Prairie Erotics – The Smothering of Chicago’s Primordial Fire

by Liam Heneghan

In Memoriam Patricia Monaghan, poet: your words are flame.

Fire0001On August 19th 1833 Colonel Colbee Chamberlain Benton (1805-1880) left Chicago with Louis Ouilmette, a young man of French and Potawatomi heritage, to inform local Indian tribes that their federal annuities would be paid in September of that year. Benton’s trip, recorded in A visitor to Chicago in the Indian Days: Journal of the Far-Off West, was taken one year after the end of the Black Hawk war which ended most tribal resistance to white settlement of the Chicago area. That same year the Potawatomis, a tribe that dominated in the lands that became Chicago since the 1690s, relinquished their rights to their lands in Illinois. At that time the white settler population was little more than 150 people. A few years later in 1837 Chicago was chartered as a city.

That Benton’s journey was undertaken at time of tension between the indigenous and settler population is reflected in his descriptions of their trip. On the night of August 24th the pair of travelers passed through some oak groves and arrived at a small stream in a little prairie in Southeast Wisconsin and they camped there for the night. As night fell they heard Indians around their camp. Benton hid beside a large tree and at Ouilmette’s suggestion he removed his straw hat since it was “a good mark to shoot at.” Assessing the danger they found themselves in, Louis remarked that “there were occasionally some of the Sauks and Fox Indians wandering about in [that] part of the country, and from them [they] could not expect much mercy.”

Benton didn’t sleep that night. However, even if they had been “in danger of suffering from the power of their tomahawk and scalping knives” it was not fear that kept him awake. He remarked, in fact, there was something about their circumstances “so novel and romantic about it that it dispelled every fear…” He was far from home, everything looked “wild and terrible”, he was surrounded by “savages” and yet it all seemed “lovely and romantic and beautiful”. He felt happy.

So what kept Benton from his sleep? It was the noise! Some of the noise certainly may have emanated from the Indians who “mocked almost every wild animal.” But also there were unfamiliar birds calling, as well as foxes and raccoons. In the distance, wolves howled and the owls hooted in concert with the wolves. The mosquitoes added their part to “the music”. A sleepless, noisy, vaguely threatening night, and yet Benton declared that never before had he “passed a night so interestingly and so pleasantly…”


Around the time that Chicago was chartered as a city in 1837, fires on Midwestern prairies when they occurred were so great that the conflagrations both terrified and exulted witnesses. The Prince of Wales, Albert, who would later become King Edward VII of England saw one when in 1860 he visited Dwight, a small Illinois town located in Livingston County in the center of the state about ninety miles from Chicago. The fire provided an excellent supplement to the pleasures of the hunt, his main activity on that trip. On his first full day of hunting Prince Albert bagged eleven and a half brace of prairie hens thus winning a bet for him against the Duke of Newcastle who killed three fewer. The prince had previous dispatched a screech owl who had had the temerity to fly a little too close to that royal head at dusk when Albert had stepped out for his evening stroll. The killing of owls, and in fact the killing of most wildlife, was zealously undertaken by locals and visitors alike at the time. In his account of the prince’s visit the writer Nicholas Wood reported that during the visit, His Royal Highness not only had great sport with the prairie birds but he was fortunate enough to see a prairie thunderstorm, a tremendous prairie fire and a prairie sunset.

The fire that so delighted the prince started during an evening thunderstorm before the hunters had returned to the town. The prairie surrounding the town of Dewey was known as the Grand Prairie and at the time the prince visited had a length of about 150 miles by 60 miles wide, though apparently if one walked in a south-easterly direction you could remain on prairie for over 300 miles. The fire that night started in three different places and though it seemed at first that the heavy downpour would quench the flames, nevertheless the fire moved on until the three fires joined together to create a great infernal wall. Close to the fire it was as bright as noon even though by then it was by then nightfall. The “prairie wolves” (probably coyotes) howled as they sped from the flame and the prairie chickens rose and fell back again upon the flames. Since the winds were heading away from Dwight the prince was in no danger and the company watched the flames indifferent to its dangers.

Though the royal party was safe, not all have been so lucky in their encounters with prairie fire. David Turpie (1828-1909), a US senator for Indiana, described how he became familiar with prairies in the 1850s. Commenting on the natural history of the prairie “blue stem grass” he noted that as a consequence of how dry it becomes in fall, thousands of acres surrounding the farms of the region became combustible. To protect the farms, neighbors formed fire-brigades which rushed to the most vulnerable properties. There they set carefully managed fires close to the places to be protected thus depriving the wild fire of its fuel.

The strategy of setting a fire line was standard advice for protection against a prairie fire even if one was heading towards you when you were traveling across the prairie. The smoke of such a fire darkens the sun and roars as it moves across the land. This, according to Nicholas Wood, is what you must do: ride your horse ten miles in advance of the fire lighting the prairie at a couple of points as you ride. As the fire takes off you can follow after on the scorched ground. The fire from which you are fleeing will not cross the ground.

