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The Life, Death and Rebirth of Ohio’s Prairies.

August 17, 2011

Prairies are landscapes of history, not just the pioneer settlements of 200 years ago, but extending thousands of years into the past.  Their very existence is intimately tied to human activity; this was true millennia ago, and is still true today.

Stick with me for a history lesson; I have pictures, I promise!

When we think of prairies, we often think of the Great Plains, where vast areas in the rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains were covered with nutritious shortgrasses that sustained vast herds of grazing animals.  Ohio’s original prairies were different, however.  They were tallgrass prairies, less nutritious to grazing animals, with a different ecosystem.  Thousands of years ago, Ohio was mostly covered with forests and wetlands.  It is often said that a squirrel could travel from tree to tree from Pennsylvania to Indiana without setting foot on the ground during the Archaic Period of North American history.  This era was before writing existed, when the ancestors of historical Native American tribes such as the Adena and Hopewell people lived in Ohio.  This was also an age that saw a climatic period known as the Xerothermic Interval, a warm and dry period after the last glaciers had retreated north, roughly from 8,000 to 4,000 years ago.  This warm climate allowed the expansion of grassland plant and animal species from the western part of the continent into Ohio, establishing the first prairie areas here. Prairie areas this far east were wetter than their western counterparts, leading to different ecological features.  When the first European settlers arrived in the Ohio country, the area was from 2 to 4 per cent prairie.

Why such a small area?  Forests and wetlands covered far more land area for one simple reason: prairie grasslands, left to the cycle of nature, eventually see trees take root, and as the trees grow, shade discourages the prairie plant species and returns the land back to forest.  So, how did those small portions of Ohio stay prairie land?

The answer was Native Americans.  Peoples across the world for thousands of years have set fires to grasslands.  Native Americans found the hunting of such animals as White-Tailed Deer, Elk and Bison easier on prairie lands.  After several years of growth, prairies become difficult to walk through; after several more years, they start to return to forestland as trees grow taller.  The way to prevent this is to periodically burn the prairie, killing the young trees so the forest cannot once more take root.  This also fertilizes the soil with the remains of prairie plants and grasses.  Prairie plants can easily survive fire because their underground roots live on and produce new plants.  Also, a very efficient way to hunt game is to set fires to drive deer and other species into a line of waiting spearmen and bowmen, who can kill a herd of game animals and cure the meat to last through the long winter season.  So fire is an effective hunting strategy as well as a way to keep the prairie from returning to forestland.  Natural lightning fires are too few to keep the prairie naturally cleansed this way; prairies were (and still are) symbiotic with humanity.

When the European settlers displaced Native Americans, they found that Ohio’s prairie soil was particularly rich in nutrients.  Wooden plows gave way to John Deere’s more efficient steel moldboard plows, and prairie land became easier to farm.  This sealed the fate of most of Ohio’s prairie lands.  A landscape that had been born in a warm dry climate period and had survived with human assistance for thousands of years had become fertile farmland for growing crops.  What one people had sustained had come to an end at the hand of another people.  By 1900, most of the Ohio prairie was gone.

Luckily, some remnants survived.  There were always areas such as ditches, pioneer cemeteries, and railroad right-of-ways that had preserved bits and pieces of prairies in Ohio.  In the late 1800s, college botany departments and such dedicated individuals as Edwin Lincoln Moseley, a Sandusky High School science teacher, had collected hundreds of plant specimens from prairie fragments.

Here is one such area-  Bigelow Pioneer Cemetery State Nature Preserve.  Created in 1978 on the site of an early 1800s pioneer cemetery in Madison County, this half-acre of land has never been plowed or grazed.  I visited it one early August morning.  It is nestled deep in farm country.

The soil of the cemetery is higher up than the farmland surrounding it, which has eroded over the years.

The grass pathways in the cemetery are narrow and surrounded by prairie plants and grasses.

The earliest tombstones here date from 1814- a year previous to that date, settlers from Vermont and Pennsylvania had started farming here along the ‘post road’ (now State Route 161).  Veteran Benjamin Hough started a family farm near here with a military land grant.  The last burial here is from 1892.  Many buried here died in infancy or childbirth.  Some lived into their 60s and beyond.

