Saturday, December 20, 2008

Flora and Fauna

The Impact of American Settlement on the Ecosystem of the Lower Scioto Valley

This past May the Heartwood Forest Council invited me to address their annual meeting, which was held at Camp Oyo in the Shawnee State Forest. Cheryl Carpenter, the founder of Voices for the Forest, a local organization dedicated to protecting the health of the Shawnee State Forest, helped organize the event and suggested that I speak on some aspect of local environmental history. What follows is an essay based on my Forest Council talk, a first stab of sorts into the environmental history of the Lower Scioto River Valley. Its focus concerns the impact of American settlement on the flora and fauna of the region.

Today, when one visits the Shawnee State Forest and hikes along its ridges and through its hollows, one can easily imagine they have stepped back in time to an era when southern Ohio was still home to the Shawnee and other Ohio Indians. The sounds of modern American civilization fall away until all that you are left with are the sounds of the forest -- the song birds, the bugs, the rustling of the underbrush by a nearby deer, the call of a wild turkey, the wind through the trees, the water gurgling over rocks, the sound of the occasional tree limb falling. This visual and aural illusion is fleeting as it is eventually shattered when a plane flies across the sky, or when a truck drives by on one of the forest’s many roads, or when one comes across the scarred land of a recent clear cut.

Crossing a dry run on the Shawnee State Forest Day Hike Trail (August 2008)

The illusion is not only fleeting, it can leave the hiker with a false sense of what the sounds and sights of the region’s forests would have actually been like at the dawn of nineteenth century. There is no recovery of the old original growth forest; the forest has forever changed; the flora and fauna of its ecosystem has irreversibly been transformed. Even in the most remote sections of the forest, where this illusion can be its strongest, the sights and sounds are now different from what they would have been in the 1790s.

So what has changed? What has been lost? What impact did American settlement have on the animal and plant species of the Lower Scioto River Valley?

The rapid American settlement of the Valley at the beginning of the nineteenth century inaugurated a new chapter in the region’s natural history. The flora and fauna of the Scioto would never be the same. Farming, tanning enterprises, and charcoal-fired industries would destroy the largely virgin forests of the valley, forever altering the habitat of the region’s animals. Some species would be extirpated as nuisances, others would be over-hunted until they disappeared from the Valley, and in some cases, such as with the Carolina parakeet and the passenger pigeon, until there were no more to be found anywhere. The American settlement of the Scioto Valley would lead to massive deforestation and contribute to the extirpation and extinction of a number of animal species.

The forests of the 18th century and before swarmed with wild life and left its first American visitors in awe. James B. Finley, one the first settlers in the valley in the late 1790s recalled his first trip into the Scioto Country:
It would be impossible for me to describe the beauty 
of these rich bottoms. The soil itself for richness was 
not exceeded by any in the world. The lofty sugar [maple]-tree, 
spreading its beautiful branches; the graceful elm, waving 
its tall head, the monarch of the forest; the black and 
white walnut; the giant oak, the tall hickory; the cherry 
and hackberry; the spicewood, with its fragrance; the 
pawpaw, with its luscious fruit; the wild plum; the rich clusters of grapes, which, hanging from the massy vines, 
festooned the forest; and, beneath all, the wild rye, green 
as a wheat-field, mixed with the prairie and buffalo clover — 
all formed a garden of nature most enchanting to 
behold. The clear and beautiful rivulet creeping through 
the grass, and softly rippling over pebbly bottoms, the 
gentle zephyrs [breezes] freighted with nature's incense, pure and 
sweet, regaled our senses, and filled us with delight. All 
nature had a voice which spoke most impressively to the soul; and while all the senses were pervaded with an unutterable 
delight, the solemn stillness seemed to say, God
reigns here. The song of the lark and nightingale, the melancholy wail of the dove [passenger pigeon] or whistle of the whippoorwill, 
the low hum of the bee, the chirping of the grasshopper, 
the bark of the squirrel, the drumming of the pheasant, 
the bleat of the fawn, the growl of the bear, the hoot of 
the owl, the howl of the wolf, the scream of the panther, 
and the yell of the Indian, were all that broke the silence 
in this deep and beautiful forest.

The reign of God, like the reign of the Shawnee and other Indians, however, was coming to an end. Within a generation, man, more particularly, Homo Americanus, let’s call him, would claim dominion over the valley and its flora and fauna. The animal species that would soon disappear included some of those mentioned by Finley, such as the passenger pigeon, white-tailed deer, wolf, black bear, and panther. But others he failed to mention would also be extirpated, such as the American Bison and the Carolina Parakeet.

The bottomlands of the river, for instance, that were once populated with massive, hundred or more year old sycamores, would be cleared for the planting of corn. While sycamores can still be found along the edges of the Scioto, the Ohio, and the smaller tributaries of the region, such as Turkey Creek, the ancient giants are gone.

One traveler who passed through the Valley in 1807 noted the following in their journal: “The river meanders through an extensive alluvial bottom of the richest quality of land. In the low, inundated bottoms, the timber is mostly cottonwood [or more commonly known as poplar] and sycamore, some of them very large; in the high bottoms, black walnut, ash, and sugar maple prevail, with pawpaw.” This last reference, that of the pawpaw to which James Finley also referred, is to a North American tree of the custard apple family, with purple flowers and edible oblong yellow fruit with a sweet pulp. Pawpaw, which can still be found in the Shawnee State Forest, was once found in large thickets along the banks of the Scioto and the Ohio – at one point in time a massive thicket lined the river, where Portsmouth now stands.

Another traveler, who visited the Scioto Valley just after the War of 1812, nearly twenty years after the first American settlers began clearing the land, noted remnants of the ancient forest and experienced the same sense of time travel that hikers can experience even today:

… in the rich bottoms [the trees] sometimes exhibit a grand assemblage of gigantic beings, which carry the imagination back to other times, before the foot of a white man had touched the American shore. Yesterday I measured a walnut tree almost seven feet diameter, clean and straight as an arrow; and just by were rotting, side by side, two sycamores of nearly equal dimensions. The sycamore grows in bottoms [that frequently flood], to an unwieldy bulk; but the white oak is the glory of the upland forest. .... [The oaks] have rarely an opportunity of swelling out to a large diameter, owning to their crowded growth. They are, for the same reason, very lofty, straight, and clear in their stems; sometimes eighty or ninety feet without a branch. I measured a white oak, by the road side, which, at four feet from the ground, was six feet in diameter, and at seventy five feet measured nine feet round, or three feet in diameter.

The thinning of the sycamore is believed to have contributed to extirpation of the Carolina Parakeet.

Considered the largest deciduous tree species in North America, the sycamore was the source of food and nesting for a species of birds that once populated the Valley, but is no more. The Carolina Parakeet once called the Scioto Valley home. Amongst the stone pipes unearthed in the Tremper Mound, which is located near the mouth of the Scioto, on the West Side, were pipes depicting the green-bodied, yellowed-headed parakeet. When Fortescue Cuming visited Portsmouth in 1808, he noted large flocks of the birds, which “when they alight on a tree, they are not distinguishable from 
the foliage, from their colour.”

A sycamore reflected in the waters of Wolfden Lake, Shawnee State Forest (November 2008).

The giant sycamores, many of which had been hollowed out by decay were favorite nesting and roosting sites for the Carolina Parakeet. A single, large tree cavity would be the home of numerous birds. The sycamore also provided one of the bird’s favorite foods before the arrival of the Americans. The seed balls of the sycamore, along with the seeds of the cocklebur were a primary source of food for the bird. With the arrival of the Americans, however, the parakeets developed a fondness for apple and pear seeds, which were found in abundance in the newly planted orchards of the Americans. To the great consternation of the new settlers, the birds would destroy the fruit in order to get to the seeds; a flock of parakeets could wipe out a whole season’s fruit crop in little time. The birds also appear to have devoured corn, particularly when it had been cut with its stalks and stacked in piles, a common practice of the region’s cattle farmers. The decline of the parakeet coincided with the destruction of sycamore of the ancient forest, but the spread of cocklebur (a weed that flourished in newly cleared land) may have made up for the loss of sycamore seed balls.

