Prairie madness

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For the 1970s band, see Prairie Madness (band).
A store in Grand Forks, ND in 1880

Prairie madness or prairie fever was an affliction that affected European settlers in the Great Plains during the migration to, and settlement of, the Canadian Prairies and the Western United States in the nineteenth century. Settlers moving from urbanized or relatively settled areas in the East faced the risk of mental breakdown caused by the harsh living conditions and the extreme levels of isolation on the prairie. Symptoms of prairie madness included depression, withdrawal, changes in character and habit, and violence. Prairie madness sometimes resulted in the afflicted person moving back East or, in extreme cases, suicide.

Prairie madness is not a clinical condition; rather, it is a pervasive subject in writings of fiction and non-fiction from the period to describe a fairly common phenomenon. It was described by E.V. Smalley in 1893: "an alarming amount of insanity occurs in the new Prairie States among farmers and their wives."[1][2]

Causes and risk factors[edit]

A panorama of the prairie of Northern Colorado in early March 2018. The view shows an area of around 25 square miles, containing only 2 small farms, and many parts of the West will have been even emptier until the very late 1800s. The prairie looks as desolate and drab as shown here for 5-6 months each year, between early October and late March.

Prairie madness was caused by the isolation and tough living conditions on the Prairie. The level of isolation depended on the topography and geography of the region. Most examples of prairie madness come from the Great Plains region. One explanation for these high levels of isolation was the Homestead Act of 1862. This act stipulated that a person would be given a tract of 160 acres if they were able to live on it and make something out of it in a five-year period. The farms of the Homestead Act were at least half a mile apart, but usually much more.[1] There was little settlement and community on the Plains and settlers had to be almost completely self-sufficient.

The lack of quick and easily available transportation was also a cause of prairie madness; settlers were far apart from one another and they could not see their neighbors or get to town easily. Those who had family back on the East coast could not visit their families without embarking on a long journey. Settlers were very alone. This isolation also caused problems with medical care; it took such a long time to get to the farms that when children fell sick they frequently died.[3] This caused a lot of trauma for the parents, and contributed to prairie madness.

Another major cause of prairie madness was the harsh weather and environment of the Plains, including long, cold winters filled with blizzards followed by short, hot summers. Once winter came, it seemed that all signs of life such as plants, and animals had disappeared. Farmers would be stuck in their houses under several feet of snow when the blizzards struck, and the family would be cramped inside for days at a time.[4] There were few trees, and the flat land stretched out for miles and miles. Some settlers specifically spoke of the wind that rushed through the prairie, which was loud, forceful, and alien compared to what settlers had experienced in their former lives.[1]

Many stayed very attached to their way of life back East, and their attempts to make their new homes in the West adhere to the old ways, sometimes triggered prairie madness. Others tried to adapt to the entirely new way of life, and abandoned the old ways, but still fell victim to madness. Some coping mechanisms to escape the emotional trauma of moving to the prairie was to continually move around to new locations, or to move back East.[4]

Immigrants were particularly at risk for prairie madness. Immigrant families not only had to suffer from isolation, but the settlers who lived in their area often had different languages and customs. As such, this was an even further separation from society. Immigrant families were also hard-hit by prairie madness because they came from communities in Europe that were very close-knit small villages and life on the prairie was a terrible shock for them.[1]

There is a debate between scholars as to whether the condition affected women more than men, although there is documentation of both cases in both fiction and non-fiction from the nineteenth century. Women and men each had different manifestations of the disease, women turning towards social withdrawal and men to violence.[4]


Since prairie madness does not refer to a clinical term, there is no specific set of symptoms of the affliction. However, the descriptions of prairie madness in historical writing, personal accounts, and Western literature elucidate what some of the effects of the disease were.

