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1993 Proceedings of the Midwest Oak Savanna Conferences1993 Proceedings of the Midwest Oak Savanna Conferences

 

WOODLANDS IN EARLY ILLINOIS

John White
Ecological Services
904 South Anderson Street
Urbana, IL 61801
Tel: (217) 367-8770

 

A wealth of information about savannas has been revealed by studying more than a thousand documents that describe Illinois in the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s. Savannas exhibited a wide range of species composition and structure, from "oak openings" and "barrens" to "crab orchards" and thickets of "blackjack." Some savannas were likened to beautiful parks and royal estates; others were impenetrable brushlands. Pioneers commonly chose to settle in savannas, so the location of early farmsteads, roads, and cemeteries were often determined by the distribution of savannas. One of the most widely observed phenomina during the era of settlement was how quickly savannas grew up into dense forest as soon as fires were suppressed. Another widely remarked phenominon was the replacement of native grasses by bluegrass when savannas were pastured.

Following is a review of some of the information about woodlands that can be derived from an in-depth study of writings by explorers, pioneers, and early historians in Illinois.

EARLY TERMINOLOGY OF WOODLANDS

For the purposes of this discussion, any area with trees is defined as a woodland, even if the trees are few and far apart. Pioneers referred to wooded areas with several general terms: timber, forest, woods, and woodland. The terms barrens and oak openings were applied by explorers and settlers to woodlands that had a distinctive appearance. The term savanna was used to refer to grasslands with few or no trees. Sometimes the word orchard was selected to describe the open, grassy woods that would be called savannas in today's parlance. Three other settlement-era terms described the overall configuration of stands of trees: grove, point, and copse.

Timber

It has hill & dale & springs of water, is sufficiently timbered, the trees so far apart that an immense burden of long grass grows between, & I think would produce every kind of grain as it now stands without destroying the Timber which in this Country must be valuable 覧 George Hunter, east of Kaskaskia in 1796. 

Early writers chose timber more than any other word to refer to wooded areas. Often timber was the word of choice to describe densely wooded areas ("heavy timber"), and sometimes timber had an economic connotation ("fine timber"). Very thin or open stands of trees were called timber; two ofthe most frequent phrases in pioneer descriptions of Illinois are scattered timber and scattering timber

Forest, Woods, and Woodland 

The woods are like thick jungles, with large trees and huge wild grape vines as big as a man's body. Passage through these woods is impossible because of the vines. 覧 F.J. Gustorf, on the Wabash River in 1835. 

Forest was a general term but was most often used in reference to areas that were relatively densely wooded. Woods and woodland referred to wooded areas of any kind, from dense forest to sparse, scrubby timber. 

Savannas and Orchards 

The wild plum . . . was formerly to be found in large orchards along the bottom lands and fringing the prairies.History of Wayne and Clay Counties (1884). 

Early writers occasionally used the word savanna (or savannah), but they employed this term when they wanted to emphasize the open nature of the landscape. In the minds of Illinois explorers and pioneers, savannas were commonly considered to be the same as prairies or meadows. The term savanna was not necessarily used as it is defined today, to denote a grassland with scattered trees. Occasionally the word orchard was used in reference to areas that had widely spaced, broad-crowned trees growing amid grasses; sometimes these orchards were of wild fruit trees (plums and crabs), but there were also "oak orchards." 

Groves, Points, and Copses 

Notwithstanding the Unpleasent Situation I was in, I could not but be charmed with the Country I had pass.d. such Extensive plains, such Beautifull Groves of Timber, so Charming and Dilightfully Diversifid, are not to be found, perhaps in the Known World. 覧 Moses Austin, en route from Vincennes to Kaskaskia in January 1796. 

from Vincennes to Embaras Creek 3 french Leagues. . . . Thence to a pretty little Prairie with water in the middle 2 leagues . . . Thence 4, to the large prairie of the white Cow, pass nine points of woods at the tenth is water. 覧 Road log of Jean Baptiste Ducoigne for the trail from Vincennes to Kaskaskia, August 1796. 

Here and there a copse of woods is interspersed. They are free from bush and underwood. 覧 General Joseph Harmer, on the prairie between Vincennes and Kaskaskia in 1787. 

Three terms 覧 grove, point, and copse 覧 generally referred to the size or shape of a stand of trees, rather than describing the structure or composition of the vegetation. A woodland in a prairie region often was called a grove even ifthe woods extended for many miles along a creek and was not entirely isolated by grassland. For example, in 1832 a soldier in the Black Hawk War wrote this itinerary as he marched from Point Pleasant to Sandy Creek in Marshall County, thence across Crow Creek, Panther Creek, and the Mackinaw River, to Money Creek in McLean County: "March to point pleasant from thence to sandy grove from thence to crow creek . . . March to pigeon grove from thence to panther grove from thence to Mackinaw from thence to Money creek grove." A body of timber extending into a prairie was called a point, reminiscent of a peninsula pointing into the sea. The word copse was used with regard to an isolated group of trees; often a copse was a small thicket or clump of trees, but it could be a stand of any size. 

Barrens 

.. . we bought 80 acres of what is called the Barrens, it is not as the name seems to indicate barren, but is covered with scrubby oaks and brush, and requires grubbing before it can be plowed. 覧 Archibald Campbell, Cass County pioneer in 1856. 

Barrens were considered intermediate between prairies and timber because barrens were not densely wooded but they typically had some trees and shrubs. As a general rule, barrens were often distinguished from prairie and timber by two characteristics: barrens were shrubby, and they often had scrubby trees. Sometimes the shrubs in barrens were small and hidden among grasses; other barrens had impenetrable thickets. 

Oak Openings 

These `oak-openings' are forest-glades, undulating plains covered with close, rich turf, and dotted all over with fine groups of well-grown oak-trees; the general appearance resembling a well-kept English park, though in extent seemingly boundless. 覧 William Ferguson, author of America by River and Rail (1856). 

The term oak opening typically was applied to grassy areas with widely spaced mature trees. Sometimes, though, oak openings were characterized as being brushy or having stunted trees. Some writers used the terms oak openings and barrens interchangeably to refer to the same kind of vegetation. 

ECOLOGY AND COMPOSITION OF WOODLANDS 

Species Composition of the Overstory 

Quercus integrifolia or Quercus foliis junioribus omnibus et adultis semper integerrimis margine undulatis apice setaceis. . . . This species of oak abounds in the Illinois Country. 覧 Botanist André Michaux'snotes on the shingle oak, after he completed a journey from Vincennes to Cahokia and Fort Massac in October 1795. 

Reports by early Illinois observers provide information about the former distribution, habitats, and abundance of specific kinds of trees. For example, one of the most common and characteristic trees on the margins of woodlands in the flatwoods region of southern Illinois was the laurel oak (Quercus imbricaria, or shingle oak); the former role of this species in the presettlement vegetation may be generally under-appreciated today. As another illustration, the white walnut (Juglans cinerea, or butternut) was once widespread in forests all across the state, but its numbers appear to have been severely reduced by disease. Sugar trees (Acer saccharum, or sugar maple) were locally common, but they appear to have been fairly well restricted to locales that were well protected from fires 覧 such as steep slopes, deep ravines, and some bottomlands. 

Species Composition of the Understory and Ground Layer 

While the forest is resplendent in summer with a dazzling array of colours, in spring it is adorned with lovely plants of delicate succulent structure. The first child of spring is the blue liverwort (Hepatica triloba., D.C.), which unfolds its brilliant blossoms about the middle of March . . . . 覧 Dr. Frederick Brendel, writing for Illinois as It Is (1857). 

The earliest descriptions of the shrub layer and herbaceous vegetation of woodlands were superficial 覧 e.g., "jungles of rich and gaudy flowering plants," and "tangle of brambles, briar vines, and every sort of weeds." Botanical explorers in the early 1800s collected plant specimens but wrote little about the vegetation. Botanists in the middle 1800s produced catalogues of the flowering plants of the state or various regions, but these lists provide little more than brief notes about the habitats of individual species. Early botanists published little information about the composition of vegetation in specific natural communities. 

Detailed information about herbaceous vegetation and the woody understory of Illinois woodlands had to await the birth of the science of ecology at the turn of the century. By this time the structure and composition of Illinois woodlands had undergone substantial changes from logging, clearing, livestock grazing, and fire suppression. Yet the earliest scientific descriptions provide a valuable glimpse at a flora reminiscent of an earlier time, much different from current conditions. 

Sizes of Trees 

Many a tree could be found that would yield a log ninety-five feet long, which would first be hewed into a stick two feet wide and a foot thick,throughout its entire length. 覧 Daniel Berry, who came to White County in 1857. 

