It was named by French explorers, looked after by Native Americans and broken by the steel plow, an invention that tilled ground for croplands that fed the world. The tallgrass prairie is a truly original American landscape.
The word prairie is french for meadow. Early french-speaking explorers found these natural grasslands and gave them the name we use today. Prairie is a dynamic mixture of grasses, wildflowers and shrubs, together with the animals that call the prairie home.
America’s prairie region stretched from small openings in the east to the Rocky Mountains in the west, from Canada in the north to the Gulf of Mexico in the south. The original tallgrass prairie spanned what are now 14 states, covering 142 million acres.
In Missouri, one third of the state, or roughly 15 million acres of tallgrass prairie existed before European settlement including nearly half of St. Louis and portions of Kansas City.
America’s tallgrass prairies overflowed with abundance. Seas of waving grasses could hide a rider on horseback. A horizon of bison and a million prairie chickens covered Missouri, seen standing side to side in some parts. In other areas, deer and elk were so thick that their horns looked like dry limbs scattered over the prairie.
Creatures adapted to these grasslands flourished in numbers unimaginable today. Prairies were home to prairie chickens, jack rabbits, badgers, bullsnakes and bison. The prairie habitat shaped these animals. As prairie was converted to crop lands and towns, these animals disappeared from most our landscape.
Early pioneers could not easily penetrate the thick network of roots and plant litter known as sod. With the marketing of the steel plow by John Deere in 1838, the prairie began to be opened up for row crops and America's breadbasket was formed. Fire, the very factor that maintained the prairie, was feared for its threat to human life and property. Suppressing fires provided a safe haven for settlers, but allowed trees and other plants to take over.
Today, fewer than 70,000 acres, less than one percent of Missouri’s original prairie remains. What’s left has been compared to postage stamps on a billboard, making true prairies among the rarest of the rare.
Prairies are more than what first meets the eye. Their canvas is more subtle than majestic mountains or towering forests. Shaped by open sky and gently sloping hills, the essence of prairie is space. A closer look within reveals an abundance of color, energy, and life.
Their deep soils, tall grasses and plants support a variety of animals and pollinators. Wildflowers bloom from spring through fall, offering an amazing array of color.
You can still experience the landscape that Lewis and Clark and Laura Ingalls Wilder saw by visiting Missouri's remaining prairies. You’ll find great photo opps in the wide open spaces that prairies provide.
Discover more about Regal Tallgrass Prairie.