.
Unfavorable Climatic Conditions
While winters in the plains were extremely harsh; summers were equally hot. One man who tried his luck as a rancher in the Dakota Badlands in the 1880s was Theodore Roosevelt, who later on went on to become president. Roosevelt wrote some terrific books about hunting and ranching out there in the Dakota Badlands.
He gives a wonderful description of the winter:
“For many days together, the cold was fierce in its intensity, and the wheels of the ranch wagon when we drove out for a load of firewood creaked and sang as they ground through the powdery snow that lay upon the ground. At night, in the clear sky, the stars seemed to snap and glitter. In the still nights we could hear the trees crack and jar from the strain of the biting frost, and in its winding bed the river lay fixed like a huge bent bar of blue steel.”
Similarly, there is another wonderful description of how he then goes out hunting for mountain sheep in these desperate conditions.
Threats and Hardships
Ecological factors, for example, grasshoppers, threatened the farmers’ security. In 1874, there was a terrible grasshopper infestation in Minnesota, which completely destroyed many of the farms and forced many of the farmers into bankruptcy, and obliged them to evacuate the territory altogether.
Prairie fires were also a great hazard. However, of all the hazards that the settlers had to worry about the worst was variations in rainfall. Of course, there are always variations in rainfall everywhere, but we now know that there’s a longer-term cyclical variation in the rainfall patterns of the Great Plains.
Common Questions about What Was it Like to Live in the Great Plains
Because there was no wood in most Great Plains communities, some newcomers experimented by building houses out of sod. Other people lived in dugouts; that is, they’d dig what was in effect a cave into the side of a hillside, and live there.
The early settlers in the plains used the locally available cow or buffalo chips as an alternative fuel.
Unfavorable climatic conditions, ecological factors such as crop predators, Prairie fires, etc. were some of the threats to life in the plains.