Natural Heritage of Indiana

Perspective: The Indiana that Was

Marion T. Jackson

Content reproduced with permission from Indiana University Press. The following essay was published in The Natural Heritage of Indiana, copyright 1997, Indiana University Press.


I command you this day, that ye may be strong, and go in and possess the land, whither ye go to possess it. And that ye may prolong your days in the land, to give unto them and their seed, a land that floweth with milk and honey. -Deuteronomy 11 :8-9


The landscape that became Indiana once was one large natural area with its present boundary unrecognized, uncharted. Within the bounds of present-day Indiana, and stretching from the Ohio River to Lake Michigan, and from the Whitewater River to the Wabash lay more than 36,000 square miles of the finest forests and prairies, swamps and marshes, barrens and savannas, glades and cliffsides, bogs and fens, seeps and springs, and lakes and streams to be found anywhere in the heartland of North America.

During the late eighteenth century, Indiana was part of the great wilderness of deciduous hardwoods that stretched unbroken "beyond the Ohio" to the evergreen forests of the "north country," and to the vast prairies westward, beyond the limit of trees. The familiar map of Indiana today-appearing somewhat like a stylized human foot with truncated toes-was to take shape over nearly a century as the westering surge of settlement and development swept across the land.

According to the best information available on pre-settlement Indiana, the 36,291-square-mile area contained about 20 million acres of forestland, 2 million acres of prairie, 1.5 million acres of water and wetlands, plus glades, barrens, and savanna totaling perhaps another 1 million acres. (These figures total more than the 23,226,240 acres which constitute the state, but all acreages by habitat are only approximate) Also much of the original forestland occupied floodplains, depressions, or flatwoods, all subject to seasonal inundation by standing water, hence often included as wetlands. Such designation would increase the overall wetland total to as much as 5.6 million acres, according to some estimates.


As early as August 1781, Colonel Archibald Lochry, a Pennsylvania officer in the Colonial Army, while in command of about 100 frontier soldiers on their way to link up with General George Rogers Clark in the Western Campaign, encountered and was defeated by a similar-sized band of Indians near the mouth of a creek that now bears the colonel's name (presently Laughery Creek) in far southeastern Indiana. Lochry's defeat was one of the earliest of a number of skirmishes that resulted as the American settlers and their armies wrested ownership of Indiana from the Native Americans.

In the turbulent years following the American Revolution, a young nation turned its eyes and footsteps to the vast, little-known lands beyond the Appalachians for space into which its restless numbers could grow. By the 1790s, "long knife" hunters venturing northward across the Ohio River from the Kentucky Commonwealth, or westward across the Miami and Whitewater rivers from settlements in the Ohio Territory, returned with glowing tales of towering forests without limit, of fertile valleys so thick with game "you kin smell it."

Though the "frontier mind" was filled with imagination and its humor fueled by exaggeration-"Lord love us, that Indiana soil is so rich that you hafta coat yer corn seed in axle grease or the plants'll burn themselves up shootin' outta th' ground"-many of the stories of the diversity and fecundity of Indiana, the Land of Indians, were true.

They were merely confirming what the French fur traders, with trading posts at Chip-kaw-kay (Vincennes), Kekionga (Fort Wayne), and Ouiatenon (near Lafayette), and their Native American suppliers of furs had long known. These trading posts were selected by the Europeans during the eighteenth century as centers of the finest game regions within the limits of the present state. The peltry from the last-mentioned post alone, in one year in those early times, amounted to about 8,000 pounds sterling.

Only the resident Native Americans, long friendly with the French, stood in the way of full-scale settlement of Indiana by hardy, resourceful, land-hungry immigrants. But the Indian tribes present in pre-settlement Indiana were recent immigrants themselves to this land, having been forced from their homes to the east and north by earlier European settlement and/or shifting tribal boundaries, and were not about to give up their lands in Indiana willingly. Shawanees, Delawares, Miamis, Potawatomis, Weas, Piankishaws, and Wyandots were all resolute in their determination to remain in their newly acquired homeland. Besides, they and their ancestors were well aware of the devastation European settlement had brought to the eastern wilderness in just a few short years.

They had witnessed how the wave of human settlement altered forever the wild fabric of nature, and totally changed the Indian lifestyle in the process. Such an awareness prompted, in part, the half-Indian interpreter William Wells to repeat the following words from the Council of Indian Chiefs to General Anthony Wayne, following the Battle of Fallen Timbers in present-day northwestern Ohio in 1794:

You are fearful. You cover yourselves with clothing and again with roofs and walls, locking your doors, reading from your black book and quoting distant presidents and kings. You are afraid of hunger and solitude. You want and you want. You are never silent and are never at ease. You are a weak degenerate and fearful people who could not survive without your axes, your guns and your horses. You are destroyers, leveling the forest, hacking roads along the deer trails, driving all game away. You whites are not at war with us; you are at war with the earth.

Thus the advance of settlement into the Indiana wilderness seemed to be as inexorable as it had been back east. Treaty by treaty (most broken wholly or in part by the Americans) opened more and more of Indiana to settlement. Toward the end of the first decade of the nineteenth century, Tecumseh, an eloquent chieftain, became convinced that only a major confederacy of tribes throughout the Midwest could break the back of the settlement advance.

The sun is my father-the earth is my mother and on her bosom I will recline...The great spirit has given all the country as common property the banks of the Delaware, across the Alleghebies, and our possessions on the Wabash, and the Illinois are now to be taken from us. Like galloping horses, our tribes have been driven towards the setting sun, --as for myself and my warriors we have determined to resist any further aggression of the whites. --Chief Tecumseh to General William Henry Harrison at Vinvcennes (1819).

But General William Henry Harrison struck the Indian force at present-day Battleground in Tippecanoe County on the morning of November 7, 1811, while Tecumseh was away rallying the tribes, and won a decisive victory over the Native Americans. The uneven conflict with Harrison's army at the Battle of Tippecanoe largely broke the will of the Indian resistance, Tecumseh's dream of a major confederacy was badly shaken, and the way was paved for both Indiana statehood and Harrison's destiny to become president of the United States.

Only now are we beginning to understand fully that the Native Americans were probably right in their view of the relationship of humans to the land; that wilderness is equal to more than the sum of its parts, fragile and vulnerable in the face of hurried, unplanned change. But ecosystem science was still a century and a half into the future in 1800.

To these ebullient, energetic, restless pioneers, recently released from British rule and regimentation, the patterns and processes inherent in wilderness were too esoteric, too random, too unordered, too unpredictable, to appeal to their westering minds. They saw the frontier as an adversary, the wilderness as an enemy to be conquered-a chaotic, undisciplined landscape, largely covered by dense, frightening forests, populated by wild, ferocious beasts, and with savage humans, equally threatening and undisciplined, lurking in the shadows.

To this wild, undisciplined land the settlers came, first as a trickle in the 1790s and early 1800s, then as a freshet following the Battle of Tippecanoe as statehood loomed during the second decade of the nineteenth century; then the floodgates opened to a tidal wave of pioneers about 1820, and the land was inundated with settlers within one human generation. Witness the Indiana population change by decades 1800-5,600: 1810-24,500; 1820-147,200; 1830-343,000; 1840-686,000; 1850-nearly 1 million.

In 1827 a surveyor named Jonathan Knight surveyed it [the National Road] across Indiana from Richmond to Terre Haute by way of Indianapolis. It was so nearly straight that it is but two miles longer than the state is wide at Indianapolis .... A track thirty to forty feet wide in the center was macadamized with ten inches of crushed stone. This at that time and many years after was the finest road in the world. Two six-horse teams could race abreast on it. Hundreds of wagoners hauled freight over it and from 1830 to 1860 a continuous line of homeseekers passed along to the west. So numerous were they that at night their camp fires were almost as thick as street lights. From 1827 to 1836 this flood poured along the National road through Indianapolis at the rate of not less than one family every thirty minutes and often twenty families in a company It seemed to those living along the "old pike" that no one would be left in the east.

-Logan Esarey, "Old First Roads," in History of Indiana (1922)


The wilderness that was Indiana changed apace. The seal of our great state depicts an axeman felling a tree as a bison races away from the rising sun. By December 1816, when Indiana entered statehood, bison were essentially gone from the state except in the far western limits.

For millennia, thousands of these huge, shaggy beasts had periodically moved southeastward from the Illinois and western Indiana prairies, crossed the Wabash River near Vincennes, and stolidly sauntered along the famed Buffalo Trace (now, in part, the route followed by U.S. 150) to the Falls of the Ohio at Louisville, on their journey to Big Bone Lick and the barrens of Kentucky to obtain minerals and salt. According to Butler's History of Kentucky (1834), "Over this wide, well-marked road, evidences of which still remain, countless thousands of Bisons passed annually From the Ohio River to Big Bone Lick was a wide road which the animals had beaten spacious enough for two waggons [sic] to go abreast."

In densely wooded regions the bison were primarily transients, but in meadows and prairies they abounded. From the summit of a hill near Ouiatenon, a report of 1718 stated, "Nothing is visible to the eye but prairies full of buffaloes."

But as prevalent as they once were, the bison were essentially wiped out in a score of years and were gone from the state by 1830. Elk, panther, black bear, fisher, and beaver disappeared with almost equal rapidity, all nearly gone from Indiana by 1850. Even the tenacious timber wolf, the white-tailed deer, and the bald eagle had been extirpated by the beginning of the twentieth century.

