If there is one adjective used to describe the landscape and people of the Pawnee Grasslands it is grit.  The soil that nourishes the vegetation of this short grass prairie and the people who once tried to cultivate this land have grit at their very core.

The Pawnee Grasslands are part of the High Plains of Colorado.  Over thousands of years, the sediment has been eroded away by the elements.  The constant onslaught of forceful wind created the jewels of this short grass prairie; the Pawnee Buttes.  Their mere existence stands as a testament to the perseverance and staying power of this harsh landscape and the brave men and women who made it their home.

People from all over the country flocked to the American West during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Lured by the Homestead Act of 1862, which promised them 160 acres, these pioneers were searching for a new start.  An important piece of this Act was that the land must be cultivated or improved within 5 years of settlement.  The best acres were quickly snatched up, and the late arrivals acquired less than fertile soil on which to live.

These pioneers lived with constant winds, dry land, and extreme temperatures.  In addition, the land did not take well to cultivation.  Frustrated and out of money, many of the Pawnee’s early residents returned to their places of origin.

For a few enterprising individuals, dry land farming provided a steady income for a short time.  Unfortunately, the 1930s brought severe drought, and, eventually, the Dust Bowl arrived.  Wind whipped across the prairie, taking with it the fertile topsoil, which blackened the skies as far east as Washington D.C.

The consequence of the Dust Bowl cannot be overstated.  The way of life for many farmers was forever changed, and the future of the short grass prairie ecosystem was in question.  Eventually, under the supervision of soil scientists working for the US government, the land was planted back to native grass, and the Pawnee National Grasslands were formed.

Today, the Pawnee Grasslands play an important role in the preservation and conservation of many plant and animal species.  These grasslands are home to black tailed prairie dogs, a keystone species of the prairie, and over 225 bird species, many of whom use this habitat for nesting.

Looking back at the history of the Pawnee Grasslands and recognizing the importance of this land today, it gives the word “grit” a new significance.  Those who still call this land home have weathered every imaginable storm and have come out the other end still standing; standing in the shadow of the Pawnee Buttes.

Originally published in the Greeley Tribune, May 18, 2012
Written by Samantha Eads, former Assistant Curator of Education


Rock land formation rises out of the grasslands. A Model T pulling a plow works in the foreground.

A Model T pulling a plow works the land with the Pawnee Buttes visible behind.

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