Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam
It's a great opening line, but most likely, Higley never saw a buffalo near his Kansas home.
By the time Brewster Higley wrote these words in 1872, the American buffalo was on the edge of extinction. Native Americans, riding horses introduced from Spain and wielding guns acquired in trades with Anglo-Americans, relied heavily on the animals for sustenance.
The U.S. Army and commercial hunters took care of the rest. An estimated 30 million buffalo covered the central plains at the time of Columbus' arrival; by 1880, there were fewer than 1,000 total in the U.S.
Thankfully, animal management programs have slowly rebuilt the buffalo population. Today, there are roughly half a million buffalo in the U.S. Many of these are kept on reserves, while many others are raised commercially for their meat and hides. Some buffalo can even be found on private hunting reserves.
Of course, hunting buffalo is a bit more expensive than it used to be. At Pipe Creek Buffalo Hunts in Kansas, you can take home a trophy bull for a mere $4,500.
Where the deer and the antelope play
Had Higley been able to tell his Antilocapridae from his Bovidae, this line would have been "where the deer and pronghorns play."
True antelopes aren't native to North America, but pronghorns—which are members of a different taxonomical family entirely—are commonly called antelopes around these parts, and they did live among the deer and buffalo on the midwestern plains at the time Higley wrote his poem.
In fact, like the buffalo, the pronghorn was hunted to near extinction over the course of the 19th century. In 1800, there may have been as many as 60 million pronghorns living on the plains between Canada and Central Mexico, but by 1900, there were fewer than 15,000.
As a result, laws were enacted that prohibited the hunting of pronghorns. These were lifted in many states during the 1940s, and today, the population has stabilized at close to one million animals.
Oh, give me the gale of the Solomon vale
Where life streams with buoyancy flow,
On the banks of the Beaver, where seldom if ever
Any poisonous herbage doth grow
If you bust out your atlas, this verse will make more sense.
Brewster Higley's poem was first published in a local journal, the Smith County Pioneer, and the folks from Smith County would have had no trouble interpreting these lines.
Beaver Creek ran through the western part of the county and emptied into the Solomon River near Gaylord. (Gaylord was the tiny town in Smith County where Higley met Daniel Kelley, the musician who wrote the music to accompany Higley's poem.)
These lines describe some familiar countryside, so long as you are from Smith County. And since a gale is a wind and a vale is the valley that surrounds a river, Higley is telling us that he likes the windy valley through which the Solomon River runs. And Beaver Creek, where he actually built his sod house, offered additional advantages: apparently no poisonous plants grew there. Good to know.
I love, too, the curlew's wild scream.
The bluffs of white rocks and antelope flocks
Higley was trained as a physician, not a poet. Perhaps that explains his questionable phrasing in this line.
For starters, Higley's antelopes are really pronghorns (but we've been over that already), and pronghorns travel in herds, not flocks.
True, herds doesn't rhyme with rocks, but come on, have you ever seen a flying antelope...er, pronghorn? In addition, the sound made by a curlew (a long-billed shorebird common to the Great Plains and Great Basin) is more of a whistle than a scream.
Maybe we're being a bit nit-picky, but here, you be the judge.
The air is so pure, the breezes so light,
The zephyrs so balmy at night
This is beginning to sound like a windy place.
Higley's starting to repeat himself at this point. Remember how he liked the windy Solomon River Valley (the gale in the vale)? Well, he's at it again.
This time he praises the "breezes so light" and—just to hammer the point home—the "zephyrs so balmy." A zephyr is a wind that blows from the west, so that means that, in this one poem, he has mentioned gales, breezes, and zephyrs.
To be fair, some people might argue that there isn't much but wind in Kansas. Look what the wind did to poor Dorothy.
The red man was pressed from this part of the West
He's likely no more to return,
To the banks of Red River where seldom if ever
Their flickering camp-fires burn
These lines from a more recent set of lyrics—and by recent, we mean 1910, so not all that recent actually—speak a sad truth: Native Americans were driven almost completely out of Kansas by the end of the 19th century.
In the first decades of the 19th century, Kansas was set aside as Indian Territory. U.S. settlers and policy makers were intent on removing Native Americans from territories east of the Mississippi River, so they cut a deal with these tribes: If they moved further west, to places like Kansas, they could live there untroubled "as long as the grass grows and water flows."
Within 30 years, U.S. settlers and policymakers had changed their minds, and they demanded that the Natives Americans living in Kansas move further west and south. During the 1850s, new "treaties" were arranged, transferring the vast majority of all lands held by Kansas Indians to the United States.