“July 7th – I fell asleep, and when I was awakened at dawn this morning, by my companion, that I might not lose the scene, I started with surprise and delight. I was in the midst of a prairie! A world of grass and flowers stretched around me, rising and falling in gentle undulations, as if an enchanter had struck the ocean swell, and it was at rest forever. Acres of wild flowers of every hue glowed around me, and the sun was arising from the earth where it touched the horizon, ‘kissing with golden face the meadows green.’ What a new and wondrous world of beauty! What a magnificent sight! Those glorious ranks of flowers! Oh that you could have ‘one glance at their array!’ How shall I convey to you an idea of a prairie. I despair, for never yet hath pen brought the scene before my mind. Imagine yourself in the centre of an immense circle of velvet herbage, the sky for its boundary upon every side, the whole clothed with a radiant efflorescence of every brilliant hue. We rode thus through a perfect wilderness of sweets, sending forth perfume, and animated with myriads of glittering birds and butterflies.
It was, in fact, a vast garden, over whose perfumed paths, covered with soil as hard as gravel, our carriage rolled through the whole of that summer day. You will scarcely credit the profusion of flowers upon these prairies. We passed whole acres of blossoms all bearing one hue, as purple, perhaps, or masses of yellow or rose, and then again a carpet of every color intermixed, or narrow bands, as if a rainbow had fallen upon the verdant slopes. When the sun flooded this Mosaic floor with light, and the summer breeze stirred among their leaves, the iridescent glow was beautiful and wondrous beyond any thing I had ever conceived.
The gentle undulating surface of these prairies prevent sameness and add variety to its lights and shades. Occasionally, when a swell is rather higher than the rest, it gives you an extended view over the country, and you may mark a dark green waving line of trees near the distant horizon, which are shading some gentle stream from the sun's shooting rays, and thus, betraying the secret of their silent course. Oak openings also occur, green groves, arranged with the regularity of art, making shady alleys for the heated traveler. What a tender benevolent Father have we, to form for us so bright a world! How filled with glory and beauty must that mind have been, who conceived so much loveliness!
The oasis, or oak openings, upon the prairies are very beautiful. We passed through one this morning. It presented the appearance of a lawn, or park around some gentleman's seat. The trees are generally oak, arranged in pretty clumps or clusters upon the smooth grass - or in long avenues, as if planted thus by man. From their limbs hang pretty vines, as pea vine - lonicera lava, honeysuckle and white convolvalus. While our carriage wound among these clumps, or through the avenues, it was almost impossible to dispel the illusion that we were not driving through the domain of some rich proprietor, and we almost expected to draw up before the door of some lordly mansion.”
It was the summer of 1840, Eliza Steele traveled west from New York. She settled into a stage coach in Chicago on the night of July 7th. She was headed to Peoria, IL. At dawn, near Joliet, IL, she was awoken by a companion. You have just heard the beauty she saw in the tallgrass prairie. Eliza kept a journal of her travels and it was later published by J.S. Taylor & Co. You can read her words in the book, Summer Journey in the West.Read More