Prairie at the time of Lewis and Clark

The French called the grasslands of Missouri prairie – their word for a European meadow. Well before the end of 1700, the French had written prairie on their maps.

An unnamed but distinct prairie spread over the uplands around Spanish Lake in northeast St. Louis County, overlooking the junction of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. This prairie was variously described by French and American surveyors as prairie naturelle, good prairie land, prairie et bois clair (open woods), no timber and rich bottom land.

Prairies were grassland, but not treeless. They were rich in wild flowers as well as game birds – turkey, prairie chicken, golden plover, white pelican, sandhill crane, grouse. Carolina parakeet was found in the timber. Ducks, brands, blue snow geese, Canada geese and snipe were found in the wet bottomland.

26.7% of the land in presettlement Missouri was prairie. The highest percent of prairie was found in west central Missouri.

In St. Louis City in presettlement Missouri 38 square miles or 61% of the city was in prairie. In St. Louis County 86 square miles or 17% was in prairie. These prairies were beginning to disappear as early as 1821.

The Florissant Prairie extended north from Florissant to the Missouri River bluffs near Fort Belle Fontaine and southeast along Halls Ferry Road into the present City of St. Louis.

18th century French villages were located in or adjacant to prairies – e.g., Florissant and Village a Robert. Americans began entering Spanish Missouri in the 1790’s, but not in large numbers until the Louisiana Purchase.

All the trails leading out of French St. Louis followed prairies where they could.

For example, the chemin qui passe au pied des cotes (road at the foot of the bluffs) went north in the bottom prairie along the Mississippi River to the Chain of Rocks and beyond to the Missouri River.

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