‘Prairie Madness': Wyoming’s Secret Killer Of The Past
Maybe those who study Wyoming history have heard of “prairie madness." But for some, it may be unknown. It was an affliction in settlers of the Great Plains, and it doesn't sound like it was fun. All settlers who were used to the East were at some risk of mental breakdown. Prairie life, with extreme isolation, brought depression, and changes in character and habits. Some even committed suicide.
One explanation was the Homestead Act of 1862, giving people 160 acres if they were able to live on and make something out of it in five years. Obviously, one felt committed to sticking it out, whether or not one was the self-sufficient type. The farms were at least half a mile apart, but usually further.
In short, it was lonely on levels that we’ve never known. During winters today in Casper and Cheyenne, our version of this might be called “cabin fever.” If we feel enough of that now, we can certainly imagine what it was like then. From one blizzard, the drifts on the treeless terrain left whole homes covered in snow.
Women were said to be prone to crying and careless dress, and men showed their own signs of prairie madness in ways of violence.
With the onset of new modes of communication and transportation - like railroads and further settlement – there was finally a "closing of the frontier," as described by renowned American Western historian Frederick Jackson Turner.
There may be some Wyomingites who’ve also heard of Dorothy Scarbourough’s 1925 novel that has some severe prairie madness in it. It’s called The Wind. We sure still have that in Wyoming.