At the height of the growing season when the grass may be taller than the horse upon which you ride, the fires are ever more dangerous and out-riding it will not be possible. You can slaughter your horse and climb into his disemboweled carcass. Intermediate step: disembowel your horse. If you are not cooked within the dead animal you can emerge some time later after the fire has passed.

The description of the sunset witnessed by the prince in 1860 is given by Nicholas Wood in almost supernatural tones. It had a “glory which can never be described or understood by whose who have not seen it”. The prairie turned to gold, the sky pink and red, the clouds crimson and all was still. And then the color left the sky and the embers of that great fire could be seen. So supernaturally unnerving did it seem to Woods that it was as if the sun had gone forever. For all of this, it was nevertheless the prairie that was about to be gone forever, and with it the vast conflagrations that had arrested the King to be.


So here was Chicago around the time of its charter and slightly afterwards. A settler population which numbered in the hundreds was surrounded by a loud chorusing of people and wildlife. Prairies that stretched for over a hundred miles, and beasts including gray wolf, bison, black bear and perhaps up to ten others mammal species that had disappeared by the early years of the 20th Century. Benton was just one of the many early writers who explicitly recorded the diversity of the vegetated landscape of northeast Illinois and southeast Wisconsin as they traveled through it. Near Round Lake (Lake Country, Illinois) Benton noted that he and Ouilmette ventured through little oak openings then out onto the prairie, walked alongside little streams with “heavy timber”, and, very muddily, crossed “tremendous marshes”. The prairie grasses were, as they often are described in these early accounts, so tall and wet that passing through on horseback was like “wading through water.” Nicholas Wood makes the same observation. Although the prairie was often likened to an ocean, undulating and free, the dominant metric for it depth is a man on a horse. Like the Prince Regent would a few decades later, Benton and Ouilmette shot, usually unsuccessfully at any birds they could see: wild geese, ducks, loons, pigeons, a sand crane (successfully bagged), and a prairie hen (killed and roasted for the dog). Streams were home to “some monstrous pickerel and other large fishes.” Dotted infrequently through this wilderness were the corn fields of Indians. Thus it was a variegated landscape supporting a rich diversity of life, human and non-human. A gloriously loud landscape it was then, one interesting and uncanny enough to keep a man awake and happy.

On the evening of Chicago’s birth Benton even found a moment for erotic thoughts. The travelers stopped at a village where Louis was known to the chief. Benton remarked him as “a tall good looking Indian about forty five years of age, and is a notable drunkard”. There Benton spots a “very pretty squaw” who roasted some corn for them. The next morning Benton reported himself to be a little grumpy not to have dreamt of her. “Her tawny complexion”, he conceded, “only made her more interesting.” When he glanced over at her he found that she was “looking serenely at the sky…” Benton speculated that she “was some pure and sinless being whose noble spirit held converse with the angels in a brighter world, far above the mortal things of earth.” It may be more likely however that she was solemnly preparing herself for departure from her home lands. The village chief, called Warp-sa by Benton, was, according to Joel Greenberg, a Chicago area natural history writer, most likely Wapse who it is claimed sold the Potawatomi lands in Illinois and was responsible for the removal of the tribe to Kansas.


When the contemporary situation in Chicago is compared against the description of the natural heritage of the region immediately prior to European settlement the differences are stark and from a conservation perspective may seem somewhat discouraging. One can barely walk for a mile across tallgrass prairie in Illinois compared to the possibility of a one hundred and fifty mile trek along the Grand Prairie back in 19th Century. That being said, the landscapes of both eras each represent social-ecological systems – in the pre-settlement case the human agents involved were indigenous Native Americans, more recently they are the highly populous and diverse urban peoples of the contemporary city. Both then and now human decision-making played a role in shaping natural components of the region.

Journalist Charles Mann in his assessment of the impact of Native American peoples on the America found in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus concluded: “Native Americans ran the continent as they saw fit. Modern nations must do the same.” Now, we might quibble with the rather enormous license that this offers, nevertheless, the statement underscores the role of human governance in shaping ecological landscapes (second nature, in William Cronon's terms), both before and after the emergence of the great urban centers. The emergence of a conservation ethic, one that contrasts with the more cavalier attitude of early settler population in the Chicago region, and one that informs the work of present day biodiversity conservationists and that inspires the work of Chicago Wilderness (a regional biodiversity conservation alliance with more than 250 institutional members) should be seen as a remarkably positive development. Though we may not recoup the losses of species, communities and ecological processes that have largely been lost from the region, nonetheless it may be that we develop quite new social ecological systems expressed in highly cyborgian landscapes, where will mix technology and forces beyond the immediate ken of humans. Landscapes that are hopeful, biodiverse, and resilient in the face of ongoing anthropogenic disturbances. We may be betting our lives on them.

These sources for these vignettes are accounts reprinted in Joel Greenberg’s excellent compilation Of Prairie, Woods, & Water – Two Centuries of Chicago Nature Writing. University of Chicago Press, Chicago (2008). Also you should check our Greenberg’s authoritative A Natural History of the Chicago Region. University of Chicago Press (2002).

This piece coincides with the biennial meeting of Chicago Wilderness on Thursday Nov 15 2012

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