The Place Text

The Flint Hills

Council Grove is situated in the Flint Hills, a physiographic province of beautiful grass-covered uplands.  This grassland is approximately forty miles wide and stretches through Kansas from northern Oklahoma to Nebraska. The greatest breadth of the Flint Hills is along Interstate 70, where motorists can view the trapezoidal-shaped hills from Abilene on the west to Paxico on the east. The limestone rocks forming the uplands are laced with strata of hard chert, commonly called flint, hence the Flint Hills name. Shale, red sandstone, siltstone, and dolomite also lie beneath the grassy slopes of these hills.

The rocks were formed as sediments deposited on the bottom of a shallow inland sea that covered much of central North America during the Permian Period 240 to 290 million years ago.

Over the ages the Flint Hills have proven more resistant to erosion than have the land forms on either side of them. The thin and gravelly upland soils are not conducive to growing crops; indeed, most of the ground has never been broken by a plow. Hence, the land is covered by tallgrass prairie much as it had been before Euro-American settlement. In fact, most of the virgin tallgrass prairie remaining in North American is contained in the Flint Hills.

Before the Europeans arrived, trees grew only in scattered pockets along the streams. For centuries, fires have been the enemy of wood vegetation in the Flint Hills. Whether ignited by lightning or Native Americans, the fires would periodically sweep across the uplands, destroying young trees and shrubs while stimulating the growth of grasses. Another common name for the region, the Bluestem Hills, is derived from the dominant native grass species, known as big bluestem. Big bluestem and its tallgrass companions--switch grass, Indian grass, and little bluestem--are nutritious forage for grazing animals, hence the Flint Hills is renowned as one of the most productive cattle pasture regions on the continent.

People have inhabited the Flint Hills in small villages and camp sites for at least ten thousand years. Prehistoric people came here from afar to mine the chert, which they fashioned into arrow and spear points and tools. Archeologists have found chert artifacts hundreds of miles from their Flint Hills source.

The scenic qualities of the Flint Hills have been described by scores of writers. William Least Heat-Moon devoted the entirety of a 622-page 1991 bestseller, PrairyErth to describing one Flint Hills county, Chase, which lies adjacent to Council Grove’s Morris County on the south.

"Although the height of the Hills here is not remarkable, never rising more than three hundred feet from base to crest, their length and breadth would make them noteworthy even in places outside the somewhat level horizon of eastern Kansas, but, were they forested, my English traveler would hardly know she was crossing them. Because they belong to the open world of grasses, they dominate if not the sky then surely the horizon with the symmetrical and flattened tops, their trapezoidal slopes, and (at dawn and sunset) their shadows that can stretch unbrokenly and most visibly for a prairie mile."
from PrairyErth, page 13

The Prairie

"As to the scenery (giving my own thought and feeling) while I know the standard claim is that Yosemite, Niagara Falls, the Upper Yellowstone, and the like afford the greatest natural shows, I am not so sure but the prairies and plains, while less stunning at first sight, last longer, fill the esthetic sense fuller, precede all the rest, and make North America’s characteristic landscape. Even [the prairies’s] simplest statistics are sublime."

–Walt Whitman
Specimen Days (1879)

Prairies occur in the interior of large continental land masses. They are characterized by grass and a lack of trees, except along rivers and streams. They usually occur in flat or gently rolling topography. Prairies are biological systems balanced by climate, fire, rainfall and grazing animals. All of these conditions apply to the tallgrass prairie surrounding Council Grove.

Many travelers along the Santa Fe Trail found the openness of the sun-swept prairie to be alien and unsettling. Most of them had grown up in the forested, hilled, and sometimes mountainous East. The journey from Independence or Westport to Council Grove gave them ten or eleven days of unmitigated exposure to tallgrass prairie. After a respite in "The Grove," they would push west where the prairie landscape would become flatter, the grasses shorter, and the rains more infrequent.

Grasses dominate the tallgrass prairie, and one species, big bluestem, is the predominant plant. This tallgrass habitat is home to many living things including more than four hundred plants, three hundred birds, eighty-five fishes, eighty mammals, fifty reptiles, fifteen amphibians, and thousands of insects and invertebrates. Historically bison, elk, wolves, and grizzly bears roamed this landscape. Although these species have disappeared, the remaining flora and fauna is equally unique.

The fires that have periodically swept over the prairie are the ally of the grasses and the enemy of woody plants. Today in early Spring most ranchers near Council Grove set fire to their pastures to stimulate the growth of grasses. When the conditions are right in early April, one can drive out to the hills and watch the fires, long orange festoons suspended in the blackness of night, march up and down the hills.

In May the burgeoning grass covers the landscape like a lovely green carpet. In September, when the grasses begin to go dormant, the prairie turns russet and gold. Wet years mean taller grass, which sometimes reaches more than head-high in the valley floors. Often the wind sweeps across the prairie, rippling the grass into wave-like patterns. This impression has been noted by many, hence the most often-used metaphor for the prairie–a sea of grass.