Fortunately, the diaries, journals, and travel logs of many early visitors gave excellent accounts of the Indiana wilderness and its wildlife. John Parsons, a 23-year-old Virginian, captured much of the essence of pristine Indiana's wildness when he recorded his impressions of the Wabash River country in his diary A Tour through Indiana in 1840:

The river rolled its silver current along the 'edge of the plain, which was besprinkled with wild flowers of every rich and varied tint, intermingled with tall grass that nodded in the passing breeze .... The forest rang continually with the songs of the birds and among them I noted particularly, because of their strangeness, the sandhill crane and the Carolina parroquet. The parroquets are beautiful birds, their plumage is green, except the neck, which is yellow, and the head is red. When flying, this bird utters a shrill but cheerful and pleasant note and the flash of its golden and green plumage in the sunlight is indescribably beautiful in its tropical suggestion.

DeerAlthough white-tailed deer were prevalent in the original forest, they were likely less numerous per square mile than now.

Prairie-chickens, the grouse of the treeless expanses, boomed relentlessly during their spring mating rituals. Market hunters killed wagonloads of them in the nineteenth century. Waterfowl almost without number cruised the wetland waters. Their flights darkened the sun, and their wings shattered the stillness with their thunderous applause.

These majestic primeval forests of Indiana were home to almost countless wildlife besides the beautiful Carolina parakeet. Included were the crow-sized ivory-billed woodpecker or "woodscock" in the heaviest timber, and flocks of passenger pigeons so immense that during migration their passage obscured the sun for hours-pigeons whose numbers were so great that

when darkness settled they descended from the sky and alighted many deep upon the branches of the trees, the weight being sufficient to break off many large limbs .... The combined noise of the strokes of millions upon millions of pigeon wings created a wonderful and continuous rumble as of nearby thunder, not unlike the roar of an approaching tornado.

-Amos W Butler; Presidential Address, Indiana Academy of Science (1895)

But the Carolina parakeet and the passenger pigeon have long been globally extinct, and the ivory-bill, if it exists at all, now occurs only in meager numbers on the island of Cuba. Large predators were well represented in the Indiana wilderness but likely were much fewer in number than the settlers estimated them to be. Pioneers both feared and despised them for depredations on their livestock and for their potential danger to humans, real or imagined. Wolf packs range widely, travel long distances in their daily activities, and actively defend their territories against others of their kind. At an average home range size per wolf of two square miles each, the entire state would have harbored fewer than 20,000 wolves; perhaps 10,000 to 12,000 would be a more likely number. But any wolves were far too many to suit the pioneers, especially when their semi-wild livestock were taken by the large canids.

Panthers caterwauled in the deep shades of the forest, but being solitary, unsociable hunters, they were likely never common nor frequently encountered by the settlers. Black bear were important for frontier survival, as both meat and tallow sources, and as hides for barter, cabin rugs, or winter clothing.

Deer, although common in the Indiana wilderness, may have been less numerous then than the present-day herd. A reasonable maximum deer population density in pre-settlement Indiana would likely have been 10 to 12 per square mile on average, for a total of perhaps 400,000 for the entire state. Since venison was an important food source for family use or sale, deer were hunted continually Deer hides were used for clothing as well as a valued trade commodity typically bringing about $1.00 for a buckskin, hence our slang expression yet today of "buck" for a dollar.

Initially, small-scale, widely spaced clearings favored deer populations, and their numbers increased temporarily Unrestricted year round harvest, plus accelerating clearing by an increasing human population, caused rapid declines in deer numbers after 1850.

With settlement's advance, many wildlife populations declined much faster than did the forests, prairies, wetlands, and soils that supported them. First to go were the large carnivores, then the large herbivores, and finally the natural vegetation. On steeper slopes cropping caused soil fertility declines, followed by a seaward slip of the soils themselves. Ecosystems typically are dismembered from the top down. Indiana was no exception.

It is difficult for those of us living in Indiana today to imagine how abundant many smaller wildlife species were during the early settlement years. A chronicle of gray squirrel abundance and harvest was related by Durward Allen in his excellent book Our Wildlife Legacy. A competitive squirrel hunt (called a burgoo by the frontiersmen) was conducted in the fall of 1834 in Bartholomew County in which two teams of 50 hunters each killed squirrels for a three-day period, with the losing team hosting a squirrel barbecue for the winners. Allen concludes, "The winner of the hunt presented 900 squirrels [italics his] at the end of the three days and the runner-up had 7831"

This abundance of squirrels and other wildlife was not just a local occurrence. Bounties were routinely paid on squirrel scalps and crow, hawk, or owl feet. Crop damage and livestock losses to wildlife resulted in "fox drives" and other wide-ranging group harvests of "varmints" and "nuisance" wildlife being held throughout the state for many decades.

Wildlife populations respond quickly to changes in available habitat. As noted above, wilderness species, especially large, conspicuous predators and important food animals, declined rapidly as settlement advanced and were gone from the state within decades. As clearings increased in number and size, "farm wildlife" such as fox squirrels, cottontail rabbits, bobwhite quail, along with songbirds typical of field, fence row, orchard, and lawn, made their homes near human dwellings and thrived in the changed conditions. Finally, those species typical of habitats greatly disturbed by human activities increased (along with alien introductions), becoming successful by replacing usually preferred wildlife species. Now let us look in more detail at how this continuum of landscape alteration occurred.


