Settlers Crossing the Great Plains
Most of you who live on the Great Plains of the United States probably already know what Prairie Madness or Prairie Fever is, but easterners like me may have never heard of it or what causes it. Well, for us on the eastern side of the Mississippi, here’s what it is and what it’s all about.
Prairie Madness is a malady, which affected some of the western Europeans who migrated and settled in the Great Plains of the United States and Canada in the nineteenth century.
Europeans moving westward mostly lived in areas where there were settled areas and even urbanized places. The prairie was a very different place than what they had known. The prairie was a harsh environment with a monotonous landscape and, for the most part, isolated from the civilized world they had previously known. Much of this isolation was related to the lay of the land, but other factors were also involved such as the lack of unified transportation such as railroads and, of course, no sea ports for the rapid transportation of goods and people.
The big attraction of the west, yet one of the causes of Prairie Madness began with The Homestead Act of 1862. This act stipulated that a person would be given a tract of 160 acres if they were able to live on it and make something out of it in a five-year period. Well, you can certainly understand why people, especially those with very little financially, would be drawn to such a place. That 150 acres of land put these farms at least half a mile apart, some of them even more. Since there was such a lack of established settlements or community in those wide open spaces, the settlers were forced to be almost completely self-sufficient.
They rarely saw any of their neighbors. There were no dances, no churches where they could gather to commune with their neighbors, and even if there were towns somewhere, it was a long journey to get there what they were used to. The settlers were alone—and they felt alone. This isolation made medical care a big problem. Even if there was a doctor somewhere, it took a long time to get to one of these farms. Just imagine being the parent of a sick child who, for lack of immediate medical attention ended up dying which frequently was the result of illness on the Plains. It would be easy to see how the untimely death of a child could contribute to Prairie Madness.
And then there was the weather.
Winter on the Prairie (Photo by Derrald Farnsworth-Livingston)
Because immigrant families had different languages and customs, they were at even greater risk of isolation and Prairie Madness. They no longer had the close relationships with villagers the way they did back home. The prairie was probably as foreign to them as landing on the moon. I can relate a little to this since I experienced the feeling of being “different” when I lived in Nebraska for a year. Social attitudes, customs, and food change depending on where a person lives. It’s not easy adjusting. In Nebraska I was asked by a co-worker if I wore shoes back home. Another questioned whether my collage was accredited as if to say southerners must be poorly educated. Yeah. Duke University, a primary medical school and Boyman Grey I guess were called into question by some. A boyfriend who frequented my home growing up once said something negative about my mother’s cooking. I had to explain how she cooked Pennsylvania Dutch the same as her kin. Nothing makes your blood boil more than a negative comment about a mom. So I can relate to a small degree to what the immigrants endured. It makes a person feel inferior to others and disrespected.
Since Prairie Madness is not an actual medical term, the symptoms are not scientifically documented. There is some disagreement about who was affected more by the isolation, men or women. The jury is still out on that, but they did determine the response of men and women is different to Prairie Madness. Men turn to violence and women socially withdraw. Entries of personal accounts in diaries did give scientists an idea of some similarities. Most of the people suffered a kind of depression. Women often cried, stopped taking care of their hygiene and dress, and became more and more withdrawn. The depression was difficult to overcome since it required getting off the prairie. In extreme cases Prairie Madness did lead to suicide, mostly by women and often in an exhibitionistic way. Still, suicide was not common with Prairie Madness.
In the 20th century Prairie Madness has all but disappeared. More established lines of communication such as telephones entered the ordinary household and travel became a whole lot easier after automobiles began to take over. But for those brave pioneers, Prairie Madness was a real threat. What hearty spirits those people had. I really have to admire them and their undying dreams of land, fortune, and freedom. God bless ‘em.
Sarah J. McNeal is a multi-published author of several genres including time travel, paranormal, western and historical fiction. She is a retired ER and Critical Care nurse who lives in North Carolina with her four-legged children, Lily, the Golden Retriever and Liberty, the cat. Besides her devotion to writing, she also has a great love of music and plays several instruments including violin, bagpipes, guitar and harmonica. Her books and short stories may be found at Prairie Rose Publications and its imprints Painted Pony Books, and Fire Star Press. Some of her fantasy and paranormal books may also be found at Publishing by Rebecca Vickery and Victory Tales Press. She welcomes you to her website and social media: