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To early settlers prairies here were 'exquisitely beautiful' : Reflections : Oswego Ledger-Sentinel : Hometown Newspaper for Oswego and Montgomery, Illinois
To early settlers prairies here were 'exquisitely beautiful'
by Roger Matile


April showers, the old children's verse goes, bring May flowers.

Spring is already officially here (weather-wise, it's been here for weeks), but most years it takes the Illinois prairie a while to warm up and for the earliest plants to timidly raise their heads above the ground. Hardy snowdrops, and some other flowers are always the first, especially in places heated by the sun as the days gradually lengthen.

Eventually, as late spring and summer arrive, we'll see the debut of the annual blue haze of chicory along Kendall County roadways along with field daisies, spiderwort, buttercups, the green stalks of mullein, snowy white Queen Anne's lace, and yellow goat's beard create a progression of color that lasts almost until the first frost of autumn.

Unfortunately, the plants we see growing along roadsides today are only a poor shadow of what the Fox Valley looked like in the early 1830s when the prairie ecology was dominated by long-stemmed prairie grasses and brilliant wildflowers.

Big and little bluestem grass predominated on the prairie, but they were joined by hundreds of broadleafed forbs that were both beautiful and useful to the early pioneers-and to the area's Indian inhabitants before them.

The very first Europeans to pass through Illinois were struck by the area's vast prairies, and the richness of the soil that underlay them. Wrote French geographer and cartographer Louis Jolliet following his 1673 voyage of exploration through the Illinois River Valley: "At first when we were told of these treeless lands, I imagined that it was a country ravaged by fire, where the soil was so poor that it could produce nothing. But we have certainly observed the contrary; and no better soil can be found, wither for corn, for vines, or for any other fruit whatever.

"...There are prairies three, six, ten, and twenty leagues in length and three in width, surrounded by forests of the same extent; beyond these, the prairies begin again, so that there is as much of one sort of land as of the other. Sometimes we saw the grass very short, and, at other times five or six feet high."

Despite its richness, extensive settlement of northern Illinois had to wait some 160 years after Jolliet's account. Not until the late 1820s did the first tentative American settlement of Kendall County begin, and only in 1833 did settlers begin to arrive in substantial numbers.

When those first permanent residents began to arrive, though, they found large prairies occasionally broken by small islands of timber savannahs and wetlands rich in fish and game. Many of those old settlers remarked on the tallgrass prairie and the colorful plants found there. Elmer Barce, in The Land of the Pottawatomi, noted in 1919: "In the autumn, a tall jointed grass, the giant blue stem, grew so high that horsemen could tie the tops together above their heads, and this grass filled the whole plain as far as the eye could see...The color of the prairie flowers in the spring is bluish-purple, violets, bluebells, iris, and others. In mid- summer it is red with phlox and Sweet William. In the autumn, it is yellow with golden rod, rosin-weed, and wild asters."

British lecturer and author Harriet Martineau visited the Fox Valley in 1836, and commented on the prairies west of Batavia: "I saw for the first time the American primrose. It grew in profusion over the whole prairie as far as I could see, graceful and pretty...the whole prairies were exquisitely beautiful."

The New Englanders who began arriving in northern Illinois in the early 1830s were astonished by the prairies they encountered. Those who came overland from the East encountered their first prairies in western Indiana. Those who came by the Great Lakes route discovered them as they headed west of Chicago.

Wrote Helen McKinney Pogue, a relative of early Kendall County settlers Seth and Lauriston Walker, who arrived about 1845 from Massachusetts, in a 1906 article in the Oswego Herald: "When these people who had come from the rocky hills of New England saw the beautiful, smooth prairies covered with thick grass and a sprinkling of wild flowers, they thought it a paradise compared with the country they had left."

Mrs. M.E. Jenesen, a member of Oswego's Nineteenth Century Club, wrote in 1905: "No words of mine can convey to you the vastness, the grandeur and beauty of the natural prairie in 1850, when I first came to Oswego...The music of the big frogs down in the slough and the drumming of prairie chickens must have been heard to be appreciated. The Fox River was pretty then. Its banks furnished attractions for those who liked a stroll--a sort of Lovers' Lane, in fact."

Prairie plants were not just pretty to look at, either. The pioneers quickly learned to use a wide variety of them for food. Mustard, parsley, pigweed, and sheep sorrel greens were gathered in early spring. And after they were imported from back East, so were dandelions. All were high in Vitamin C.

Man cannot, however, live by greens alone. So the settlers enjoyed wild strawberries early in the summer, followed by blackberries and raspberries, which were, in turn, followed by May apples, choke cherries, and wild grapes (which were fit to eat only after the first frost).

Today, the diversity of Kendall County's wild plants has been severely diminished, beginning when those first pioneer farmers tilled the prairie soil and continuing in recent years as development accelerated throughout the county. However, you can get a bit of the flavor of pioneer day wild plants by visiting Waa Kee Sha Park on Reservation Road, the Lyon and Young Forest Preserves near Yorkville, and House's Grove down Seward way.

An anti-cancer drug is being developed from the bark of certain cedar trees-plants have often been the source of numerous modern "wonder drugs." Unfortunately, no one knows what miracle cures might have been discovered in prairie plants now extinct. But we know enough now to realize that preservation of the few natural areas we have left-the ones that still, however tenuously, maintain the diversity of plants those early settlers saw-might be a matter of life or death for us and for our descendants.

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