Indiana's original forests were among the finest broadleaved hardwood forests anywhere in the world. Stanley Courter, in his 1891 publication The Forest Trees of Indiana, stated that "forty-two kinds of trees in the Wabash Valley attained a height above 100 feet."

Groves of the finest black walnut trees the world has ever known grew on Indiana's most fertile soils, some individuals of which were 4 to 6 feet in diameter and 100 to 150 feet high. The General Land Office surveyors recognized the close correlation between soil fertility and the presence of black walnut trees when they entered such land descriptions into their field notes as "sugar tree and walnut land, excellent for growing corn." Most were cut and burned to clear the land for crops.

Robert Ridgway, an eminent naturalist who studied and photographed the forests of the Lower Wabash River during the 1870s and 1880s, described the stands of timber of that region as "an exceedingly heavy virgin forest, some of the heaviest hardwood forest I have ever seen-as I have twice visited the Tropics (Central America) covering almost the entire floodplain on the Indiana side."

Ridgway measured several sycamores at 25 to 30 feet in circumference with overall heights of 160 to almost 200 feet. Several cypress stumps were measured in Knox County at 9 and 10 feet in diameter above their buttressed bases. He also measured a tulip tree, now rarely encountered on floodplains, that taped 25 feet in girth, 91 feet to the first limb, and 190 feet total height. The maximum diameter he recorded for a tulip tree was 11 feet; the average diameter of 18 measured specimens was 6.2 feet. Heights ranged from 110 to 168 feet, averaging 143.5. Ridgway's measurements were of felled trees and cut stumps, so we can be confident of his data.

In contrast, the largest tulip trees known presently in the state are a pair of "sister trees" standing only about 30 feet apart in Hemmer Woods, Gibson County, which were measured by the author during the late 1960s at nearly 5 feet in diameter and just over 150 feet tall. Presently, they are very old, declining in vigor, and may not live much longer.

One of the most famous trees of the original forest was an enormous Ohio buckeye, which in life grew in the southeast corner of Rush County and was said to have been, when standing, 27 feet 9 inches in circumference and 90 feet to the first limb. It was felled and crafted into the celebrated buckeye canoe of William Henry Harrison's presidential campaign of 1840. The huge canoe was pulled about the Midwest by six white horses bearing the campaign slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too." Other magnificent trees (parts of which still survive) from the original forest include two majestic sycamores. A photograph of one served as the frontispiece of Charlie Deam's 1953 volume Trees of Indiana. It grew near Worthington in Greene County, and was reported at 42 feet 3 inches in circumference in 1915. Sections of the trunk are preserved in Worthington. A 1936 article featuring Indiana in National Geographic magazine contains a photograph of a giant sycamore stump reported to be 56 feet in circumference which once stood near Kokomo. In life it must have dwarfed even the Worthington specimen, and is larger in girth than any forest-grown temperate hardwood tree that I am aware of. Its stump was moved to a Kokomo city park many years ago for preservation and public viewing, and still exists.

But the most impressive feature of the primeval forests of Indiana was not the size or height of the trees. Rather, it was the dense shade that all but excluded sunlight. In the words of Amos W Butler in his presidential address to the Indiana Academy of Science in 1895:

Over the greater part of this State were spread dense forests of tall trees-heavy timber-whose limbs met and branches were so interwoven that but occasionally could the sunlight find entrance. There was little or no undergrowth in the heaviest woods, and the gloom of those dense shades and its accompanying silence were terribly oppressive. Mile upon mile, days' Journey upon days' journey, stretched these gloomy shades amid giant columns and green arches reared by nature through centuries of time.

Within the penumbra of this dense forest canopy, the first settlers established their homesteads. Those of us accustomed to living in well-lighted homes with expansive views and traveling rapidly across a largely uncanopied Indiana cannot fully appreciate how much their feeling of confinement, and being at the mercy of the wilderness, must have depressed their spirits in that solitary existence. Conrad Richter expressed it well in his book The Trees (1940):

All night the wind rose. Now it came and now it went. This was a lull. You could hear the trees dripping. Then far off you could catch the next wave coming for you through the woods .... The wind and rain let up about dawn .... Then the girl saw that last night's storm had stripped the leaves from half the trees. Her mother looked like a half-blinded human that had lived all summer in a cave. She stood there peering up through the branches of an ash at sky so blue it hurt just to look at it. "I never thought I'd live to see this day" she muttered ..
Small wonder the dense forest that is now Shades State Park was called the "Shades of Death" in the early days.

The pioneer's first work was to cut away enough trees to build a cabin, preferably near a spring which purled from the nearby hillside, and remote enough that you "could not see the smoke from any neighbor's chimney" Otherwise there might not be enough wild game to support the large pioneer family until land was cleared and crops raised. To create a wilderness home, they broad-axed cabin timbers, raised a ridgepole, fashioned a roof of froe-split red oak staves, then built a mud-and-stick fireplace chimney so that venison and wild turkeys could be roasted over their hearth. All the while they were itching to begin actual clearing that would "let some daylight into the swamp."

