Nothing in the New World was more interesting to the European than the broad prairies between the Mississippi and the Ohio. In 1817 Governor Edward Coles, then a young man returning from a diplomatic mission to Russia, stopped in France and England. He was a Virginian, but had traveled through the West and had himself been greatly charmed by the rich grandeur of the prairie lands. The French and the English never tired of his graphic descriptions of them, and among his charmed auditors was Morris Birkbeck, a prosperous tenant farmer of England, who was thereby induced to come to America and settle in Edwards County, southeastern Illinois. In later years Dickens went into raptures over his first sight of a “western” prairie, revealing his sentiments in his “Notes on America.” When the first French explorers reached the Mississippi Valley, they were amazed at the great sweep of timberless areas, although they originally applied their word, “prairie,” to describe the flat bottom lands of the river valleys. Nor is the application of the word to such tracts inappropriate, as it has been shown by geologists that the formation of the prairies of central Illinois is identical in character with the formation of the bottom lands along the Mississippi, the Ohio and other smaller rivers. When the first settlers came to the Illinois country they are said to have found about one-fourth of it timbered and the remainder timber-less, or prairie lands. They designated the largest timberless area the Grand Prairie, and it was virtually limited by the great watershed which divides the basins of the Mississippi and the Ohio. It extends from the northwestern part of Jackson County through Perry, part of Williamson, Washington, Jefferson, Marion, Fayette, Effingham, Coles, Champaign and Iroquois, crosses the Kankakee River and extends to the southern end of Lake Michigan. Champaign County is therefore almost in the center of the Grand Prairie of Illinois. The origin of the prairies has been a debatable question for many decades. Three general theories have been advanced to account for their existence at the time of the coming of the earliest settlers into the limits of Illinois. One explanation is that the great prairie fires which annually swept over the Grand Prairie effectually kept the trees from making any headway. But there are two scientific explanations which seem to go more to the bedrock of the matter. Says a late writer on this subject: “Professor Whitney holds to the theory that the treeless prairies have had their origin in the character of the original deposits, or soil formation. He does not deny, in fact admits, the submersion of all prairie lands formerly as lakes or swamps; but he holds that while the lands were so submerged there was deposited a very fine soil, which he attributes, in part, to the under-lying rocks, and in part to the accumulation in the bottom of immense lakes, of a sediment of almost impalpable fineness. This soil in its physical, and probably in its chemical, composition prevents the trees from naturally getting a foothold in the prairies. “Professor Lesquereux holds to the theory simply stated that all areas properly called prairies were formed by the redemption of what was once lake regions and later swamp territory. He points out that trees grow abundantly in moving water, but that when water is dammed the trees always die. His theory is that standing water kills trees by preventing the oxygen of the air from reaching their roots. He further shows that the nature of the soil in redeemed lake regions is such that without the help of man trees will not grow in it. But he further shows that by proper planting the entire prairie area may be covered with forest trees. “As rich as was the soil of our prairies, the first emigrants seldom settled far out on these treeless tracts. Most of the early comers were from the timbered regions of the older states and felt they could not make a living very far from the woods. Coal had not come into use and wood was the universal fuel. There was a wealth of mast in the timber upon which hogs could live a large part of the year. Again, our forefathers had been used to the springs of New England, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, and they did not think they could live where they could not have access to springs. The early comer, back in the ’30s, therefore, rode over the prairies of central Illinois, and then entered 160 in the timber, where he cleared his land and opened his farm.” After a careful investigation of the subject, some of the most eminent geologists of Illinois have arrived at the conclusion that the extensive prairies of the West, with their peculiar soil, have been formed in the past pretty much as prairies on a smaller scale are being formed at the present day. The black, friable mold, of which the prairie soil is composed, is due to the growth and decay of successive crops of coarse swamp grasses, submerged in spring, and growing luxuriantly in summer, only to be submerged again, and returned, in a rotten condition, to the annual accumulations before made. It is not difficult to believe that in a few hundred years, more or less, as the great sheet of water that once covered the entire valley of the Mississippi and tributaries, gradually receded to the present water courses, and left the prairies in the condition of alternate wet and dry swails, that a black, mucky soil was produced to the depth now found upon the prairies. In process of time, by more complete recession of the waters, the surface of the prairies became dry, and adapted to the wants of animals and men. The fact of there being no trees on the prairies is accounted for on the ground that such a condition of the soil as is here described is not favorable to their growth, as may be often noticed in the marshy spots of timbered regions.
Source: A Standard History of Champaign County, Illinois, by J. R. Stewart, published by The Lewis Publishing Company, Chicago And New York, 1918.