Ask Rufus: The Prairie

January 26, 2013 9:54:21 PM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


Deeply ingrained in both the history and culture of Northeast Mississippi is the Black Prairie. The prairie takes its name from the dark, almost black soil that typifies its range. From the time of the earliest European-American traders and settlers, the region has attracted attention.  


The best early description of the prairies of our area was written by English surveyor and naturalist Bernard Romans in 1775. In 1771 he traveled across the South and up the Tombigbee River. Describing the countryside, he wrote that the savannahs (prairies), "... consist of a high ground often with small gentle risings in them, some are of a vast extent, and on the west of the Mississippi, they are said to be many days journey over, the largest within my knowledge is on the road from the Choctaw to the Chickasaw nation, and is in length near forty miles over from north to south, (The area he is describing is roughly Highway 45A between West Point and Okolona) and from one end to the other, a horizon, similar to that at sea, appears ... the soil here is very fertile; in some I have seen fossil shells in great numbers ..." The only high growth he found were willows by the creeks and some small oak and junipers (cedar). He mentioned cattle being very fond of the prairie grasses. 


Romans also told of finding a crimson flower of the sunflower family and many wild strawberries. He was not the only one to notice the flowers that still cover the prairie in the spring and early summer. In April 1822, William Goodell was traveling from Columbus to the Choctaw Indian mission at Mayhew. His route followed what is now known as the Old West Point Road and crossed a large prairie. Mayhew was at that time on a ridge overlooking Tibbee Creek between present day West Point and Starkville. Goodell described the scene along the road: "Flowers of red, purple, yellow and indeed of every hue, are scattered, by a bountiful God, in rich profusion, and in all the beauty and innocence of Eden, on each side of the path; and their fragrance is as if the very incense of heaven were there offered. You can stand in almost any place, and count flowers of ten or twelve different hues."  


James Nance passed through what is now the prairie in Noxubee County in 1832 and said: "It looks like some ocean, not a tree nor a shrub only once and a while some scrubby blackjack, and is covered in grape and weeds from knee to six feet high." 


In 1860 Eugene W. Hilgard, state geologist for Mississippi, described the prairies of northeast Mississippi. He wrote in a report on the geology and agriculture of the state of Mississippi: "The character of the soil of the cretaceous prairies ... is a very heavy clay soil, of a dark tint, and possessing a pale, dirty greenish-yellow subsoil (underlaid) ... by the rotten limestone. The soil is sometimes without timber of any kind, but usually bears clumps at least, of Crab Apple, Wild Plum, Honey Locust and Persimmon. These mostly occur even on the "bald prairies," where the rock is close to the surface." 


Other accounts, including the U.S. surveys of Choctaw and Chickasaw lands in the mid-1830s, provided information on the vegetation. There was no single prairie but many scattered prairies ranging in size from about a mile across to the huge prairie north of West Point. Generally the prairies consisted of grass and weeds with scattered groves of trees which were mostly post oak, but also blackjack, red elm, hickory, ash, walnut and sassafras. 


The land was described as gently rolling and varying from poor to good in quality. Big blue stem was a common grass, but other grasses including smooth paspalum, joint grass, Southern spear grass, wiry panic grass, forked beard grass, meadow eragrostis and terrell grass were also found. On hot dry soils, gama grass was found. 


Anyone who has ever quail hunted on the prairie will also tell you there are a lot of thorn bushes there. Dr. Jack Kaye believed that they were an example of selective adaptation to Pleistocene (Ice Age) browsers as the prairie area was home to large herds of now extinct American horses. Today, in almost any prairie creek, one can find 20,000-year-old fossils of horse teeth. The prairie is a very special place.

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]