It is difficult for us to imagine in our world of instant comforts what having a home meant to the frontier family, on their own deep within the wilderness. Just a roof, walls, and fire meant survival, the difference between life and death. Again, Richter said it best:

Sayward watched her mother's eyes take a turn around the cabin. The firelight played sociable fingers on roof and rafters. The logs smelled clean, and the beds of new leaves made you sleepy. Everything was spick and fine as a newborn babe in a log cradle. Piles of knobby hickory nuts and black and white walnuts lay hulled in a corner. ... They had a roof over their heads and a bag of meal hanging from the rafters. A buckskin door weighted with a short green log shut out the dark and snow. -Conrad Richter, The Trees (1940)

As each cabin was built, it foreshadowed a clearing which extended more and more each year. For the most part, the axe and fire performed the work. Great deadenings created during the winter months gave promise of lively logrollings the following spring. Even the giant tuliptrees, red and white oaks, black walnuts, ashes, wild cherries, beeches, and sweet gums were carried on handspikes, or were rolled into heaps in the ravines by the hickory-muscled frontiersmen and their leathery sons, and burned. Across Indiana, fires by the thousands burned day and night for weeks on end, with wood smoke turning the spring skies a sallow yellow. Wood also served every need and demand the human mind could make on the timberlands, used throughout the pioneers' lifetimes from cradle to coffin. Thus were Indiana's forests removed.

But how do you essentially eradicate a wilderness of 36,291 square miles in three score years and ten? Within a single human lifetime or three human generations? In the words of my dear friend the late Dr. Robert O. Petty of Wabash College:

How do you make a cornfield out of a forest? How do you make a town? How do you clear away trees five feet through' and towering one hundred and fifty feet? Forty acres, eighty, a section, a county-how do you "cut the top off' all the flatland between the Cumberlands and the Mississippi? Our minds can only ache to comprehend.

And how do you do it with only axes, grubbing hoes, horses, and oxen? (It may be of interest to the reader that most of Indiana was cleared before even the crosscut saw came into general usage, much less the chain saw.) In the words of my late neighbor John Reynolds, "They worked different then than we do now," when he described how his great-grandparents pit-sawed, by hand, ash logs into rough boards to floor the stone house they were building in 1845, and which still stands on my Ripley County farm.

John Perlin, a Harvard University professor of forestry, in his thought-provoking book A Forest journey, documented the course of human civilization in terms of available forest resources. He summarized that "every human settlement begins by consumption of the forest surrounding it." Indiana was no exception. We built a state by consuming nature. In the words of Aldo Leopold, "Wilderness is the raw material out of which man has hammered the artifact called civilization." And, I might add, "on an anvil called progress."

If the 20 million acres of forestland believed extant in Indiana in 1790 contained 110 trees above four inches in diameter on an average acre (based on a 108.4 average density for 28 high-quality old-growth stands still occurring in the state), then prior to settlement, Indiana must have contained approximately 2.2 billion trees, or about 400 trees for each Hoosier resident today.

An original forest of 2.2 billion trees, harboring a deer herd of perhaps 400,000, but only 10,000 to 12,000 wolves-this must be an object lesson in food-chain structure and dynamics of wilderness ecosystems!

How do you consume a wiIderness resource of 2.2 billion trees, two-thirds of which were cut down before 18707 Assuming that relatively few trees were removed prior to 1800, by either Native Americans or pioneers, it would require the cutting of an average of 20 million trees annually for 70 years-a rate almost equal to that of an average-sized county per year, or more than 7,000 acres per day, on average. Our ancestors did to the Indiana wilderness what is presently occurring in the tropical forests of Brazil, Borneo, Sumatra, New Guinea, Zaire, and elsewhere. But did we as a human species gain much ecological wisdom from what our forebears did to Indiana?


Those counties, largely located in northwestern Indiana, which were covered by prairies of landscape size for the most part were settled later than those primarily forested. Not only did this reflect the pattern of settlement which occurred generally from southeast to northwest across Indiana, but it was also partly due to the early settlers' belief that "land that would not grow trees" was inferior cropland. What irony Indiana prairieland is some of the finest agricultural soil in the world.

Here grasses-tall enough to hide a rider on horseback-on the best prairie soils were intermixed with a multitude of forbs, or broadleafed prairie wildflowers. Best typified in Benton and its adjacent counties, the expanse of tall, waving grasses was broken only occasionally by small prairie groves of trees.

I wanted to walk straight on through the red grass and over the edge of the world, which could not be very far away The light air about me told me that the world ended here: only the ground and sun and sky were left, and if one went a little farther there would be only sun and sky, and one would float off into them, like the tawny hawks which sailed over our heads making slow shadows on the grass. -Willa Cather; My Antonia (1918)

Recurrent fires set by lightning or by Native Americans eliminated invasion of woody species, for the most part. Extensive prairies were excellent habitat for buffalo, prairie chicken, and a host of reptile, small mammal, and songbird species typical of grasslands. Here market gunners of the nineteenth century harvested wagonloads of prairie chickens from the upland prairies, plus additional wagonloads of waterfowl and shorebirds from the wet prairies and marshes.

