Human Interactions:
European Explorers

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The word ‘Prairie’ is of French origin and refers to a meadow or pasture. When French explorers first encountered the prairies, they confronted a landscape completely foreign to them. Their early accounts of the prairie often include descriptions of the topography, plants, and animals that they encountered. Invariably, they mention the absence of trees, except for occasional groves (“Isles de Bois” or Islands of Wood, as Nicollet (1976) referred to them in the journals from his 1838-1839 expeditions in Minnesota) and wooded areas along streams or on broken topography, such as bluffs, ridges, and steep-sided hills. The early observers noted the flat or gently rolling character of the land. They also noted the presence of Bison (“buffaloes”) and other game animals that were hunted by the Native Americans, who used fire as a hunting tool. There are numerous accounts of prairie fires set for the purpose of hunting, as well as accounts of Native Americans and settlers using fire on the prairie for a wide variety of other purposes.

Travelling down the Illinois River, Sieur Deliette (1687), a French explorer wrote in 1687:

Four leagues from here is the fork of the real river of the Illinois...Here you begin to see the beauty of this country, both for the soil, which yields bountifully, and for the abundance of animals. You see places on the one side that are unwooded prairies requiring only to be turned up by the plow, and on the other side valleys spreading half a league before reaching the hills, which have no trees but walnut and oaks; and behind these, prairies like those I have just spoken of ...[along the river] you find...walnuts, ash, whitewood, Norway maple, cottonwood, a few maples, and grass, taller in places than a man....marshes, which in autumn and spring are full of bustards, swans, ducks, cranes, and teals,....[and] hills covered with wood,...from the edge of which are seen prairies of extraordinary extent.


Great Egret
Joe Milosevich
Father Louis Hennepin, a missionary travelling down the Kankakee River in December, 1680, wrote perhaps the earliest description of the area near Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie:


The region we entered was a great open plain on which nothing grows except high grass, which, being dry at that season had been burned by the Miami in hunting buffaloes. We saw the flames of the plains set afire by the Indians to facilitate the killing of the buffaloes.

Many other animals are found on these vast plains...Stags, roe deer, beavers, and otters are common. Geese, swans, turtledoves, wild turkeys, paroquets, partridges, and many other varieties of birds are extremely numerous. Fish are very abundant. The soil is exceptionally fertile. Those limitless prairies are dotted with forests of full-grown trees. Several kinds of fruit trees and wild vines are to be seen in the forests (floodplains and groves). ..There are fields covered with very good native hemp (grasses), which grows six to seven feet high the region is supplied with water by numerous lakes, rivers and streams, most of which are navigable. There are coal, slate, and iron mines. The pieces of pure red copper (are) found in various places (Hennepin, 1938).

Réné Robert Cavelier, Sieur de LaSalle, another early French explorer, described the Midewin area:

When they emerged from the desolate region of the Kankakee marshes, they found great open plains covered with tall dry grass; and they knew that they had at last reached the land of the Illinois, the prairie country of which they had heard so much. Their expectations of game were disappointed, for the autumnal fires, lit by the natives while hunting, had driven away the buffalo.

In a journey of more than 60 leagues they shot only two lean deer, some swans, and two wild geese, a meager support for so large a party. Two-thirds of the men, dissatisfied from lack of food, planned to desert and join the Indians, whom they saw now and then in the distance hovering about the burning prairies, but LaSalle divined and frustrated their scheme. When their need was sorest, however, they found an enormous buffalo mired on the bank of the river. Twelve men with difficulty dragged the huge creature to the solid ground with their strongest rope, and its flesh furnished abundant supplies (LaSalle as seen in Watts, 1957)


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