The pioneer, suddenly aware that a long band of red light
the distant horizon was moving toward him and spreading its glow as it
came, stood awed by the spectacle, notwithstanding its sinister significance.
He was not at all callous to the fascination of the prairie scene in its
many guises, but emotion was translated almost immediately into action.
Earlier in that autumnal evening he might have noticed with apprehension
the dryness of the land. If he had stooped to pluck a blade of prairie
grass, he would have found it dry, almost to the point of brittleness.
When he felt the rising wind, his glance at the shocks of wheat and at
his cornfield was uneasy. A fire would start readily, and his fields were
excelling tinder. One precautionary measure had already been taken. A
broad strip of bare stamped earth circled his cabin and the cattle sheds.
There was reasonable safety within that line for his family and the stock.
Fire was known to leap narrow streams, but his path of grassless earth
formed a magic ring of protection.
Gradually the dull read glow in the distance was brightening and widening.
The whole picture was becoming further animated with sound. The burning
grass crackled, and the wind sweeping the fire onward made a roaring noise,
still faint but unmistakably ominous.
The settler paused no longer to watch the spectacle. He sprang into
action. Hurriedly firebrands were made. Armed with hazelbrush brooms to
control the fires of his own setting, the pioneer, aided by his family,
began burning strips of prairie around his fields in the hope of turning
aside the general conflagration. The inner edge of the flame was beaten
out and the outer edge allowed to burn away. Fire was fighting fire.
The distant "wall of flame" moved forward, lighting and heating
the atmosphere. Meanwhile the backfire, or counter-fire, went to meet
the giant enemy. The pioneer's wife and children were in the charmed circle
of the beaten rim of soil; the cattle, too, were in comparative safety.
The fiery monster was actually turning its course! As the pioneer watched
its progress intently, he knew it was no miracle that had happened. His
little counter-fire had successfully battled the larger mass of flame
and caused the prairie fire to see easier onward passage to the right
of his fields. The pioneer could now observe the scene in all its splendor,
He could scarcely have described what he saw. His impressions of the
majestic beauty of the towering wall of fire were probably confused with
a sense of terror at the demon beyond his control. Though his buildings,
stock, and fields were saved, the prairie with its deep carpet of nutritious
grass was only a black and barren waste as far as he could see. The neighbors
might not have fared as well as he.
The casual traveler in the West was not directly concerned with the danger
to life and property. He could view the fiery tornado in a relatively
impersonal manner, something like a spectator watches magnificent exhibition
of pyrotechnics. Immune from the grim reality of the prairie fire, he
was often moved to write of the splendor of the "scarlet hurricane
of light". Such descriptions were usually extravagant, like the picture
given in 1849 by a traveler in Appanoose County.
"Soon the fire began to kindle wider and rise higher from the long
grass. The gentle breeze increased to stronger currents, and soon formed
the small, flickering blaze into fierce torrent flames, which curled up
and leaped along in resistless splendor, and like quickly raising the
dark curtain form the luminous stage, the scenes before me were suddenly
changed as if by the magician's wand, into one boundless amphitheater,
blazing from earth to heaven and sweeping the horizon round - columns
of lurid flames sportively mounting up to the zenith, and dark clouds
of crimson smoke, curling away and aloft till they nearly obscured stars
and moon, while the rushing, crashing sounds, like roaring cataracts mingled
with distant thunders, were almost deafening. Danger, death, glared all
around; it screamed for victims, yet, notwithstanding the imminent peril
of prairie fires, one is loth, irresolute, almost unable to withdraw of
The subject almost invariably evoked figures of speech from a writer.
At times the prairie fire came "marching and advancing like an army
over the hills and hollows in the night-time"; or "the red fire
scourge was galloping over the billowy expanse". Again, it was "a
sea of flame, crackling and roaring"; or perhaps a fiery steed, "its
hot breath threatening destruction". "I know nothing like it,"
wrote one, "unless it could be a high sea surf, its breast on fire,
rushing and roaring landwards and suddenly stopping at another as "wrapped
in rolling sheets of flame, which float in mountain waves across the plains".
To a group of spectators the fire "roared past us like a railroad
train". The poet spoke of the "infernal geyser".
The prairie fire scene was a motion-sound picture of speed and light.
"Faster than a horse could run", commented a witness. And the
flight of animals, birds, and even people lent motion to the scene. By
its light, wrote another, "we could read fine print for ½
mile or more." Its departure left the sky in comparative darkness,
the sun clouded by smoke, and the earth black.