The pioneers viewed wet prairies, especially, along with swamps, to be unhealthful places to live, believing that the air and water were bad there, and that fevers and agues must be companions of those who settle there. The word malaria comes from the Italian mala aria, "bad air."

Settlement of the prairies was also impeded by the pioneers' inability to open the prairie soil for growing of crops. Until John Deere developed the chilled steel moldboard for the breaking plow about 1840, would-be homesteaders could not successfully break the tough prairie sod, formed by a centuries-old interlacing of incredible root systems of the myriad prairie plants.

Initially, special professional "breaking teams" of several yoke of oxen pulling huge single-bottom steel plows went from farm to farm, plowing the prairies for the first time on a custom-hire basis. The exceedingly high natural fertility of the deep, virgin, loamy black prairie soils caused such demand for the rich farmland that native prairie was quickly eliminated as a landscape community Even today we still occasionally hear a product that is selling well being described as "doing a land-office business."

Today, less than 1,000 acres of the original 2 million acres of virgin prairie remain, most of it occurring only as small, often degraded, remnants in pioneer cemeteries or transportation rights-of-way With the loss of the prairie habitat, the prairie chicken followed suit, extirpated from Indiana during the early 1970s.

When I was a boy in the 1940s, my uncle told me of his experience with breaking the sod of a quarter-section of unplowed prairie just across the Indiana state line in Kankakee County, Illinois. The square 160-acre tract had been used for harvesting prairie hay and pasturing cattle, but never plowed. When my uncle fall-plowed the land in the autumn of 1937, the fat black furrow slice of Brunizeum soil rolled over in one continuous unbroken black ribbon of sod across the entire one-half mile. During the 1938 crop season he planted the field to corn using open-pollinated (non-hybrid) seed, nurtured by only a small application of 3-12-12 starter fertilizer. To witness the productivity of the original prairie, now remembered only vaguely by the oldest farmers, neighbors came from miles around late that summer to marvel at the exceedingly tall corn and its rich blackgreen color. That fall, 18,000 bushels of corn were harvested from the 160 acres of nitrogen-rich prairie soil, a remarkable yield for the 1930s. Given such agricultural productivity, it is surprising that even the tiny remnants of native prairie remaining in Indiana survived. Over the years, the prairie landscape, like the rest of wild Indiana, became "civilized."

They drove on, and the trees were spaced wider and wider, pastoral kings, each with his own realm of high meadow to shadow. They lumbered out upon the prairie, praising God for space and earth and wind. Their wagon tracks left bent the astonished grass, left flowers broken. Very slowly the most resilient culms eased up again and faced the breeze. But there were many more wagons to come, and the grass at last learned obedience. -Donald Culross Peattie, A Prairie Grove (1938)


The pioneers hurried the water from the land almost as quickly as they did the trees or the native grasses, because everywhere that the water table stood above or into the soil profile during the growing season, excess water impeded the growth of crops. Sometimes, when the heavy swamp forests were cleared from upland depressions, the water table actually rose temporarily early in the growth season, owing to the removal of the enormous evapotranspirational pull of the trees. Roots of actively growing trees drink thirstily, pumping vast quantities of soil moisture into the atmosphere. With the trees gone, water was even more of a problem until ditches or tile lines were in place.

An observant motorist driving through the swell and swale topography of central or northern Indiana will quickly note that the older farmsteads (those in place a century or more) are almost invariably located on the knolls or low ridges. And for good reason. Those surrounding swales held standing water for periods ranging from two to twelve months annually; depending upon their depth, surface characteristics, and internal drainage Settlers homesteaded the ridges because only there could they keep their feet dry, and their farm animals comfortable all year long. Also, the water table needed to be below the root zone during summer to grow crops effectively

Just as the clearing of trees expanded centrifugally and inexorably from the homesteads, so did the battle with the standing water. Early on, ditching was done by hand with shovels, or with slip scoops pulled by oxen or horses, to create open ditches or to open and straighten natural drainage channels. Then mechanical ditchers intensified the efforts, and thousands of miles of subsurface tile lines were soon laid yearly Everywhere water was being hurried from the land at a rate faster than nature's leisurely pace of runoff and evaporation. The great sponge of the Indiana wetlands was quickly being wrung of most of its life-giving moisture; springs failed, and many stream beds became dry during summer months.

With the now-swifter waters of springtime also went far too much of the topsoil, turning the streams and rivers from gin-clear to the color of well-creamed coffee within one human generation. Downstream, on the larger watercourses especially, the frequency, height, and duration of flooding increased greatly, intensifying the clamor for various flood control measures, each requiring large public expenditure.