Audubon's painting of the Carolina Parakeet

The thinning of sycamores had its greatest impact on the destruction of roosting and nesting sites. One theory about the destruction of roosting and nesting sites includes a role for European honeybees, which moved westward in advance of American settlements. The bees themselves may have displaced the parakeets by taking over hollow trees. Then when the Americans arrived they sought out these hollowed out trees, chopping them down in search of honeycomb. While habitat destruction clearly played a role in the extinction of the Carolina Parakeet, the birds were also hunted, but unlike the passenger pigeon, which was hunted for food and for which there was significant market demand, the parakeet because of its smaller size and its less tasty meat, and its appetite for apples, was hunted as a nuisance, simply exterminated.
John James Audubon, the great American naturalist and artist, noted in 1831 that:

The parrot does not satisfy itself with Cockle-burs, but eats or destroys almost every kind of fruit indiscriminately, and on this account is always an unwelcome visitor to the planter, the farmer, or the gardener. The stacks of grain put up in the field are resorted to by flocks of these birds, which frequently cover them so entirely, that they present to the eye the same effect as if a brilliantly colored carpet had been thrown over them. The cling around the whole stack, pull out the straws, and destroy twice as much of the grain as would suffice to satisfy their hunger. They assail the Pear and Apple-trees when the fruit is yet very small and far from being ripe, and this merely for the sake of the seeds. As on the stalks of corn, they alight on the Apple-trees of our orchards, or the Pear-trees in the gardens, in great numbers; and, as if through mere mischief, pluck off the fruits, open them up to the core, and, disappointed at the sight of the seeds, which are yet soft and of a milky consistence, drop the apple or pear, and pluck another, passing from branch to branch, until the trees, which were before so promising, are left completely stripped, like the ship water-logged and abandoned by its crew, floating on the yet agitated waves, after the tempest has ceased. They visit Mulberries, Pecan-nuts, Grapes, and even the seeds of the Dog-wood, before they are ripe, and on all commit similar depredations. The Maize alone never attracts their notice.

…. The parakeets are destroyed in great numbers, for whilst busily engaged in plucking off the fruits or tearing the grain from the stacks, the husbandman approaches them with perfect ease, and commits great slaughter among them. All the survivors rise, shriek, fly round for a few minutes, and again alight on the very place of most imminent danger. The gun is kept a work; eight or ten, or even twenty, are killed at every discharge. The living birds, as if conscious of the death of their companions, sweep over their bodies screaming as loud as ever, but still return to the stack to be shot at, until so few remain alive, that the farmer does not consider it worth his while to spend more of ammunition. I have seen several hundreds destroyed in this manner in the course of a few hours, and have procured a basketful of these birds at a few shots, in order to make choice of good specimens for drawing the figures by which this species is represented in the plate now under your consideration.

Audubon also sounded the first alarm about the birds impending demise:
Our Parakeets are very rapidly diminishing in number; and in some districts, where twenty-five years ago they were plentiful, scarcely any are now to be seen. …. At the present day, very few are to be found higher [in the Ohio Valley] than Cincinnati….

By the mid-nineteenth century, records indicate that the Carolina Parakeet was only to be found in large numbers in the swamps of Florida. The last of the wild parakeets are believed to have died in the 1920s. One expert on the Carolina Parakeet put it mildly that “the lack of a general sentiment in pioneer society for their protection may have been their downfall.”

Hunting by Americans in the region has also been blamed for the extinction of the passenger pigeon, whose massive flocks once darkened the sky of the valley. In 1813, Audubon recorded an account of a massive migration of passenger pigeons flying south from Ohio across the river into Kentucky:

I observed the Pigeons flying from north-east to south-west, in greater numbers than I thought I had ever seen them before, and feeling an inclination to count the flocks that might pass within the reach of my eye in one hour, I dismounted, seated myself on an eminence, and began to mark with my pencil, making a dot for every flock that passed. In a short time finding the task which I had, undertaken impracticable, as the birds poured in in countless multitudes, I rose, and counting the dots then put down, found that 163 had been made in twenty-one minutes. I traveled on, and still met more the farther I proceeded. The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse, the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose.

Audubon estimated the numbers in the billions. By sampling and measuring the size of this mile-wide flock and the three-day duration of its flow, Audubon concluded that there had been “One billion, one hundred and fifteen millions, one hundred and thirty-six thousand” pigeons flying overhead. The flocks darkened the sky, as if there was an eclipse.

Audubon’s writings (as well as his painting) of the passenger pigeon are quite well known, especially his description of their multitudes. However, if one reads further in Audubon’s account of this incredible migration, we can gain some insight into the eventual extinction of the passenger pigeon.

Audubon's painting of the Passenger Pigeon

After commenting upon their shear number of pigeons flying overhead, Audubon wrote that:

The people were all in arms. The banks of the Ohio were crowded with men and boys, incessantly shooting at the pilgrims, which there flew lower as they passed the river. Multitudes were thus destroyed. For a week or more, the population fed on no other flesh than that of Pigeons, and talked of nothing but Pigeons.

