"History and Stories of Nebraska"
by Addison Erwin Sheldon

Produced by Connie Snyder


All Nebraska was one great field of wild grass in the early days. A few trees grew along the streams and in the ravines. All the rest was grass. In the heat of summer the short grass dried on its roots. When the frosts of early fall came the tall, green grasses were killed. Then the autumn winds blew and the grass everywhere was dead and very dry.

Prairie fires burned in this great ocean of dry grass every fall and spring. Indians or white hunters or campers started them. Once started a fire spread on and on until a rain fell or until it reached a river too wide for it to jump.

One of the great dangers to the early settlers was from the prairie fire. To protect their homes and stacks from its ravages they broke a narrow strip of sod around them, then, at some distance inside of that, another narrow strip and burned the grass between. This was called a "fireguard." It was usually from four to eight rods wide. It would stop any common fire and keep the settler's house and stables and haystacks safe.

Early every fall the children on the farm helped their father to burn fireguards around the place. This was done on the first quiet evening after the grass was dry. It was great fun for the children, who loved to take long wisps of lighted grass and carry the fire along the inside of the fireguard with shouts and laughter, while the dark prairie was lighted until their moving figures made shadows upon the fields.

A little later the prairie fires appeared. Every night a red glow against the sky was the sign of distant fires. The days were smoky and the smell of burning grass was upon the air. Sometimes there came a high wind driving the flames faster than a horse could run. Blazing tumble weeds and sunflower heads were caught up in the gale and whirled hundreds of yards, starting new fires wherever they fell.

The front of such a fire was called a "headfire." It ran with the wind across miles of prairie, with its long red tongues licking at every object, jumping fireguards and even rivers in its path. Behind it the prairie roared and crackled, for the headfire had no time to burn the grass in its course. It touched it with the torch and rushed on to find fresh fuel. The level prairie looked like a lake of fire with a lurid cloud of smoke rising above it. It was a grand sight, but terrible to the settler whose farm lay in its path.

An Early Prairie Fire.
(From Catlin.)

The only way to protect against a high headfire was to start a backfire some distance ahead of it which would burn away the grass and leave nothing to feed it. The backfire was set at the edge of a fireguard facing the wind, or it was set on the open prairie by carrying a line of fire along a few feet at a time and whipping out the side of the fire away from the wind. In either case the backfire burned slowly against the wind until it met the headfire. In a furious gale a backfire was hard to control for it would get away from the men.

In October, 1871, great fires burned along the Nebraska frontier. There had been no rain for weeks. The grass was so dry that it seemed to explode when touched with flame. A great wind from the west drove the fires from the unsettled open prairie upon the settlements. Fireguards failed to stop the flames. The Blue River was jumped by the fire in many places. Thick smoke hung over the region. Hundreds of homesteaders lost their houses and crops and some lost their lives. In other years there were also great losses.

In spite of all these dangers every year new fields were plowed and the settlements pushed farther west until the fires could no longer range across the country. The days of the great prairie fires which swept the whole state are past forever. The children of to-day and of the future will never see in Nebraska the miles on miles of blazing prairie with headfires rushing fiercely down upon their homes like those seen by their parents when they were children, and thus they will miss one of the grandest and most thrilling sights so familiar to the children of the pioneers.


  1. Do you enjoy an outdoor fire? When do you enjoy it most and why?
  2. How do you think a great prairie fire driven by a head wind was regarded by the pioneer children? By their parents?
  3. What effect had the great prairie fires of the early days upon Nebraska?
  4. Should you rather live in a pioneer or a long settled country? Why?