Thursday, August 18, 2016

Prairie Madness by Sarah J. McNeal

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.

Long, bitter cold winters with frequent blizzards and landscapes without plants which led to the abandonment of animals from the area. After several feet of snow swallowed the landscape, farmers and their families ended up sheltered in their homes usually crowded and cramped inside. The endless flat landscape devoid for the most part of trees stretched out for miles and miles. The endless, relentless wind blew through the prairie adding to the melancholy existence on the Plains and the feeling of an alien place began to gnaw on the settlers’ nerves. I have to mention right here that the Plains are now known as "Tornado Alley."

Winter on the Prairie (Photo by Derrald Farnsworth-Livingston)

Some settlers had a difficult time letting go of their eastern ways, and others tried to make the adjustment to a different way of life, but still fell victim to Prairie Madness. Some thought the best way to cope was to keep moving to different locations and, naturally, some threw in the plow and moved back east.

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:


  1. It was dreadful, wasn't it. I grew up on the South Plains...part of what was the prairie--flat, unforgiving, lonely....way back then. Still, living on the Caprock and growing up there, now I can more appreciate how the settlers felt.
    One of my favorite research books is Texas Tears and Texas Sunshine, and I'm used several of those pioneer women as topics for my Sweethearts post. Of course, the prairie you're more speaking of if farther north--Kansas and Nebraska. Listen, drive through those states and you can readily see how desolate and lonely those pioneers were.
    I am grateful our forefathers and mothers did make these journeys, for where would we be today if they had not.
    Places in Texas are a paradise compared to the prairies of those states north of us.
    Wonderful post, Sarah, as usual.

    1. I lived in central Texas for a little over a year, but I don't think even that kind of flat, mostly treeless area was as desolate as Nebraska--as you mentioned. Hey, south central Texas wasn't bad in the winter, but ohmygosh, Nebraska was really in its dark, depressing glory in winter and it lasted a very l-o-n-g time. I don't think I would have made a very good prairie wife. I can truly empathize with what they must have gone through. And yes, Celia, it is a good thing that some of those bold, brave, and audacious women had the strength of heart and will to venture west and make a life there. Our country needed them.
      I love knowing people from different places like you, Celia, because you help me understand the character and spirit of our country. How do I say thank you for that?
      Thank you for coming to my blog and saving me from loneliness here. LOL You're steadfast and true.

  2. I am an introvert who likes time at home with my family. That said, I don't think I could have endured the isolation of a pioneer.

    1. Caroline, I understand exactly how you feel. I, too, am an introvert. It's not the lack of people that would probably give me trouble, it's the landscape and harsh weather. I love trees and would miss them along with a more diverse terrain.
      I would not do as well as you in a homesteader's life for certain.
      Thank you so much for coming by and sharing your thoughts.

  3. I was born in Kearney, Nebraska and went to elementary school there. That said, thankfully it was the 20th century! I grew up admiring those brave pioneers that settled there way before me and one of the reasons I became fascinated in western American history. Thanks, Sarah, for reminding us of the many hardships they endured to the point of driving some of them to Prairie Madness.

    1. Cheri, raised in Nebraska, I know you have first hand experience with the harsh weather there. I can certainly understand how you would have an appreciation of the history of your state. It must have been a very difficult life in those days.
      Thank you so much for coming and remarking about your state's history.

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  4. Wonderful article. I never heard of Prairie Madness but I am not surprised people experienced it. I can't imagine living in those conditions. I do love the country, but that type of desolation must be difficult to live with. I doubt I would have survived.

    1. Marianne, thank you for coming and for your compliment. I wouldn't have made it either. I would have been out there acting like a mad woman. I have trouble living without my beloved trees. It certainly makes me appreciate all those strong, brave women who managed to deal with all the hardships and isolation.
      Thank you so very much for visiting my article, Marrianne.

  5. We were stationed in Brunswick Maine for 9 of the longest years of my life. I would stand at the top of the stairs late and night and cry watching as the snow came down more and more and more. I was from Texas do this isolated snow bound place was hell for me. Texas is rough and dry and even mean, but the sun always comes out. I went weeks with no sun in Maine. It was killing me.


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