Prairie fires have always been a spectaculaar and dangerous part of the Great Plains. Nineteenth-century settlers sometimes lost their lives to uncontrolled blazes, and today ranchers such as those in the Flint Hills of Kansas manage the grasslands through controlled burning. Even small fires, overlooked by history, changed lives – destroyed someone's property, threatened someone's safety, or simply made someone's breath catch because of their astounding beauty.
Julie Courtwright, who was born and raised in the tallgrass prairie of Butler County, Kansas, knows prairie fires well. In this first comprehensive environmental history of her subject, Courtwright vividly recounts how fire – setting it, fighting it, watching it, fearing it – has bound Plains people to each other and to the prairies themselves for centuries. She traces the history of both natural and intentional fires from Native American practices to the current use of controlled burns as an effective land management tool, along the way sharing the personal accounts of people whose lives have been touched by fire.
Prairie Fire: A Great Plains History ranges from Texas to the Dakotas and from the 1500s to modern times. It tells how Native Americans learned how to replicate the effects of natural lightning fires, thus maintaining the prairie ecosystem. Native peoples fired the prairie to aid in the hunt, and also as a weapon in war. White settlers learned from them that burns renewed the grasslands for grazing; but as more towns developed, settlers began to suppress fires – now viewed as a threat to their property and safety. Fire suppression had as dramatic an environmental impact as fire application. Suppression allowed the growth of water-wasting trees and caused a thick growth of old grass to build up over time, creating a dangerous environment for accidental fires.
Courtwright calls on a wide range of sources: diary entries and oral histories from survivors, colorful newspaper accounts, military weather records, and artifacts of popular culture from Gene Autry stories to country song lyrics to Little House on the Prairie. Through this multiplicity of voices, she shows us how prairie fires have always been a significant part of the Great Plains experience – and how each fire that burned across the prairies over hundreds of years is part of someone's life story.
By unfolding these personal narratives while looking at the bigger environmental picture, Courtwright blends poetic prose with careful scholarship to fashion a thoughtful paean to prairie fire. It will enlighten environmental and Western historians and renew a sense of wonder in the people of the Plains.
Introduction: "Think of This"
1. "Mass of Grass"
2. "Putting Out Fire"
3. "Master of the Prairie"
4. "One First Grand Cause"
5. "Fight Fire When Necessary, Fight Together, and Fight It Out"
6. "A Horrible World of Cinders and Blackness"
7. "Awfully Grand"
8. "Burn, Prairie, Burn"
Conclusion: "A Prairie Fire Came upon the Place"
Julie Courtwright is an assistant professor of history at Iowa State University.
"With a practical flare, Courtwright illustrates how fires no less than plows define the history of the Great Plains [...] Courtwright has made a significant contribution [...] Her story is an intricate and nuanced tale warning us that primal forces in the past often led to dramatic consequences."
– American Historical Review
"An important addition to the historiography of the Great Plains."
– The Historian
"A good, readable, and usable study of the relationship of prairie fire to the tallgrass prairie and to the people who have lived and continue to live in the Great Plains. This book will be informative to anyone interested in the environmental and social history of the region."
– Pacific Historical Review
"A fine historical survey – useful as a starting point for new research, as a one-stop survey for scholars, as a supplemental text in senior undergraduate courses in Great Plains history, or as a book to be read for interest and pleasure by an intelligent and inquisitive public."
– Great Plains Quarterly
"This book details fire as a pervasive and deadly element in human life on the plains, from prehistory to the time when industrial agriculture plowed under the vast expanses of native grass that had long dominated the region. Courtwright has done painstaking research on the topic, reaching back to the time when the Choctaw, Creeks, Sioux, Blackfeet, and other native people used fire to herd buffalo, or otherwise manage buffalo, or as a large-scale weapon to drive out or kill intruding tribes and the American settlers who flowed onto the prairies starting in the 1870s."
– Environmental History
"Courtwright has unearthed an impressive amount of rich material. She ably employs firsthand accounts to bring to life both Euro-Americans' and indigenous peoples' varied responses to the awesome phenomenon of prairie fire."
– Montana: The Magazine of Western History
"A very lyrically written book, full of warm and often humorous personal touches, Great Plains anecdotes, and evidence based on interviews, newspapers, and archival sources [...] The historical breadth of Prairie Fire makes an important contribution to U.S., and, more specifically, western fire history and regional environmental history. The book would be of great use for undergraduate or graduate classes on the history of the Great Plains, the American West, and North American geography or environmental history [...] An important work."
– Kansas History
"Historian Courtwright helps readers understand all this and more in this lucid, cogent history of Great Plains prairie fires, based on an impressive range of sources [...] Highly recommended."
"Filled with lively anecdotes and firsthand accounts drawn from newspapers, diaries, various records and eyewitness accounts."
– Wichita Eagle
"A major contribution to understanding the role fire plays in the ecology of the Great Plains. Not only does Courtwright establish the importance of fire to the region, but she makes the case that fire, wildlife, and humans have interacted over millennia to perpetuate the grasslands of the plains [...] Fire ecologists and environmental historians will find this a useful addition to their bookshelves."
– Fire Ecology
"[A] well-researched history of prairie fire [which] explores the effects of fire on grasslands ecosystems and the human communities located within them. Accessible and elegantly written, this is a luminous addition to Great Plains history, valuable for scholars and general readers alike."
– Agricultural History
"Fire has been a primal force in the American heartland – a tool and a threat, a source of terror and wonder, entangled with the very identities of plains peoples – yet before now no one has told its story. Courtwright has taken up that challenge, and her history, grandly researched and vividly told, is an essential addition to western environmental studies."
– Elliott West, author of The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado
"For too long the Great Plains have been the flyover region of American fire history. Thanks to Courtwright's detailed and admirable work, they can now move from missing middle back to the center."
– Stephen Pyne, author of Fire: A Brief History