Union Township, 1830’s

by Carl Strang

Yesterday I began to recount my study of what my home township in Indiana was like in the 1830’s, before Americans began to transform it from wilderness to a predominantly agricultural landscape. Here is a more detailed line drawing of the final map.


The surveyors’ description provided enough information for me to rough out the map. Getting to the final version required another step. I acquired a soils map of Marshall County, and looked for correlations between soil types and vegetation categories as the surveyors described them. A specialist might have done it differently, but for my part I was satisfied that the correlations were good enough to draw the detailed boundaries of vegetation areas by combining the surveyors’ records with the finer-scale soils map.

Of the various communities defined by woody plants, swamps are the ones most absent from today’s Union Township. The characteristic swamp tree was the tamarack. Here is some foliage of that species, which is unusual in that it is a deciduous conifer.

Tamarack foliage b

I remember seeing a tamarack tree at the old state fish hatchery that was formed out of the south end of Moore Lake, but that tree died years ago and I know of none surviving in the township today. There are bits of shrub swamps here and there.

A relatively moist (mesic) forest occupied much of the east half of the township, on the rolling Maxinkuckee Moraine. Sugar maples and beeches were characteristic trees, though not necessarily the dominant ones. A remnant of this forest is preserved by the Culver Military Academy in its Bird Sanctuary.

Dry forests and savannas were dominated by oaks and hickories, which grew on more sandy soils. They represent a continuum, with the forests shading the ground fully in the summer and the savannas’ trees scattered enough that prairie-like vegetation grew between them. A forest of this type was the site of the town now known as Culver. Gradually over my lifetime I have noted the passing, one by one, of the town’s largest surviving old oaks that were part of that forest. Dry forests persist mainly in the many “wood lots” preserved by the township’s farmers.

I am grateful to all the individuals and organizations, from private landowners to The Nature Conservancy, who have made the commitment to preserve and restore these reminders of the wilderness that once was.

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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