As funds become available, worn tombstones are being replaced.

Big Bluestem is the most common prairie tallgrass in Ohio.  At one time, this grass covered perhaps a million acres of the state.

Royal Catchfly is an endangered species in Ohio.

A patch of Gray Headed Coneflower.

Woodland Sunflowers brighten the cemetery.

Soapwort was made into a lathery substance used as a soap substitute by settlers.

Prairie Dock can grow up to 10 feet tall.

In modern times, as the environmental movement went mainstream, there was interest in bringing back prairies to Ohio.  In 1976 the central Ohio Metropolitan Parks system began a prairie restoration project.  Quantities of seeds were harvested from the fragments of prairie remnants, and were eventually sown on 1,100 acres of parkland at Batelle Darby Creek and Prairie Oaks Metro Parks.  The area where these parks are located was once part of the Darby Plains prairie ecosystem.  Now, when you visit these parks, you can walk through a prairie landscape that has not been seen in this area of Ohio for nearly 200 years.  Here are some images from my visit this morning to Batelle Darby Creek’s restored prairie.

The oak savanna is a particular fire-resistant type of prairie ecosystem.

There are pioneer accounts of riding through tallgrass prairies where the vegetation towered over men on horseback.

Hairy Sunflowers are quite numerous in August.

American Goldfinches love prairie areas- there are all sorts of good things to eat for them here.

This Purple Coneflower is a bit ragged now, but its seed head looks promising.

Bison have been reintroduced to this part of the park.  Ohio never had the vast Bison herds that once covered the Great Plains, but a smaller amount of this animal’s ancestors walked the Darby Plains  for thousands of years.

Every so often, Metro Parks does a controlled burn of the restored prairie areas; as Native Americans knew, this will perpetuate the prairie ecosystem for future generations.  I have to say I’m quite impressed with the work they’ve done in helping bring back the prairie to Ohio.

A great site to learn more about Ohio’s prairies is The Ohio Prairie Association’s webpage.

33 Comments leave one →
  1. August 17, 2011 9:26 pm

    I can’t imagine how much time went into this. I have to save it for another day. So much to take in. Wow!

  2. August 17, 2011 9:56 pm

    Thanks for talking about the fact that North America’s prairies were partly created and maintained by fires set by American Indians. So many people have this image of pre-European North America as completely natural, in the sense that it hadn’t been altered at all by humans at that point, when in fact American Indians had been shaping the landscape to suit their needs for millenia. (Sorry, I took a class on this stuff when I was in college and it’s been a sort of pet peeve of mine ever since…)

    • August 19, 2011 1:32 pm

      I learned the same thing in college, Rebecca- humans always impact their environment. For instance, Paleoindians probably contributed to the extinction of the Wooly Mammoth and other large animals 10,000 years ago, shortly after the glaciers receded.

  3. August 18, 2011 3:41 am

    Thank you for another excellent post! And for reminding me that I have two prairie preserves marked on my GPS unit to check out one of these days, maybe this weekend.

    • August 19, 2011 1:41 pm

      July and August are probably the best months for checking out prairies- of course different prairie plants are visible at different times, making it hard to pick a single best time…get some pictures if you go!

  4. August 18, 2011 9:05 am

    What a wonderful lesson this was… I think we tend to ‘compartmentalize’ the way we think about our country, that we think of the ‘great plains’ as something completely unique, when in fact, as you pointed out, they existed in various areas. It is a shame that so many of these spaces have been encroached upon, that we don’t have more of these beautiful, natural habitats available for us to enjoy today. Thank you for sharing this bit of history with us!

    • August 19, 2011 1:43 pm

      That’s very true Robin- Ohio is not known as a prairie state. It isn’t known as a forested state either, though I learned recently that 30% of Ohio is covered by trees. The things one learns! 🙂

  5. Barbara Rodgers permalink
    August 18, 2011 11:01 am

    Fascinating natural history of the land… I’ve never been farther west than New York, so your pictures and information have made me curious to visit Ohio and these preserves some day. I especially liked the picture of the Big Bluestem grass, with the little headstone in the lower left corner… nice perspective!