Audubon believed that it would not be the mass slaughter of the birds, but rather the destruction of the forest that would cause the demise of the passenger pigeon, whose range was from Canada to the Gulf Coast, with the Ohio valley (and the Scioto in particular) as its center. In the end, it was both. The pigeon’s habitat was largely destroyed in the 19th century; while their numbers were severely diminished through large scale, over-hunting. By the start of the 20th century, the passenger pigeon was on the brink of extinction. And within a decade it would be extinct, with the last wild pigeon being shot near the banks of the Scioto River in Pike County.

The destruction of the forest in the Lower Scioto Valley would pick up rapidly with the advent of the industrial revolution, as charcoal-fired furnaces were constructed to manufacture, first salt, and then pig iron. Steamboats plying the Ohio, and later railroad locomotives would also consume hundreds of thousands cords of timber. The regions furnaces and steam engines would not covert to coal until the region’s forests had been depleted – the earliest transition to coal began in the Scioto Valley in the second decade of the nineteenth century and the transition would not be complete until the 1870s.

The first manufacturing industry in the valley centered on the production of salt. On Salt Creek, a tributary of the Scioto, which flows south westerly from Jackson County to its confluence with the Scioto in Pike County, Native Americans were the first to boil the saline water for salt production. It was here that Daniel Boone, when taken hostage by the Shawnee, helped manufacture salt in the 1780s. The manufacture of salt would become closely tied to another industry – the meat packing industry. The basis for both of these industries is ultimately agriculture. Farmers in the valley found it profitable to convert much of their grain production into the flesh of animals, which could be driven to the market place or packed in barrels and shipped down river.

Prior to the development of refrigeration technologies, meat was preserved in salt. The by-products of meat-packing became the raw materials for other manufacturing establishments – lard-oil, soap, candles, glue, and other chemical compounds. The hides of the cattle were converted into leather, which was then used in the shoe and harness manufacturing industry. An auxiliary tanning industry also developed, which further impacted the forest, as tanners sought tannic acid in the region’s tree bark.

During the period of greatest production at the Scioto Salt Works, from 1806 to 1808, there were twenty furnaces in operation. These made an average of from fifty to seventy bushels of salt per week. If they were working at capacity – 70 bushels of salt per week – each furnace would have had to boil 46,200 gallons of brine. The furnaces were fired by the combustion of charcoal, which was made from the timber surrounding the various furnaces. Around 1814, the state of Ohio began offering subsidies to salt manufacturers who would use coal, rather than wood to fire their furnaces. The use of coal at the Scioto Salt Works is believed to mark the first application of coal in industry in America and can be cited as one of the beginnings of coal mining in Appalachia.

The second decade of the nineteenth century – the 1810s – also witnessed the first construction of charcoal-fired iron furnaces in the Scioto Valley, and more precisely in Adams County, where iron ore was first discovered in the woods that now adjoin Shawnee State Forest. In the 1820s and 1830s, iron production shifted eastward into Scioto and Lawrence counties, to the area now partially protected by the Wayne National Forest.

A skilled collier, working for one of the region’s furnaces, could turn a cord of wood into forty bushels of charcoal. And it took some four hundred bushels of charcoal (roughly 10 cords of wood) to produce one ton of pig iron. In essence one acre of timber could produce enough energy to process 4 tons of pig iron. The annual consumption of timber per furnace ranged from 50 and 200 acres. “At various times there were from fifty-seven to seventy blast furnaces in southern Ohio with an annual capacity of 142,000 tons of iron.” If the region’s furnaces operated at capacity that would translate into the destruction of some 35,500 of acres of timber per year, at the height of production. Although such a large amount of acreage was probably never consumed a year, even with a conservative estimate of 16,000 acres per year (or 25 square miles of forest), the pre-coal-fired iron industry in Southern Ohio took an immense toll on the Old Growth forests of the region. Consider the size of Shawnee State Forest today, which has over 60,000 acres, which equals about 94 square miles. With my conservative estimate, it would have taken just under four years to clear the present size of the Shawnee State Forest.

The destruction of the forest, combined with over-hunting, also took its toll on the American Bison and white-tail deer of the valley. The extirpation of the Buffalo, of which there were relatively small herds east of the Mississippi compared to those in the West, was completed by 1830. The last killed in Pennsylvania was in 1801, the last in Louisiana in 1803, the last in Illinois and Ohio in 1808; the last sightings in Kentucky came in 1820, in Tennessee in 1823, and in western Virginia in 1825; the last Buffalo in Indiana was shot down by a hunter in 1830. Records suggest that the overwhelming bulk of the eastern herds had been destroyed by the year 1800.