Near by is the graceful loop of an old dry creek bed. The new creek bed is ditched straight as a ruler; it has been uncurled, by the county engineer to hurry the run-off. On the hill in the background are contoured strip-crops; they have been curled, by the erosion engineer to retard the run-off. The water must be confused by so much advice. -Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (1949)

With the vanishing wetlands went much of the wetland wildlife. No longer did vast flocks of waterfowl darken the skies over the fabled Kankakee Marsh, or raise their wings in thunderous applause when startled into flight. With the disappearing wetlands also went the majority of the beaver, otter, mink, and muskrat, as well as the whistling wings of the crane, heron, rail, plover, sandpiper, snipe, and bittern. So also went the wetland plants of lake and marsh, and swamp, bog, and fen. Indiana was now drier in most places, but a more monotonous landscape with its loss of diversity of wetland habitats and their wild species.


The wilderness that was Indiana did not disappear with one giant wave of civilizing frenzy Instead, it was lost a shot, a trap, a chip, a furrow, a bite, a match, or a ditch at a time, as individual hunters, woodsmen, farmers, grazing animals, fires, developers, or drainage engineers each took their toll.

It was a process that started small, like a snowball rolling down- hill, accreting size and inertia of motion as it progressed, culminating in an avalanche of change late in the nineteenth century Mile by mile we bent the wilderness into more productive systems, and we did this with a knowing zeal that we were doing the right thing, almost a religious belief that this was our "manifest destiny" We came into a land "flowing with milk and honey" and converted it into something useful, something civilized.

This process has been going on for two centuries and continues today, only now there are many more of us and our tools have far greater capacity to alter the landscape and the survival potential of its wild inhabitants. In the words of Aldo Leopold, "We are remodeling Alhambra with a steamshovel, and we are proud of our yardage."

No living person will see again the "endless" virgin forests or "limitless" prairies or crystalline waters that greeted our forebears when they entered Indiana nearly two centuries ago. But remnants of various sizes and degrees of naturalness do exist. As the "civilizing" process increased in scope and momentum, the pieces remaining natural became increasingly fragmented and restricted generally to more remote locations.

Nor did the removal of forest affect only the trees. The whole landscape changed, including its geometry, as farm fields, roads, and developments impressed a grid of squares and rectangles upon curvilinear nature. The varied and random patterns of wilderness were replaced with the "dreary commonality," as environmentalist Tom Dustin of the Izaak Walton League once phrased it, of today's landscape.

At first the traces through the wilderness followed animal and Indian trails already in place for centuries. They followed indirect routes along the paths of easiest travel, generally along the contour of the landscape, connecting portages, crossings, or fords of frequented waterways. After the land surveyors had gridded the wilderness along section lines for division into farms and landholdings-square tracts independent of terrain-roads logically were built along property borders. These wide, unshaded roads at mile intervals required much uphill and downhill travel and, in the early years, became floods of dust in summer and seas of mud in winter. Gradually they were "piked" with limestone "metal," sometimes cracked by hand with knapping hammers by local landowners in lieu of paying their property taxes due spring and fall.

Now we cut and fill to fit the landscape to our arrow-straight motorways and real-estate developments. A straight line may be the shortest and most efficient distance between two points, but a curve is certainly a more interesting and pleasant distance.

Roads, more than any single landscape alteration, changed forever the wild fabric of the Indiana wilderness. All remaining fragments of nature are now small and within two or three miles of a road, giving access to all, affording protection to none.

The destruction of the primeval forest cost us much besides the trees that were sacrificed. Most of the lesser plants, vertebrates, lower animals, and even microbes were lost entirely from their altered habitats, unless they were able to survive the change and adapt to the new conditions. Even the soils, the waters, and now the atmosphere itself are drastically modified from what once was. As Professor Alton A. Lindsey aptly put it, "The sky did not fall, we pulled it down."

Change succeeded change. Little by little, but still cumulatively, each cleared field, each drained swamp, each plowed prairie, each polluted natural water body, each one of a thousand variations in cause had its effect upon the number and life histories of our plants and animals. Neither the luxuriant growth of a cornfield nor the greenness of our closely cropped lawn reveals much to the casual passer-by of the natural abundance that formerly occurred there.

Perhaps literary naturalist Gene Stratton-Porter best described the process of fragmentation and destruction of Indiana's vast natural ecosystems by what happened in the wild swampland near the home of Elnora, the young heroine in her book Girl of the Limberlost, published early in the twentieth century:

Men all around were clearing available land. The trees fell wherever corn would grow. Whenever the trees fell the moisture ran low, and at times the bed was dry. With unbroken sweep the winds of the west came, gathering force with every mile ... blowing the surface from the soil in clouds of fine dust and rapidly changing everything. From coming in ~with two or three dozen rare moths in a day, in a year's time Elnora had grown to be delighted with finding two or three. Big pursy caterpillars could not be picked from their favorite bushes, when there were no bushes. Dragonflies would not hover over dry places, and butterflies became scarce in proportion to the flowers.