The peril of the prairie fires lay in their swiftness. In nearly every
case a high wind accompanied them, so that the fire spread rapidly over
the surface of the dry grass. Charles Joseph Latrobe estimated their rate
of progress at eight miles an hour, at least, though he confessed that
this was extremely difficult to calculate. The fire could not only run,
according to all appearances, but it could jump! It leaped great spaces;
it crossed the river where it was from "seventy to one hundred feet
wide." Streams or places without vegetation would have constituted
a more formidable barrier if the fire had not been fanned by the wind.
There was little that could resist the hot swift flames, for the very
heat created a powerful current of air that rushed toward the blaze and
sucked everything with it. A prairie fire was like a hurricane power;
it could not be combated as a whole. Its course was diverted to some extent
by the contours of the land and other natural deterrents, such as groves
of trees, which prevented the grass from becoming thoroughly dry. Its
destructive career was somewhat checked by the efforts of the pioneer
who stole the fire-demon's very thunder when he fought the prairie fire
with a counter-fire. Nearly ever farmer was protected at all times by
the dirt moat of safety which he plowed around his property. Ditches and
furrows he also found helpful if the winder were not too violent.
The most effective enemy of the prairie fire was fire itself. Small
as the counter-fire was, it was sufficient to deprive the larger fire
of its fuel. Like a huge army cut off from tits means of sustenance, the
prairie fire grew less until it finally died away; or more probably, it
skirted the two ends of the backfire and marched undaunted onward. The
success of such methods was not positive. Rowena and Jake in Vandemark's
Folly found themselves in a serious dilemma.
"We were now between two fires; the great conflagration from which
we were trying to protect ourselves came on from the west like a roaring
tornado, its ashes falling all about us, its hot breath beginning to scorch
us, its snapping and crackling now reaching the ear along with its roar;
while on the east was the fire of my own kindling, growing in speed, racing
off away from us, leaving behind it our haven of refuge, a tract swept
clean of food for the flames, but hot and smoking, and as yet all to small
to be safe, for the heat and smoke might kill where the flames could not
reach. Between the two fires was the fast narrowing strip of dry grass
from which we must soon move. Our safety lay in the following of one fire
to escape the other."
To watch the prairie burn from afar was a thrilling experience. The
memory of such a sight lingered in the mind of many a western traveler.
But for the pioneer on the frontier who lived in dread of catastrophe
form the elements of nature, the ordeal of prairie fire was a terrible
thing. On the wings of the wind came destruction, maybe death, swiftly,
unwavering m inexorable. Whoever stood in the path of the holocaust had
no choice but to fight. And the impressions of such a battle were seared
into the very being of those who ran the backfires, and stamped out the
flying sparks. Children who saw their parents struggle against apparently
insuperable odds never forgot the vivid scene that was traced indelibly
upon their minds.
"We youngsters of the family", wrote Ellis E. Wilson of a prairie
fire near Waterloo when he was a boy, "were heedless of the remote
reflection in the heavens, for it seemed far away. Our parents, however,
were cautiously apprehensive of the distant luminosity as their vigilance
and movements showed. We never learned whether they retired at all during
that fearful night.
"Sometime in the night brother Barnett awakened me with a vigorous
poke as we slept in an upstairs room. 'What makes the room so light?'
he asked excitedly. 'It looks like sunshine but it isn't morning. How
the rays flash and flicker on the wall!' He looked out of the gable window
to the east and shouted, 'It is a great fire. All the prairie land is
on fire. I am frightened at the sight. Likely the world is burning up.
Let's call father and mother. Get up quickly and look. Now I can see some
one near the fire and it looks like father and mother. I am certain it
is they. They are setting backfires. Rover is with them and is barking
and running around. I think he is looking for his buried bones. If he
doesn't keep away from the flames, he will soon be yipping. They resemble
the flames that rose skyward when about two years ago we set fire to father's
straw stable and roasted tow chickens and the spotted pig. I can hear
that pig squealing yet. Hurry, get up.'
"I did so. It appeared as though the bosom of old earth itself was
ablaze, for there was a whirring maelstrom of flame rolling westward over
the prairie. Drawn by the wind, the chariot of fire which created the
little glow that we had seen in the east the evening before had now spread
into a spacious, vitalized panorama of swiftly scudding and soaring flames
that were being puffed forward and upward, threatening destruction to
everything combustible in their pathway. Their swirling outbursts made
us shudder and shuffle our feet for we felt like fleeing downstairs and
away from the scene that loomed in our sight like a supernatural orgy.
Eastward lay a section of land, also several adjoining quarters of prairie
which were wholly covered with a dense, all-summer growth of wild grass.
On the hilltops it was short but in the fens or along the moist hillsides
it was three to six feet tall. Killed by the frost, parched and dried
by the sun and winds of autumn, it was very inflammable. There was yet
a wide area of dry grass between the greater fire and lesser backfire.
