A Tribute to the Great Black Swamp of Northwest Ohio

The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago; the second best time is right now. 

“The Great Black Swamp”

The flat abundant farmlands of North-western Ohio are within a glacier formed area which only until relatively recent times was part of the Lake Erie extended basin. A little more than 150 years ago, few dared to enter the impenetrable swampland forest which covered this part of America. What stood here was North America’s densest forest region, comparable only to that of the Great Amazon Forests of Brazil. Covering an area the size of Connecticut and extending from the present day cities of Toledo to Fort Wayne, this area became known as the Great Black Swamp due to the color of the soil and darkness beneath its gigantic trees. Early explorers described the swamp “as deep as a mule” and the thick vegetation was such that its dense canopy impeded the sunrays, leaving the underlying ground “as dark as night and frozen even during the summer months”. The Swamp’s fertile ground produced magnificent hardwood oak, hickory, elm, maple and walnut trees, with some trees measuring six feet in diameter, and wild game was abundant.

Ninetieth Century settlers perched on the edge of the Swamp intimidated by its hostile constituents. Not only had nature composed herself in murk and menace, but the forested flats had also served as the latest refuge for the native Americans in their ongoing territorial and racial conflicts with the never ending onslaught of settlers.

For the “Westward Ho!” movement, the sloblands represented a formidable barrier in their shortest route to the promised lands of the Far West. It was with a solemn deep breath that families reined the horses pulling canvassed covered wagons to forge into the darkness of a forest of reputed perils. Their arrival to the distant western bank was a victory in itself. Some, tired and depleted, remained stuck in the swamp. While others, enticed by nature’s attributions of fertile soil, produce and game, endured the strife and disease to carve from the wilderness a home and farm for themselves. This is where hope for prosperity and a new life clashed with a harsh reality which left no margin for error. This was an era of crude backwoodsmen, merciless Indian hunters and Johnny Appleseed.

Indeed, the Black Swamp resisted development until the late 1800s. In 1859, a law was passed providing for a system of public hand-dug ditches to drain the land. Surveyed on a North-South and East-West grid pattern, deforestation and ditch digging followed the surveyors’ marks. By 1870, the Black Swamp was half cleared and Lake Erie defined itself to its present size. Eventually, after continued lumbering and draining, the historic Great Black Swamp vanished.double click to enlarge