Ruminant manure constituted an important factor in American settlement on the Plains, providing fuel for heat and cooking in the near total absence of wood or coal and serving as a medical specific for injuries and medical complaints ranging from the reattachment of severed members and snake bite to hiccups and sunburn. Travelers on the Plains, European Americans and Native Americans alike, erected cairns of buffalo chips to serve as landmarks. As a fuel, cow and buffalo chips offered the advantage of not throwing sparks into bedding or clothing, which was especially important in military tents and tipis. One early settler reported, "Don't feel sorry for us cooking with cow chips. They had their advantages– didn't need to use pepper."
Where advantages did not exist, they were invented: a common nineteenth-century mock praise of the Plains celebrated the region as a paradise, "where the wind draws the water and the cows cut the wood." The principal disadvantage of "Plains oak," as it was commonly–and politely–called, was an aversion toward collecting the fuel. The problem is alluded to in the Mormon Trail song "Whoa! Ha! Buck and Jerry Boy." While commenting on an attractive traveler in another wagon, the reporter sings, "Look at her now with a pout on her lips / As daintily with her fingertips / She picks for the fire some buffalo chips." "The Soddy Rally Song" also refers to the problem and its solution with nineteenthcentury delicacy: "We Soddies will remember when / No fuel could be found. / Those cows they must have wondered / Why we followed them around." European American women, accustomed to cooking over wood fires in stone and brick fireplaces and taking care that manure was not tracked into their kitchens, were particularly offended to find themselves hauling manure into their homes by the basketload to fuel cooking fires, of all things, in cast-iron stoves. A canon of cow chip desirability for fuel developed: chips from cows grazing on autumn plums and therefore full of hard, hot, and long-burning plum pits were particularly prized and reserved for nighttime and cold weather fires.
Roger L. Welsch Dannebrog, Nebraska
Dary, David A. The Buffalo Book. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1974.
Welsch, Roger L. Sod Walls: The Story of the Nebraska Sod House. Lincoln: J. & L. Lee Company, 1991.
Welsch, Roger L. A Treasury of Nebraska Pioneer Folklore. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966.