On the Botany Trail


Where the course of the Missouri River turned north in the area of present day Kansas City, the Corps of Discovery increasingly encountered a vast new landscape; the grasslands (Prairies) of the central North American Continent. Their first encounter would be with the tallgrass prairie realm of present day Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota followed by the shorter midgrass prairies of the Dakotas and the shortgrass of Montana. Indeed, they would not leave the grasslands until they reached the Rocky Mountains.

The Corps of Discovery, like others from the woodlands of the east who followed, were both surprised and impressed by these seemingly endless open spaces. This is reflected in Clark's use of adjectives like extensive, open, clear, bald pated, handsome, beautiful and boundless. Clark's journals encompassing the time they traveled from the Kansas/Nebraska state line to their meeting with the Indians at Council Bluff make reference to prairies almost every day. They include the following accounts. (taken from Moulton's book, with liberal modifications to modern English)

Monday, July 16, 1804 (Clark) ....an extensive Prairie on the Starboard Side. This Prairie I call bald pated prairie from a range of bald hills parallel to the river and at from 3 to 6 miles distant from it, and extends as far up and down as I can see.
(Lewis) ....when we came to on the Starboard shore opposite the lower point of the island of the Bald prairie where we encamped. (Refers to the Iowa Loess Hills in the area of Waubonsie State Park)

Thursday, July 19, 1804 (Clark) after ascending and passing through a narrow strip of woodland, came suddenly into an open and boundless Prairie. I say boundless because I could not see the extent of the
plain in any direction. The timber appeared to be confined to the river creeks and small branches. This Prairie was covered with grass about 18 inches or 2 feet high and contained little of anything else, except as before mentioned on the river creeks etc. This prospect was so sudden and entertaining that I forgot the object of my pursuit and turned my attention to the variety which presented themselves to my view. (Otoe County - Near Nebraska City, Nebraska)

Monday, July 30, 1804 (Clark) Set out early and proceeded.....to a clear open Prairie.....which is on a rise of about 70 feet higher than the bottom which is also a prairie covered with high grass, plums, grape vine and hazel....Capt. Lewis and myself walked in the Prairie on the top of the bluff and observed the most beautiful prospects imaginable. This Prairie is covered with grass abut 10 or 12 inches high, (land rich) rises about 1/2 mile back.....and is a plain as far as can be seen. Under those high lands next the river is beautiful bottom interspersed with groves of timber. (Council Bluff near present day Ft. Calhoun, NE)

Wednesday, August 1, 1804 (Clark) The Prairies contain cherries, apples, grapes, currants, raspberries,
gooseberries, hazelnuts and a great variety of plants and flowers not common to the U.S. What a field for a botanist and a naturalist.

Friday, August 3, 1804 (Clark) ......The situation of our last camp, Council Bluff or Handsome Prairie appears to be a very proper place for a trading establishment and fortification.

Two hundred years of development have not been kind to Clark's Handsome and Boundless Prairies. They have been replaced by cities, towns, and prosperous farms, as well as other species of grasses and legumes like corn, wheat and soybeans. Today only scattered remnants remain. Iowa's bald pated hills have fared a little better because their steep slopes and erodible soil discouraged agricultural development, but they have been impacted by another less visible result of settlement, fire suppression. This has allowed woodlands to slowly, almost imperceptibly encroach upon the prairie domain which persists like a ragtag army under siege on only the driest, hottest most inhospitable sites.

The following list identifies areas where one may still get a sense of what Lewis and Clark's boundless prairies and bald pated hills must have been like. Boundless they are not, but the descendents of the grasses and flowers that in Aldo Leopold's words ?tickled the bellies of the buffalo? may still be seen and experienced in these special places. Remember to treat them with the respect a 15,000 year old plant community deserves. Experience the waving grasses, flowers and butterflies; enjoy the vistas from Loess Hill promontories like Murray Hill; listen to the insects on a warm summer afternoon or evening; let the ever present wind flow over, in and around you; and leave it as you found it so others, may experience the prairie as William Clark did on that mid-July day 200 years ago prompting him to write about a prospect so sudden and entertaining that I forgot the object of my pursuit and turned my attention to the variety which presented themselves to my view.