The symptoms of prairie madness were similar to those of depression. The women affected by prairie madness were said to show symptoms such as crying, slovenly dress, and withdrawal from social interactions. Men also showed signs of depression, which sometimes manifested in violence. Prairie madness was not unique from other types of depression, but the harsh conditions on the prairie triggered this depression, and it was difficult to overcome without getting off of the prairie.[4]

In extreme cases, the depression would lead to mental breakdown. This could lead to suicide. There are theories that the suicides caused by prairie madness were typically committed by women, and performed in an exhibitionist fashion.[3] Prairie madness did not typically lead to suicide, and this is depicted more in fictional stories than it is seen in the historical record.[4]

In fiction[edit]

Prairie madness is used in literature of the period as a dramatic device, or to move the plot along. The madness is depicted in many different novels, some of the most notable include Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! and My Antonia, Amelia Meuller’s There Have to be Six, Sonora Babb’s An Owl on Every Post, O. E. Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth, Dorothy Sarborough’s The Wind,[4] and most recently, "The Homesman" by Glendon Swarthout.

Each of these novels contains characters that are affected by prairie madness. Rolvaag's 1927 Giants in the Earth chronicles the story of Norwegian immigrants settling in the Dakotas in the 1870s. One of the characters, Beret, is a young girl who has a typical case of prairie madness. She feels guilty for leaving her parents in Norway, and is frightened by life on the Plains. She believes that she has sinned by leaving her home to start this new life and that God is using the Plains to punish her. Beret becomes depressed and withdraws from social life. Her husband Per Hansa specifically mentions the terrible effect the weather of the Plains, especially blizzards, had on Beret's mental health.[4]

Great Plains of Nebraska

Cather's 1913 work, O Pioneers!, tells a story of the effect of prairie madness on men, in this case a Swedish immigrant family living on the Plains. The book depicts the life of Frank Shabata, a settler. Shabata's downfall begins when he moves from his city life onto a farm, and he is frustrated by the life he is forced to live. Over time, he becomes angered by minor issues and gets to the point where everyone is frightened by his instability. Shabata's illness culminates when he murders his wife and her lover, and has a complete breakdown.[4]

In Cather's My Antonia, the pressures of the new life are too much for Mr. Shimerda, who kills himself before the winter is finished. The nearest Catholic priest is too far away for last rites. He is buried without formal rites at the corner marker of their homestead, a place that is left alone when the territory is later marked out with section lines and roads.

Scarborough's 1925 novel The Wind depicts a woman affected by prairie madness triggered by incessant wind, blinding blizzards, and social isolation of a new wife uncommitted to her marriage in a brutally masculine social milieu.

In non-fiction[edit]

The prairie madness of non-fiction, seen in diaries and historical accounts, is not the same as is depicted in fiction. Rather than a long brewing madness it is a short, fleeting depression. It is more prevalent and more complex in non-fiction, though rarely fatal.[4] Examples of prairie madness in non-fiction include Adela Orpen’s account Memories of the Old Emigrant Days in Kansas, 1862-1865, and Mollie: The Journal of Mollie Dorsey Sanford in Nebraska and Colorado Territories. Descriptions of prairie madness in accounts by historians are found in Daniel J. Boorstin's The Americans: The Democratic Experience and Walter Prescott Webb’s The Great Plains.[4]

Great Plains, west of Kearney, Nebraska

The decline of prairie madness[edit]

Prairie madness virtually disappears from the historical and literary record during the 20th century. This was likely the result of new modes of communication and transportation that arose during the late 19th and early 20th century. These included the increase in railroad lines, the invention and increasing usage of both the telephone and automobile, and further settlement leading to the "closing of the frontier", as described by renowned American Western historian Frederick Jackson Turner.[1]

Popular culture[edit]

Despite the phenomenon's ambiguous history, it features as a vital plot element in Prairie Fever (2008)[5] and The Homesman (2014)[6].

In the episode "George Washington" of Dan Vs., Chris is afflicted with prairie madness as he, Dan, and Elise cross the United States.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Boorstin, Daniel (1973). The Americans: The Democratic Experience. New York: Random House. pp. 120–125.
  2. ^ Rich, Nathaniel. "Insane in the Plains". The Daily Beast. Retrieved 27 February 2013.
  3. ^ a b Majors, John (May 1968). "It Was Hell on Horses and Women". Real West Magazine: 8–10.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Meldrum, Barbara Howard (1985). "Men, Women, and Madness: Pioneer Plains Literature". In Underwood, June (ed.). Under the Sun: Myth and Realism in Western American Literature. Troy, NY: The Whitson Publishing Company. pp. 51–61.
  5. ^ "Prairie Fever". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 9 April 2013.
  6. ^ The Homesman on IMDb