In the 1860s, the vast, rolling tallgrass prairies of the Osage Plains stretched for miles. Maintained by periodic fires for approximately 5,000 years before European settlement, prairie once covered approximately 78 percent of Bates County, Mo. Historically, the creeks and rivers in the area harbored stately bur oaks and post oaks, both fire-tolerant species able to withstand the regularly occurring prairie fires that swept through the area. By the mid-1860s, small homesteads and family farms dotted the prairie landscape, taking full advantage of the rich prairie sod and winding waterways. Outside of the farmed areas, the natural history and fires associated with tallgrass prairie remained an integral part of life for area settlers.
Prairie Fire as a Weapon
The landscape features here, including the prairie and wetlands associated with the Marais-des-Cygnes River, played a signficant role in the events of the Battle of Island Mound, the first time black troops faced combat in the Civil War. Troops from both sides were well-versed in the flammability of prairie grasses.
On Oct. 29, 1862, following a full day of skirmishes between Southern guerrillas and the First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry, the Southern forces set fire to the prairie, pushing Kansas troops back to the Toothman Farm. The Kansans intentionally lit a back fire to burn the grasses, removing the fuel feeding the Southern fire. This created a "blackline" that halted the flames set by the Southerners and protected their camp at the Toothman farm. Throughout the day, the prairie fires caused utter chaos and confusion, described in later reports as "a hellish backdrop of smoke and flame" as hand-to-hand combat ensued.
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The staff at Prairie State Park regularly maintain over 3,500 acres of native tallgrass prairie with prescribed fire, continuing the ancient natural process that results in a vibrant landscape each spring.