Life in the Old West

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Grass played major role in shaping life, language of the Plains


Grass not only covered thousands of square miles of the West as U.S. pioneers began expanding from the East, it also shaped life across the Plains — even molding common language and “Westernisms” that gave color to the American English of the day.

Stories abound about the hardships and dangers settlers faced as they cleared and tamed the center of our continent. From bison herds numbering in the tens of thousands to prairie grass fires that raged uncontrolled as far as the eye could see, the obstacles were many and sometimes seemed deceptively benign. For instance, who would think children setting out on foot through the grasslands of Nebraska to look for their older brother who was out herding cattle were facing any particular dangers?

But a boy and girl of ages 7 and 8 set out to find their older brother one day in 1868 in Lancaster County, Nebraska, and almost never returned home because of the thick, tall grasslands in the area. According to one account, the youngsters lost their way in the tall grass and were not seen again by their frantic parents and brother for several days. A four-day search by their parents finally turned up word that the missing children had appeared at a neighbor’s house sometime shortly after they had disappeared. The neighbor gave them food and water, then watched as the kids walked away. The two had said nothing about being lost and the unsuspecting neighbor, apparently accustomed to children journeying over from his neighbors’ houses, never knew that they were lost.

The parents gave up, finally, concluding the two children had been taken and eaten by wolves or other wildlife. But ELEVEN DAYS AFTER THEIR DISAPPEARANCE, their father stumbled upon the two children lying unconscious in the grass. He carried the two home on his back and they survived. (You can read a fuller account of this and other fascinating glimpses of pioneer family life in “The Women,” a volume of Time-Life Books’ “The Old West” series, frequently available from numerous sellers on Amazon.com and eBay.)

Prairie grasslands throughout the Plains not only nourished (and sometimes endangered!) the pioneers and settlers, they shaped and “nourished” the living American English language in ways we still identify. Here are a few examples of expressions that came into the language directly because of the influence of living on and near the Plains grasslands:

To get grassed — meant to get thrown off of a horse.

Grass-bellied — referred to someone who was big-bellied, or also to someone who’s stomach was simply bloated for whatever reason. My trusty “Dictionary of the American West” by Winfred Blevins cites one Western writer’s use of the expression “grass-bellied with spot cash” and says it means “flush with money.”

Grass roots —referred to the soil just under the surface of the ground. Blevins suggests that some of the more opportunistic prospectors and miners hoped for “grass-roots bonanzas” just under the ground — though no examples survive of that optimism being rewarded anywhere in the Plains grasslands!

Grass fat — A cow who had been fattened on grass alone, i.e., no grain feeding, was considered to be poor eating since it was very lean meat. Now, Blevins suggests, eating such beef might be fashionable because it would be a leaner quality of meat.

Grass freight — This might be one of the most interesting expressions related to “grass” to come into Westernisms. Products freighted across the Plains in wagons pulled by oxen and not mules were called “grass freight,” because the oxen could graze as they made the journey. Mules required having corn hauled along for their sustenance. Mule-freighted goods were called “corn freight,” and although it got their faster than grass freight, it was more expensive because of the need to haul corn feed for the mule teams.

Grass was a way of life for those on the Plains. It was a basic building block (as well as a source of potential danger) for those who explored and settled the West. And grass added colorful Westernisms to our language.