The Indians used hundreds of prairie plants for food, drink, medicine, weapons, smoking, and cordage. This would have required many centuries of careful observations and experimentation. Plant knowledge was passed on from generation to generation through the process we know as culture. In this way the plants and humans of the prairie became intimately connected.

The Grove

"This point is nearly a hundred and fifty miles from Independence, and consists of a continuous stripe of timber nearly half a mile in width, comprising the richest varieties of trees; such as oak, walnut, ash, elm, hickory, etc. and extending all along the valleys of a small stream known as "Council Grove creek," the principal branch of the Neosho river."

–Josiah Gregg
from Commerce of the Prairies

". . . we stood at last beneath the sombre shadow of the old trees. We rode on through the thick wood, enjoying the grateful sensations occasioned by the transition from the burning heat of the prairie to the cooling shade of the grove."

–Matt Field, 1839

For most travelers, the huge and abundant hardwood trees on the east bank of the Neosho River meant shade, rest, and protection. Over the years, Euro American "progress" and natural forces have taken their toll on the grove. Today fewer than twenty trees of the Santa Fe Trail-era grove survive.

It was in this grove of hardwood trees that on August 10, 1825, three United States commissioners led by George C. Sibley met with chiefs of the big and little bands of the Osage tribe. The American and Indian leaders signed a treaty granting Euro Americans safe passage along the Santa Fe Trail in exchange for eight hundred dollars in trade goods. The naming of the place derived from this encounter. Sibley wrote in his journal: "I suggested naming the place ‘Council Grove’ which was agreed to, & Capt. Cooper directed to Select a Suitable Tree, & to record this name in Strong and durable characters–which was done . . ."

Twenty-one years later famous historian Francis Parkman rode into Council Grove from the west. His account reflects the usual bias in favor of trees:

". . . we saw before us the forests and meadows of Council Grove. It seemed like a new sensation as we rode beneath the resounding arches of these noble woods,–ash, oak, elm, maple, and hickory, festooned with enormous grape-vines purple with fruit. We rode out again with regret into the broad light of the open prairie."

Today portions of the trunks of three historic trees–Council Oak, Custer Elm, and Post Office Oak--still stand in Council Grove. The Council Oak and Custer’s El have shelters protecting their sizable stumps. The 15-foot high trunk of the Post Office Oak looms above the front entrance of the Post Office Oak Museum operated by the Morris County Historical Society. In 1995 the G.F.W.C. Philomathian Club identified fifteen historic trees still living. The oldest of the thirteen bur oaks marked by the Philomathian’s sprouted in 1694, the other twelve sprouted in the 1700s. The two identified cottonwoods sprouted in 1803 and 1855.

Prehistoric People

The Council Grove area was inhabited by people eight to ten thousand years ago. Little is known of the life ways of these "Paleo-Indian" people, although the findings of archeologists reveal some general conclusions as to how they lived. These early people were hunter-gatherers who lived on bison and mammoth meat, fish, mollusks, and miscellaneous smaller mammals. This diet would have been supplemented by seeds, nuts, and berries. The size of these groups of natives may have been twenty-five to thirty. They were probably nomadic.

The people of the Archaic period, which extended from eight thousand to two thousand years ago, lived in an environment considerably warmer and drier than the Paleo-Indians. Populations levels in the Flint Hills appear to have declined significantly during this period. A variety of tools were produced from raw materials including awls, punches, knives, and scrapers. During this period the Archaic people learned to make projectile points by fire-forging chert, which was in abundant supply in this area.

A major archeological dig conducted in 1962 and 1964 by the Kansas Historical Society unearthed an Archaic-period camp site located a few miles north of Council Grove. The location, known as the William Young Site, appears to have been inhabited as early as 5,500 years ago. It provided cultural evidence ranging from the surface to as deep as seven feet. Archeologists uncovered burned stone hearths, shallow pits, and a few postholes. Stone artifacts were abundant. Points, knives, axes and gouges were recovered here along with two ceramic effigy heads.

About two thousand years ago, Hopewellian Indians, characteristic of eastern woodland tribes, moved into the region near present-day northeast Kansas. The Hopewellians brought domesticated plants, primitive agriculture, and ceramic-making with them. Long-distance trade was also a feature of this group.

From 500 to 1,000 years ago the natives in the region were evolving into the central-plains tradition. The Central Plains Indians increased their use of agriculture and developed scattered farmsteads, small hamlets, and villages. Their dwellings were built on terraces overlooking rivers and streams. These people evolved into the first distinguishable tribes to inhabit Kansas. The Pawnees to the north and the Wichita to the south lived in Kansas one thousand years ago. They tended gardens, raising squash, beans, and corn, and hunted bison during two major hunts each year.

Trade with other regions was a common characteristic of these prehistoric inhabitants, although the frequency and extent of trade varied with each cultural group. There is little doubt that prehistoric Indians had for centuries used a trade route to the Southwest which in 1821 became the Euro-American Santa Fe Trail. And given the abundance of wood, water, grass, and game here, Council Grove had been a favorite campsite for the Indians long before white people arrived.

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