    • August 19, 2011 1:46 pm

      Thanks, Barbara! Now that you mention it, I haven’t been very far out west either. One day….

  6. August 18, 2011 3:57 pm

    I grew up on the Illinois prairie and have tried to imagine going through these tall grasses as a pioneer. It is not that difficult. I never imagined Ohio having prairies with their rolling hills.

    • August 30, 2011 9:25 pm

      Ohio and prairies are an odd combination in many people’s minds. I’m fascinated that thousands of years ago, the climate changed enough to allow prairie plants to take root this far east- and people nurtured that bit of prairie up to this very day.

  7. John Northcutt Young permalink
    August 18, 2011 4:56 pm

    This is a wonderful, informative post. Being from the South, cemetery roaming is in the blood. The tombstone project is very worthwhile. A must-see if I ever get to Ohio. Thanks.

    • August 19, 2011 1:48 pm

      John, as you know, it’s amazing what you can learn from old cemeteries. Also, birders can often be found in cemeteries because the land there is often very close to nature.

  8. August 18, 2011 6:30 pm

    Very interesting and informative! I couldn’t help but think of my Little House on the Prairie books and when the Native Americans set the land on fire in the second book.

  9. August 18, 2011 10:18 pm

    When I read this, I felt like I journeyed in the past. Just beautiful in every way. The pictures are just something to marvel. It also helps in connecting us with the story. Thanks for making people appreciate nature like the praries. Stay blessed.

  10. August 19, 2011 12:52 am

    This is a fascinating post! I appreciate the effort that you put into it and greatly enjoyed it! Thank you!

  11. August 19, 2011 6:10 am

    Hi Tracy. Where I used to live in southern Alberta, there is a remnant of the original prairie, called the Cyprus Hills. When the last glaciers scoured the plains, this bit was left and the fescues there are quite different from the grasses on the surrounding prairie. Very nice post; you have captured a lot of diversity in your photos. Jane

    • August 19, 2011 1:53 pm

      Thanks Jane! It is interesting how some prairies can be so different from others, particularly the small remnant prairie areas.

  12. August 19, 2011 9:27 am

    Great W.S.: love the post…two memories come to mind…a cemetery near Dennison, IL, where a number of Judie’s (my lovely wife) relatives are buried…farm community and somewhat “kept” but still lots of the kinds of prairie flowers and grasses where there in this old cemetery…you brought back those memories…and then a trip across Nebraska in the ’80’s…at night and both sides of the freeway…on fire…a prairie fire…huge and a bit scary…but knowing that it was for “good”…I imagine there were fire departments on alert if it got near “stuff”…but it was awe inspiring…thanks for you wonderful information and memories…

    • August 19, 2011 1:56 pm

      Wow Jim, that must have been something to see, a prairie fire!

      Old cemeteries are truly treasures. I seem to notice lots of them in my travels these days.

  13. September 5, 2011 1:25 pm

    Fascinating information and photos, Tracy! I just found your blog (thanks to your comment on my blog). I love what you are doing here. Your writings and photos are of special interest to me since I am originally from the north central part of Ohio (Ashland and Wayne Counties). I love all the photo ops in Ohio, especially the farms, wildflowers, and marshes.

    I look forward to your future posts!

    • September 5, 2011 1:58 pm

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Karen! It’s always good to hear from someone who knows the landscape here in Ohio!

  14. Steve Woods permalink
    December 7, 2012 12:09 pm

    Stumbled across your page while searching to see what is being done for prairies around the state. I work for The Nature Conservancy in the Oak Openings (Kitty Todd Preserve) and we are trying to advance the cause a bit. Good work here. I will share with others. Thanks Steve Woods

  15. September 21, 2013 11:32 pm

    Fascinating post. I love the work that is being done to restore the tall grass prairies. Until your post, the only other time I had read about tall grass prairie restoration was here http://www.chiefswood.com/index.php?id=grounds

Trackbacks

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