Buffalo Grass
Larder of the Plains

     As the Santa Fe Trail left the well-watered, wooded valley of the Missouri River, it entered the mixed prairie grass region of that was to become Kansas. The change in terrain was rather abrupt.

     Emerging from the Mud-Holes of Westport, we pushed our way for some time along the narrow track, in the checkered sunshine and shadow of the woods, till at length, issuing into the broad light, we left behind us the farthest outskirts of the great forest that once spread from the western plains to the shore of the Atlantic. Looking over an interesting belt of bushes, we saw the green, ocean-like expanse of prairie, stretching well beyond, well to the horizon.[1]

     Proceeding southwest, the trade route approached the Flint Hills, populated by the tall grasses, predominantly big and little blue stem, known to Josiah Gregg as "long grass."[2] Such was the herbage described by Susan Magoffin as she viewed the landscape to the west of Council Grove, "On one side to the west, is a wide expanse of prairie, as far as the eye can reach nothing but a waving sea of tall grass is to be seen."[3]

     As the trail continued southwest, it arrived at present McPherson County, Kansas. There, the tall prairie grasses began to yield to short grasses which populated the plains, buffalo and gramma grasses. At this point, an exercise in etymology might prove helpful. Prairie is derived from a French word with reference to a meadow, grassland used to produce hay. Such stands in contrast to plains, so named for their barren appearance. It was in this area that buffalo began to appear in large numbers. These beasts, properly named bison, much preferred the short grasses to the long stem varieties of the prairie. As the trail reached the Pawnee River, Lt. J. W. Abert observed, "We have now entered that portion of the prairie that deserves to be included under the Great Desert. The grass is extremely short and wiry, angling about in all directions like the hair on a buffalo's forehead."[4]

     The record is replete with references to buffalo grass. Marion Sloan recalled "miles and miles of buffalo grass."[5] George Sibley described the pasture in present Rice County, Kansas as follows:

     The grass was very thick and luxuriant of the kind called Buffalo Grass which never grows tall. I presume the valley may contain ten thousand acres. It is beautifully level and thickly set with Buffalo Grass, and looks like an immense field of Blue Grass.[6]

     Elsewhere, James Mead described the Smoky Hill Valley as "a country covered with a coat of soft buffalo grass."[7] Mead's observation is in keeping with that of Isaac Coats' description of the grass at the Cheyenne Sioux Village west of Fort Larned in April, 1867: "The buffalo grass which was just beginning to grow was soft and velvet to our feet."[8] George Armstrong Custer, no stranger to the plains wrote:

     "On the uplands is produced what is there known as the buffalo grass, indigenous and peculiar in its character, differing in form and substance from all other grasses. The blade under favorable circumstances reaches a growth usually of from three to five inches, but instead of being straight, or approximately so, it assumes a curled or waving shape, the grass itself becoming densely matted and giving to the foot, when walking upon it, a sensation similar to that produced by stepping upon moss or the most costly of velvet carpets."[9]

     Far more utilitarian than Custer's appraisal was that of Col. Richard J. Dodge.

     "The buffalo-grass is uninviting to the eye, being so very short that an inexperienced man in search of pasture for animals would pass it without consideration. It makes up in thickness what it lacks in length and horses and cattle not only eat it greedily, but fill themselves much quicker than would seem possible."[10]

     While contemporary accounts generally identified all the short grasses as buffalo, such was not the case. Intermingled with buffalo grass were different varieties of gramma grass, blue, side oats, and hairy, commonly called bunch grasses.[11]

     Buffalo grass, as opposed to the bunch grasses, is a creeper that produces vigorous surface runners which root at the joints. The grass rarely exceeds five inches in height. The seed is produced in small hard burrs, close to the ground, but may be produced on seed stems one to three inches above the base of the plant. Because the grass grows so close to the ground, it protects itself from over-grazing. Buffalo grass, not unlike the grammas, produces forage high in nutrients. Even in the dormant stage when the plants do not produce the slightest hint of green, buffalo grass retains its nutrient qualities in the heat of summer or in the cold of winter.[12]

     The buffalo has been reported to be the larder for the plains Indians. In like fashion, one could conclude that buffalo grass was the larder for the buffalo, and with the advent of the Santa Fe Trail, wagoneers were pleased to find that buffalo grass could also be the larder for their oxen, without the need for grain supplement.


  1. Francis Parkman, The Oregon Trail (Washington D. C.: National Geographic, 2002), 7.

  2. Josiah Gregg, Commerce of the Prairies (Norman, Oklahoma, University of Oklahoma Press, 1958), 38.

  3. Shelton M. Drumm, ed., Tour the Santa Fe Trail and Into Mexico (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Pres, 1982), 17.

  4. John Galvin, ed., Western America in 1846-1847 (San Francisco: Jobs Howell Books, MCMLXVI), 14.

  5. Marion Russell, Land of Enchantment of Memories of Marion Sloan Russell Along The Santa Fe Trail (Evanston, Illinois: The Branding Ink Press, 1954), 14.

  6. Kate L. Gregg, ed., The Road to Santa Fe: The Journal and Diaries of George Champlin Sibley (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995), 67.

  7. James R. Mead, Hunting and Trading on the Great Plains 1859-1875 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986), 183.

  8. W. D. Kennedy, On the Plains With Custer and Hancock: The Journal of Isaac Coats, Army Surgeon (Boulder: Johnson Books, 1996), 66.

  9. General George A. Custer, My Life on the Plains (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996), 11.

  10. Col. Richard I. Dodge, The Plains of the Great West (New York: Archer House, Inc. 1959), 32.

  11. Pasture and Range Plants (Hays, Kansas: Fort Hays State University, 1959), 20-25.

  12. Pasture and Range Plants, 25.
         Used With Permission of the Author
         David Clapsaddle

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