A vigorous gale was blowing out of the east and rushing the high-lifted
flames with over one mile of frontage extending north and south, directly
westward toward our home and the farm buildings of our neighbors. It is
not exaggeration to say that the crimson blaze when the tall slough grass
was burning zoomed up fifty feet, while the thick enveloping volume of
smoke that hung over the prairie had the appearance of the great black
"About twenty rods east of our homestead was a wide, marshy slough
near the center of which ran a sluggish stream in which lived swarms of
green frogs that croaked all summer long and only ceased their chorusing
when numbed by winter's cold. The grass that grew near the waterway was
coarse and bulky, forming a thick, evenly spread garb which when dry was
"Brother and I quickly dressed, hurried downstairs, and from the
farmhouse stoop viewed the raging prairie fire. Gloomy shadows were cast
by the smoke of the hurrying flames. We knew it was dangerous to venture
away from the house. In early autumn the land around the farm buildings
had been plowed, leaving on its exposed surface only the bare soil upon
which there was nothing to burn. By taking such a precaution the pioneer
settlers endeavored to prevent fires from reaching and annihilating their
"From the house we could see our parents' silhouetted forms moving
rapidly to and fro in hurried activity. They had lit backfires which were
burning low and creeping in a lackadaisical way against the wind. Already
a strip of grass land forty rods in length and thirty or forty feet in
width was bared. The counter-fires moved in an unbroken line toward the
The prairie chickens were calling to each other
in tones of distress like the wail of a banshee and skirring before the
dazzling flames or flying bewilderedly into the seething holocaust. Some
escaped but many were burned. A wandering wolf faintly tonguing a howl
of defiance loped away.
"The critical danger point near our home came when the contending
fires met. Suddenly whirling and twisting into one crimson column, the
flames shot heavenward and threw athwart the gloom a great light, then
faded. Anon we saw mother leave the prairie and come toward the house.
When she arrived, her face was aglow with a conquering look which bespoke
a combat waged and won.
"When the hectic danger had passed, father, followed by Rover,
the dog's nose dilated and snuffing the smoky east wind, returned to the
house. Standing in the front yard we talked and watched the vanishing
of the prairie pyrotechnics. The farm stock sensed danger. The horses
in the straw stable were pawing and neighing, the cattle were mooing and
milling restlessly around in the barnyard. The roosters kept crowing.
The wind still moaned about our home but fear of the flames had vanished.
A cowl of calm darkness settled over the scene."
After the fire had spent itself, there was left in its wake little except
the black surface of the earth, and a sense of great desolation. If by
chance the fire occurred in some dry spring, the ruined nests of the prairie
hens were conspicuous by their whiteness on the charred land. The sight
of the vast bleak prairie was not as grim as that of the farmer's fields,
for such a personal loss in many instances was a serious tragedy. The
Mitchell Republican recounted an instance in October, 1856. "We have
heard," reported the editor, "of several who have lost not only
the fruits of their entire summer's labor, but also their house and stables;
thus leaving them without shelter, and their herds of cattle without fodder
for the coming winter. Houses can be rebuilt, but the season is too far
spent for hay gathering, even if the fires made no ravages."
There was seldom any investigation of the source of the conflagration.
The cause was less a matter of conjecture and worry than of escape from
its ravages. Indians were known to have set the prairie afire deliberately,
and this for a mixed motive. For his own advantage the fire would set
the game in motion, and against the interests of the white man, a large
fire despoiled the land for hunting purposes. Again, fires were kindled
purposely "to find fresh feed, the old stubble being dry and tangled."
In general, a prairie fire was to be taken as an event as natural as a
change of season for which preparation had to be made.
It has been suggested that the prairie fires were the means of making
the prairie. Prairies, according to a theory, are forest denuded by fires.
Destructive as were the fires, however, they have been insufficient to
account for the destruction of whole forests. In keeping the land cleared
for the grasses, the prairie fires may have contributed to the maintenance
of the prairie itself.
Prairie land under cultivation made prairie fires impossible. Those mighty
spectacles belonged to the experience of the pioneers. Pictures which
artists have since attempted to color on canvas and writers to paint with
words, are entirely inadequate. He alone who has seen a prairie fire can
fully appreciate its awful grandeur. "I would travel a hundred miles",
wrote S.H.M. Byers, "to witness a prairie fire, to see a sea of flame
and experience the wild excitement of those times long gone."
Originally published in the Palimpsest, (February 1935).
Copyright 1935, State Historical Society of Iowa. Reprinted by permission
of the publisher.