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1994 Proceedings
North American Conference on Savannas and Barrens


Max D. Hutchison
The Nature Conservancy
RR1, P.O. Box 53E
Ullin, Illinois 62992

Living in the Edge: 1994 Midwest Oak Savanna Conferences

The barrens is a natural community type that was common in southern Illinois prior to European settlement (Bourne 1820; Engelmann 1863; Peck 1834; Mitchell 1838; Hutchison et al. 1986). Few remnants are left to help us know what they were like and to determine what distinguished barrens from forest and prairie (White 1978). For many of the natural communities, historical descriptions are the best guide we have to follow in developing our plans for protection of natural areas and especially in our efforts to restore natural character (Hutchison 1994; Vestal 1918).

The Nature Conservancy is using the Public Land Survey (PLS) field notes to describe and map presettlement communities (including barrens) in southern Illinois, particularly for sites within the Shawnee National Forest and Cache River Bioreserve. We have found the eyewitness descriptions of the undisturbed landscape to be invaluable, not only in reconstructing the character of a community type but also in providing clues to identify the natural processes that were operating prior to 1800. But the notes are not nearly so helpful by themselves as where combined with other site resource data, especially maps showing bedrock, soils, topography, and existing vegetation.

In our efforts to provide natural character information as background for preparing management plans for natural areas, we have developed a somewhat standardized procedure for collecting historical information and mapping and describing the presettlement natural communities.


The area encompassing the southern 27 counties of Illinois includes six Natural Divisions and 13 Sections (Schwegman 1973). It was a region of high natural diversity at the time of settlement with prairies, marshes, flatwoods, upland and bottomland forests, swamps, bedrock glades, and barrens represented. Four or more community types commonly occurred within an individual township. Barrens occurred in all of the Natural Divisions and in most (if not all) Sections (U.S. PLS 1804-1850s).


The field notes of the original PLS were recorded by eyewitnesses, mostly professionals who viewed the landscape prior to significant disturbance- by European settlement. Their notes describe the land and vegetation in a regular grid system of lines and points, and the entire region was surveyed following a systematic plan. Most of southern Illinois was surveyed between 1804 and 1820, and microfilm copies of the records are available at several libraries. For each section line, the notebooks contain: line location; direction of travel; points along the line at which features were encountered and corners set; the names and diameters of witness trees and their bearings and distances from corners; a general description of the vegetation, topography, and soils crossed by the lines.

Water features noted and located where encountered include streams, ponds, swamps, marshes, lakes, and springs. Upland natural communities include timber, prairie, and barrens.

In addition to specific points along the lines, general character comments describe each mile (or half mile) distance crossed by the section lines. These comments describe the topography, soils, and vegetation, and using the barrens as an example, mention dominant species (usually trees), density of stand, understory species, quality of soil, and description of terrain. Common descriptive terms are level, brushy, dry, wet, briery, poor, with low grass, etc. (most of the above copied from Hutchison 1988).


We normally begin the construction of a presettlement character map by copying the PLS notes from the microfilm onto enlarged copies of the USGS quadrangle topographic maps, 7.5' scale. Features are located along the section lines using a scale divided to fit the chain distances used in the notes. General comments are penciled onto the map at the proper locations. Particular attention is given to locating the points entering and leaving a natural community, such as a barrens.

Other natural character maps are adjusted (usually enlarged) in size to fit the topographic map, so that a series of overlays can show comparisons of soils, geology, and existing natural vegetation with the PLS notes. Corralations between soils (as mapped in the original series, 1903-about 1950), bedrock types, elevations, and presettlement communities are noted and usually are of sufficient significance to interpolate and complete community boundaries between section lines. The USGS topographic maps provide elevation data. The University of Illinois Agriculture Experiment Station county soils reports and maps, prepared between 1903 and about 1950 (not quite all were published), provide differences in soils that are often more detailed and significant than are shown on the more modern soil survey maps (e.g., Smith 1926)Geological information, particularly bedrock types, is available for most of southern Illinois, and at the 7.5' topographic map scale for several quadrangles (e.g., Nelson and Lumm 1986). The ASCS aerial photography is helpful in providing general vegetative cover maps; for example, upland forest, swamp, and glade vegetation can be rather easily identified. Existing natural areas provide ground truthing data; for example, old trees in a woodlot help determine species referred to in the PLS field notes. Other historical descriptions provide insight and detail, such as county histories.


The field notes of the PLS are probably the single most important source for determining the presettlement character of the landscape in southern Illinois. They become even more valuable when used in conjunction with soils, geology, and topographic maps to identify important relationships.

We have used the PLS data to prepare presettlement maps useful in the restoration of barrens communities on National Forest lands in the Cretaceous Hills of southern Pope County (Hutchison et al. 1986). We are also using the field notes to identify potential barrens restoration sites within the Cache River Bioreserve. We check the notes for each of the plot sampling sites to help describe natural plant community types (original vegetation) as a part of the Ecological Land Classification System (ECS) work we are doing with the Shawnee National Forest.

So much of the southern Illinois landscape is now altered by land clearing, erosion, drainage changes, and sedimentation, little is left to indicate where the presettlement forests, swamps, prairies, or barrens actually were. The historical data, particularly the PLS field notes, can be of practical use to natural area managers throughout much of the Midwest in their efforts to reconstruct the features and processes operating prior to unnatural disturbance.


Bourne, A. 1820. On the prairies and barrens of the west. American Journal of Science and Arts 2:30-34.

Engelmann, H. 1863. Remarks upon the causes producing the different char-characters of vegetation known as prairies, flats, and barrens in southern Illinois, with special reference to observations made in Perry and Jackson counties. American Journal of Science and Arts 86:384-396.

Hutchison, M. D. 1988. A guide to using the Public Land Survey field notes in Illinois. Natural Areas Journal 8:245-255.

Hutchison, M. D. [in press]. The barrens of the Midwest: an historical perspective. Castanea.

Hutchison, M. D., S. Olson, and T. Vogt. 1986. A survey of the barrens region in Massac and Pope counties, Illinois. 63 p.

Mitchell, S. A. 1838. Illinois in 1837 & 8. S. Augustus Mitchell, and Grigg Publishing Co., Pennsylvanica, PA.

Nelson, W. J., and D. K. Lumm. 1986. Geologic map of the Rudement Quadrangle, Saline County, Illinois. Illinois State Geological Survey Map IGQ-3, Urbana. 1 map.

Peck, J. 1834. A gazetteer of Illinois. R. Goudy, publisher. Jacksonville, Illinois. 376 p.

S. Augustus Mitchell, publisher. 1838. Illinois in 1837. Philadelphia. 143 p.

Schwegman, J. E. 1973. Comprehensive plan for the Illinois Nature Preserves System, Part 2-The Natural Divisions of Illinois. Illinois Natural Preserves Commission, Rockford. 32 p.

Smith, R. S., et al. 1926. Saline County soils. University of Illinois, Agricultural Experiment Station, Urbana. 53 p. plus map.

U. S. Public Land Survey. 1804-1850's. Field notes for Illinois. Illinois State Archives, Springfield. 512 volumes.

Vestal, A. 1918. Local inclusions of prairie within forest. Transactions of the Illinois Academy of Science 11:122-126.

White, J. 1978. Illinois Natural Areas Inventory, Technical Report. Department of Landscape Arch., University of Illinois, Urbana and The Natural Land Institute, Rockford. 426 p.


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