Role of Fire

Next | Back
Prairie Fire
Vernon L. LaGesse
Fire is an integral part of the prairie ecosystem, and the plants and animals that inhabit it have evolved with fire. Early journals of explorers and settlers on the prairie frequently contain descriptions of prairie fires, many of which also mention Native Americans and their use of fire for hunting. Father Louis Hennepin (1938) gave one of the first accounts of fire in the Kankakee region in 1680:

When they see a herd the Indians assemble in great numbers. They set fire to the grass all around these animals except for one passage left on purpose. There the Indians station themselves with their bows and arrows. The buffaloes, wanting to avoid the fire, are thus forced to pass by the Indians, who at times kill as many as a hundred and twenty of them in one day. The buffaloes are distributed according to the needs of the families.

In 1682, LaSalle also recorded the Miami Indians hunting with fire:

When they [the French explorers accompanying LaSalle] emerged from 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 (as quoted in Watts, 1957).

Burning of the prairies in the fall also resulted in plant growth earlier in the spring which attracted bison. With prairie fires, the Native Americans concentrated game in woodlands making them easier to stalk and hunt.

Native Americans and early explorers often set the prairie on fire as a form of long-distance communication. They also burned the prairies to make them easier to traverse. Sometimes, they set prairies on fire simply for the spectacle. Washington Irving (1859), while travelling in eastern Oklahoma in 1832, wrote:

In mere wantoness we fired the grass behind us when we left the opposite bank, and as the flames spread away in the distance we hoped to enjoy an excitement similar to that which we had experienced in the night [during another fire].

Next | Back
Illinois State Museum State of Illinois IDNR Search, Last modified October 21st 2003, 07:53AM.