Ghost of a Landscape

by Carl Strang

The places we live and work all were wilderness at one time. National parks, state parks, and nature preserves protect and restore areas intended to represent the landscape as it was before large scale agriculture began the sequence of alterations that have brought us to the present day. A number of studies have produced maps showing, in some detail, what the counties of northeast Illinois looked like 200 years ago. In the late 1980’s I decided to do the same for my home area, Union Township in Marshall County, Indiana. Here is a watercolor rendering of my results.

Union Twp painting 2a

I was reminded of that project by Scott’s excellent recent post on Houghton Lake in his blog, Through Handlens and Binoculars. Houghton Lake is the small lake closest to the map’s upper left corner. Recently it was acquired by The Nature Conservancy, and is getting the attention needed to preserve the rare plants and vegetation communities that have persisted there.

My mapping study began with a visit to the County Surveyor’s office in Plymouth, the county seat, to copy the original survey notes. Two different surveyors explored the local wilderness in 1834 and 1836, marking out the land on behalf of the federal government for purchase by American farmers. The 1836 survey covered the Indian reservations east of Lake Maxinkuckee, the township’s largest lake. That land became available to eastern farmers after the forced removal of the Potawatomis via the Trail of Death in 1838.

The surveyors’ main job was to mark the section corners and quarter-section corners (a section is a square mile). They also described the land, so that potential buyers back east could make informed choices. For example, after passing through what is now the center of the town of Culver, on Maxinkuckee’s west shore, surveyor David Hillis wrote, “Land rolling. 3d rate. Hickory etc.” Usually the description was dispassionate, but sometimes a surveyor revealed the sweat and discomfort of the experience. After crossing an extensive marsh at the south end of Maxinkuckee, Jeremiah Smith allowed, “In Sec. 34, at 1.20 (an) inlet 80L. wide coming from S.E. A nasty place.”

One of the surveyor’s helpers blazed and inscribed two “witness trees” at each section corner. The surveyor wrote down the species of tree along with its distance and direction from the corner. The tree species suggests to us what kind of vegetation community occupied that corner, and the tree’s distance from the corner hints at how close together the trees grew in that spot.

The surveyors also were careful to map the edges of lakes and rivers. In Union Township only Lake Maxinkuckee and Lost Lake, off its west edge, still have their 1834 outlines. Houghton Lake, and Moore Lake beside it, today are remnants of the larger water bodies they were in the early 1800’s. Two other lakes in the west-central part of the township no longer exist. They were shallow and easily drained for agricultural purposes before 1900.

Plant communities described by the surveyors as “wet prairies” or “marshes” were extensive mixtures of cattail marshes, sedge meadows and wet to moist prairies. Some of these featured insect-eating plants, the pitcher plants and sundews. See Scott’s post for photographs of some of the botanical beauty preserved around Houghton Lake. I’ll continue this account tomorrow.

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