An American Bison herd in Kentucky

The last Buffalo shot in the Scioto Valley was killed by Phillip Salladay in Green Township in southeastern Scioto County around the year 1801. According to local legend, Phillip and his son were hunting on Pine Creek when they came across a solitary buffalo. Phillip took the first shot, which only wounded the animal. The bison turned and charged straight at them. “As the boy was getting his rifle ready to shoot, the father snatched it from him, and killed the buffalo.” The general consensus among scholars who have studied the demise of the Bison east of the Mississippi, its extirpation was the result of over-hunting and the “destruction of their habitat destroyed their range.”

The over-hunting of white-tailed deer and black bear began even before the settlement of Americans in the Scioto Valley. One reason the Shawnee and other eastern Indians had re-turned to the region in the early 1700s was because of the depletion of deer and other game in the East. Indian hunters traded deer and bearskins for European and American manufactured goods. Over-hunting, however, truly began to decimate these animal populations in the Scioto Valley only after American settlement had begun. In the memoirs and journals of the early pioneers, bear meat was a choice meal; bear bacon was used like cash. Their hides also brought in good money. According to one record, between 1805 and 1807, more than 8,000 bearskins were shipped to eastern markets from the Tri-State Region of Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Many a hollowed-out sycamore and other trees were felled to get at the bears. The shooting of bears accomplished two purposes – it provided much needed meat in early years of settlement, before cattle and swine had come to supply the needs of the settlers, and it removed what many saw as a dangerous wild neighbor.

Deer meat was also a regular staple of the early pioneers and continued for decades to be a source of nutrition in the backwoods of the valley. But, as the forests were cut down, destroying their range and the abundant mast – the acorns and other nuts – that the deer relied upon, their numbers began to dwindle. Considering the large numbers of deer that currently inhabit the Valley (and Shawnee State Forest, in particular), it may be surprising for some to learn that the White-Tailed Deer was actually hunted into oblivion by the dawn of the twentieth-century. According to a local historian writing at about this time:

The whitetailed deer was the last of the big game in Scioto County. They were killed in numbers, as late as the [eighteen] seventies in the region drained by Twin Creek [in what could be described as the heart of the modern-day Shawnee State Forest]. Some were killed in the [eighteen] eighties, but by this time, they were quite scarce. The last deer, killed in Scioto County, was killed on Turkey Creek about 1895.

Turkey Creek, as many of my readers may know, is the creek that runs alongside State Route 125 and feeds Shawnee State Park’s two major lakes – Roosevelt Lake and Turkey Creek Lake.

Just as the deer have returned to the valley and Shawnee State Forest, so have the coyotes that had once been hunted to extirpation. Coyotes that once preyed on the deer and other smaller animals were seen as a great nuisance to the early American settlers of the region. They killed cattle and swine and generated fears over the safety of young children. County governments, such as that of Scioto County, even had bounties for their scalps. The last recorded bounty of $1 was paid out for a scalp in Scioto County in 1831.

So what are we to take away from these chapters in the environmental history of the Lower Scioto Valley? The forest was a critical part of a very delicate ecosystem. The return of the forest has helped bring about the return of certain species. But, others like the Carolina Parakeet and the Passenger Pigeon are gone forever. Once lost, somethings can never be restored.


  1. Fascinating post. I wouldn't have thought that salt production could be turned into a large-scale industry so early in the nineteenth century, but I'm sure there was ample demand for the end product. Your observations about the declining wild animal population are also very interesting. Apropos of bear-hunting, bear's oil was regarded by both Indians and white settlers - at least in the South - as "very sovereign for strains, aches, and old pains" (Lawson, NEW VOYAGE TO CAROLINA [1709/1984], 122).

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting. The salt story is key to understanding the workings of the frontier economy. Scioto salt was used to pack pork and beef in the first decade of the 19th century, which was traded down the Ohio and Mississippi and then, in some cases, onto Cuba, where the salted meat was fed to slaves on sugar plantations. This salt was also used to prepare meat for American soldiers in the War of 1812. The capital accumulated from the early salt and pork trade helped finance the development of iron furnaces in the region. From my preliminary research, it appears the backers of the iron furnaces had largely made their fortunes in land speculation and the salted pork trade.