My grandfather was born in 1901 in St Joseph, Missouri. Just 97 years before that, on July 4, 1804, William Clark, of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, stood on the hills just across the Missouri River from “St Jo” and penned this description of what he saw before his eyes:
“The Plains of this countrey are covered with a Leek Green Grass, well calculated for the sweetest and most norushing hay —interspersed with Cops [copses] of trees, Spreding their lofty branchs over Pools Springs or Brooks of fine water. Groops of Shrubs covered with the most delicious froot is to be seen in every direction, and nature appears to have exerted herself to butify the Senery by the variety of flours 〈raiseing〉 Delicately and highly flavered raised above the Grass, which Strikes & profumes the Sensation, and amuses the mind throws it into Conjecterng the cause of So magnificent a Senerey [several words illegible, crossed out] in a Country thus Situated far removed from the Sivilised world to be enjoyed by nothing but the Buffalo Elk Deer & Bear in which it abounds…”
These words paint the most compelling picture I’ve seen about what a thriving native prairie must have looked like. In my mind’s eye, I imagine how this prairie would have seemed like an endless green sea and must have inspired the “Corp of Discovery” to move on in their still-young expedition.
And yet, having grown up maybe 100 miles north of this location, and only 160 years later, I did not recognize the description. Where I grew up, the natural shrubs had no “froot,” wild “flours” were only found along highway ditches, the “profumes” of the local feedlots did not “amuse my mind,” the buffalo, elk, and bear were all gone, and the deer were mostly in hiding. There was still some “Senery” in remnant parks along either side of the riverbanks, but nothing that might deeply inspire me to “Conjecter” a spiritually meaningful cause for the whole of what lay before my eyes. The Missouri Valley I grew up in was just plowed and brown everywhere except from June to September and there was no real “buty” in that.
The above journal entry was made while noting the naming of “Independence Creek” which still carries the name. So I found the location in Google Earth, and hovering over the Missouri side of the river, below is what that location looks like today looking off to the northwest horizon:
My childhood memories are confirmed – it really is plowed and brown.
But what I had not noticed until I reread today are the words immediately preceding the quote:
“… at this place the Kansaw Inds. formerly lived and had a verry large Town passed a Creek.”
I became “verry” Intrigued. I was able to find this bit of detective work from 1905 that pinpoints this “verry large Town” as present-day Doniphan, Kansas – also marked on the map just upstream of the mouth of Independence Creek. From those accounts, this indigenous “town” indeed appears to have been “very large”:
“The late T. L Ingels of Atchison, who was as well acquainted around Doniphan as any other man, and who was a close observer along natural history and archaeological lines, wrote me May 27, 1904: “I should think from the number of graves and stone relics found in and about Doniphan that it was vastly populated at some time in the past.”
Fallow deer – Dama dama in the forest
The indigenous Kansaw people (after whom the state of Kansas was named) were clearly once abundant in precisely that place along with the buffalo, elk, deer and bear, until disease likely wiped them out before the explorers arrived.
We all know what happened next – the pioneers “settled” the land. Of course, by this we mean they plowed it up to turn it into the heart of “Sivilised” farm country.
So the statement that this place was “far removed from the Sivilised world” is a half-truth. Although industrial colonization had not yet arrived at this “butifull” place in 1804, another large civilization had been there for a very long time.
Although these indigenous people were gone before the “explorers” showed up, I expect it was no accident that this place of “buty” thrived alongside them. We now know that the intentional use of fire by Native Americans and dense herds of roaming bison, fundamental to the diets of the plains people, were also fundamental in creating the beautiful prairies of North America.
The difference is that the prior people didn’t “settle” the land, they just grew their ‘Sivilisation’ to live as part of it. When the plow arrived to tame the prairie, the beautiful “Senery” also died away shortly thereafter, too. Today, the remaining landscape would inspire few poets.
I can’t undo the tragedies of history, but everything I have learned suggests to me that we can still right the ecological wrong. The key is found in Clark’s own words – letting nature “exert herself” once again. Call me a romantic, but by recreating a food production system that mimics the natural prairie instead of mining it, and relearning to live within it instead of just “settling” it, I believe the Plains can abound in life once again.
Sometimes I imagine that I am a bird soaring across the same scene on a day when the vivid description of Clark is accurate once again. I propose we call this vision the “Rediscovered Countrey.”
We’ve certainly got a long way to go to get there, but when you choose to buy Blue Nest Beef, you’re helping to make this vision happen.
Blue Nest Beef Co-Founder & CEO