Pioneer History by Richard C. Schmal

The Silence of the Prairie / The Passing of the Buffalo

(from the Feb. 27, 1996, Lowell Tribune, page 4)

The silence of the prairie! At no time or by any people can it ever be known again, but for the pioneers it remained a haunting memory.

Pioneer David Bloom vividly described the overpowering silence which he experienced while he was hunting away from the timber:

"No sound of insect or bird diverted my mind from the sense of loss and isolation. It was as if my hands were pinioned in the face of my greatest oppurtunity [sp.], as if the combined happenings of all the past and all the future might at any moment crash about my head, my puny arms being powerless to stay the avalanche. The great American desert or the mountains produce no such gripping at one's heart strings, no such catching of one's breath. It was the call of the prairies for release from their burden of suppressed and latent oppurtunity [sp.]; a plea for the safety valve of man's ingenuity to raise them above the curse of impotence and uselessness."

Along with the silence of the prairie came the beauty, as described by pioneer Solon Robinson (founder of Crown Point) as he told of his party of settlers arrival in northwest Indiana: "It was the last day of October 1834, when I first entered this 'arm of the Grand Prairie.' It was about noon, of a clear, delightful day, when we emerged from the wood, and for miles around stretched forth one broad expanse of clear, open land. At that time the whole of this county [Lake] scarcely showed a sign that the white man had yet been here, except those of my own household. I stood alone, wrapt up in that peculiar sensation that man only feels when beholding a prairie for the first time -- it is an indescribable, delightful feeling. Oh, what a rich mine of wealth lay outstretched before me."

Robinson crossed the prairie, to the site that was to become the City of Crown Point.

When the Indians were monarchs of the prairie, the wild grass fires were almost unknown. The tribes realized the terrible danger and wisely took every possible precaution. Their familiarity with the laws of nature taught them how to work with the great forces, but the pioneers, less familiar with the laws of the plains, and with greater needs, often set fire by accident to the dry grass of October. The fires became an expected calamity, when many homes and fields were wiped out, the settlers barely escaping with their lives.

The fires sent a terror to the heart of every living thing within sight, and it took years for the pioneers to learn to combat the terrible prairie fires.

Both in the prairie and the timber, the tribes and the early settles often followed the trails made by the wild cattle of the plains, the buffalo (or bison).

When North America was first settled, these large animals roamed over much of the East, from Pennsylvania to Florida. But they were gone from that eastern section of our country early in the 19th century when the herds moved westward, where great numbers were found until 1875, when large hunts were organized and the killing continued until their number was greatly reduced.

The total herds were once estimated as high as sixty million animals, and in three years of hunting, two-and-one-half million were slaughtered, for the coming of the railroad to the west opened the area to market hunters. By 1885 only a few hundred were left.

According to statements made by the Indians, the bison of Indiana were not killed by the hunters, to whom their hides represented a practical commercial value.

It was the hand of nature that was seen in the retreat of these giant and kindly animals west of the great Mississippi River.

The winter of 1819-20 was a bitter cold one for many months, a mantel of snow four feet or more covered the prairies, and many of the Indians, as well as the buffalo and elk of Lake County, perished from hunger and cold.

During the following summer, the few buffalo who survived the terrible ordeal of that harsh winter strayed many miles westward. Since then, their shaggy heads have only been seen locally in zoos and on farms.

Evidence of the bison's stay in this area was the bleached bones the early pioneers were obliged to remove from the prairie land before cultivation.

Government agencies in the West have saved some of the herds in places such as the Yellowstone National Park, but the buffalo, the silence of the prairies and the native tribes have all been removed into the shadows of history. The memory of the bison is also kept alive by the engraving on the official seal of the State of Indiana.

Last updated on December 5, 2001.

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