Missouri Bicentennial Minutes: What Landscapes Did Missourians See in 1821?

Feb 18, 2021

The first Europeans to settle Upper Louisiana saw river bottoms with a diverse mix of flood-tolerant trees and lowland prairies. In the Bootheel, prairies on ancient sand deposits were sites of the earliest settlement.

Animals included bison, elk, and prairie chickens. These alternated with swamp forests of oaks, sweetgum, and cypress up to 1000 years old. The higher sites that native peoples had cultivated had grown up to dense giant cane. Forested river hills along the Mississippi gave way to open oak-hickory forests with grassy understory inland.

Henry Rowe Schoolcraft described these uplands in 1818, “barrens and prairies, with occasional forest of oak, the soil poor, and covered with grass, with very little underbrush.” Elk, deer, black bear, and turkey were abundant. Open shortleaf pine forests covered south and west-facing slopes, with prairie grass between. Farther west, trees gave way to prairies covered by perennial grasses, which covered roughly half the state. These delayed settlement because the wooden plows of the day could not cut prairie sod.

Cultivation became feasible only after the invention of the steel moldboard plow in 1837. The few settlers in the Ozarks and prairies in 1821 lived by hunting and trapping, with farming restricted to small fields. The grassy habitats in Missouri resulted from lower rainfall, but also the effects of natural and human-set fires.

Another early traveler, George W. Featherstonhaugh, noted fires in present-day Butler County in 1834. He saw, within the space of two days, bison, elk, and the now-extinct Carolina parakeet and Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Fire protection and past poor land use practices have resulted in the dense forests we see today, and reduction of prairies to under half a percent of their original coverage. Yes, Missourians live in a very different landscape than the first settlers found 200 years ago.