Nature abhors a vacuum in the ecological as well as the physical sense. Sunlit voids created by forest clearing, prairie plowing, and wetland drainage were quickly filled by successional species of plants and animals, each in its own way attempting to heal the wounded landscape, and to staunch the outflow of water, soil, and nutrients-the lifeblood of an ecological community At first native species that thrive in disturbance conditions-nature's "national guard"-created old-field communities and thickets of saplings while the settlers' backs were turned, as they cleared, plowed, or drained more land. Nature tried desperately to reclaim the lands we humans temporarily "borrowed from her." But with continued cultivation over longer periods, the seed bank capital and energy reserves of native species were quickly overdrawn and expended, creating opportunities for invasion by alien species of plants and animals.

Known popularly as weeds and pests, most of these exotic species had harried the settlers' ancestors for generations in Britain or Germany, before they arrived, uninvited, in the New World. No doubt pioneer farmers viewed these aggressive competitors for "their" landscape with anathema equal to what Native Americans must have felt toward the invading European settlers who quickly displaced the Indian. Today most of the Indiana landscape is covered by populations of exotic species, either cultivated, domesticated, or weedy Meanwhile our dedicated state nature preserves devoted to native wild nature cover less total land than do the state's manicured golf courses.

Today the twin processes of development and urbanization likely pose greater threats to the remaining natural diversity of Indiana than do agricultural practices. Development of open land for residential, business, industrial, and transportation purposes became a major enterprise around the turn of the twentieth century and has since escalated. Frederick Simpich, in a 1936 article in National Geographic magazine that focused on Indiana, described these processes by explaining how Gary was built in 1906 in the most botanically rich section of the state: "Gary rose instantaneously It grew so fast that families moved into homes 24 hours after work started on them. To make lawns and gardens on the sand wastes, trainloads of black dirt were hauled in; grown trees were brought and planted."

So we had come full circle in little more than a century-from hacking roads along deer trails to planting large shade trees in the lawns of instant housing projects. In the words of Robert Petty, "What irony, the sons of the world's greatest axe men planting tree seedlings in the shadow of Swamps five feet across." Perhaps a city should be defined as a place where they cut down all the trees, then name the streets after them.


Although the state's boundaries are still the same, the nature of its life and landscape has changed drastically in the past two centuries. But vestiges of "the Indiana that was" did, and still do, survive the "civilizing" processes which continue to the present, processes which have converted more than 60 percent of the 36,000 square miles to cropland, another 15 percent to managed forests, and much of the remainder to the "crystallized landscapes" of our cities, towns, and transportation corridors. Curiously, some of our best and most diverse natural remnants escaped the heaviest hand of development and still lie in the very shadows of industrialized Gary and its neighboring towns.

Today much less than 1 percent of the state remains in high quality natural area. It is indeed sobering to realize that of the 20 million acres of original primeval forest that once occurred in Indiana-nearly enough to encircle the world one and a quarter times as a mile-wide band-today scarcely enough remains of high quality old-growth forest in private ownership to encompass the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at the same one-mile width.

But a truly surprising diversity of species, habitats, and natural features that are remnants of the original Indiana wilderness still exist. The description of what was, is, and still can be of natural Indiana is the subject of this book. Let the several authors tell you their own absorbing stories of their portion of The Natural Heritage of Indiana.

For Genesis County has no surveyed boundaries in time or space ... it holds within itself both fantasy and truth. Hunt for it in Indiana not to find it, but find instead the delights of the searchers, and if in the search you find yourself, you will solve the riddle of Genesis County. -Lynn Doyle, age 18, The Riddle of Genesis County (1958)

All of us are somewhere on a long arc between ecological ignorance and environmental responsibility. What freedom means is freedom to choose. What civilization means is some sense of how to choose, and among what options. If we choose badly or selfishly, we have, not always intentionally, violated the contract.

-Wallace Stegner, The Gift of Wilderness

Check out the Indiana State Museum's exhibit "Footprints" ISMWhat was the area like 10,000 to 11,000 years ago? Where did the big animals go? And what can we learn from our impact on the past that will make us better stewards of our environmental future?

With Footprints: Balancing Nature's Diversity, presented by Central Indiana Land Trust, the Indiana State Museum will trace our state's natural history from the Ice Age to today and beyond, considering how humans and environmental changes have affected ecological diversity and the world we live in. Drawing from the museum's collections, the exhibit answers questions about Indiana's past, shows the animals' overwhelming size and number, and suggests what it might have been like to walk among them.
Explore the online exhibit »

Our Hoosier State Beneath Us: Newspaper articles about a variety of topics related to Indiana's Natural Heritage Our Hoosier State Beneath UsThis series of 155 brief illustrated articles is part of a set of about 250 such articles produced by the Indiana Geological Survey between 1974 and 1984. The articles were distributed to and printed by newspapers all over Indiana. The topics range from coal to paleontology to people to geology. There is even a keyword search tool and a full table of contents. Browse Articles »

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