Pioneer writings and turn-of-the-century county history books often recall big trees in the Illinois wilderness. Trees three to five feet in diameter or larger were often reported, but the forest primeval was not populated solely by giants. Although trees may have averaged larger in the wilderness than they typically grow today, many wooded areas must have had a significant proportion of small trees. 

Some upland woods had relatively small trees because fires stunted them. Other woods lacked small trees because fires killed all but the larger ones. Trees on riverbanks were relatively small in places where flooding or meandering of the stream kept the forest youthful. Wooded areas sometimes were blown down by windstorms. Trees attained their greatest stature in fertile, protected bottomlands, particularly in southern Illinois. 

Robert Ridgway brought fame to the lower Wabash River valley by publishing a series of articles on its trees; Ridgway took measurements and reported that the average height of the virgin forest canopy in this region was at least 130 feet, and he estimated that some individual trees reached 200 feet or higher. He reported many species with trunk diameters greater than six feet, and he measured several sycamores and tulip trees with boles more than ten feet through. 

Effects of Fire on the Structure and Composition of Woodlands 

A wooded chain of hills runs along the Kaskaskia, in which large columns of smoke were rising, doubtless occasioned by the woods being on fire. 覧 Prince Maximilian von Wied-Neuwied, in Randolph County on March 22, 1833. 

Early writers commonly remarked about the pervasive impacts of wildfires on woods: "Where ever the land is high and dry enough for the fire to run in the spring & fall the timber is all destroyed" (Gershom Flagg in Madison County, 1818). Fires sometimes converted timber to prairie: "I have seen in places, at present completely prairie, pieces of burnt trees, proving that the prairie had been caused by fire" (Henry Brackenridge, 1814). Large trees were often spared by the flames, but repeated fires kept young trees from growing up: "When settlers first arrived here, there was no underbrush in the groves, as the spring fires always kept it down, and one could see almost as far in the groves as in the prairies" (C.G. Holbrook in Ogle County, 1837). Fires often damaged trees instead of killing them: "The old black oaks on the uplands were often useless to the settlers, so gnarled and tough were they from the constant fires of their younger days" (the Reverend E.W. Hicks in Kendall County, 1877). 

Fire affected the composition of forests. For instance, in 1877 Elmer Baldwin noted in La Salle County, "Oaks and hickories are the most hardy and least injured by fire, consequently were the only varieties on the bluffs, and if these were receding before the common enemy, it could not be expected that the more tender varieties could exist at all. . . . Black and white walnut, linden, elms, sycamore, ash, maples, etc., were found in abundance, but were not found on the bluffs, as they would be killed by a fire that would leave the oaks and hickory unscathed." 

Woodlands Associated with Slopes and Bodies of Water 

Nothing was to be seen all around but prairie, with faint lines of wood in the distance, marking the course of streams. 覧 William Ferguson, atop a railroad car at Onarga in 1855. 

Years ago . . . the city was marked by alternations of timber and prairie; timber in the ravines, along the streams, covering also the crest and river face of the bluffs; and prairie generally on the level land and the ridges which separated the ravines.Past and Present of Quincy and Adams County (1905). 

Bodies of water and steep slopes served to stop the spread of wildfires, so woodlands were most likely to have developed in the vicinity of these natural firebreaks. The most extensive woodlands were along the biggest rivers and in the hilliest districts. 

Woodlands sometimes extended onto level uplands, especially in the southern third of the state. Farther northward in Illinois, woodlands were increasingly restricted to streamsides and hilly topography, and trees were to be expected on dunes and bedrock outcrops. 

Travelers sometimes reported "not a bush or tree to be seen" on the prairies, yet they came upon fingers of woodland that followed stream courses into the prairie regions. Some of these wooded strips were broken into isolated groves by intervening grasslands. Other groves were not associated with stream valleys but were distributed across hilly morainic country or occurred on level plains. 

Woodlands More Extensive on the East and North Sides of Streams 

On the east side, it is generally lined with timber to the depth of a mile or more; but the west side is scarcely skirted with it. It is somewhat singular and unaccountable, but we found it universally to be the fact, that the east side of all the streams had much the largest portion of timber. 覧 Amos Parker, on the Fox River north of Aurora in 1834. 

Many rivers and creeks in the prairie regions of Illinois have a rough north-south alignment, and the wooded strips that bordered these streams were generally much wideron the east side than on the west side of the stream. Sometimes the west bank of a stream was nearly treeless and prairie extended all the way to the stream channel, while the east side was bordered by a wide band of timber. Where a stream flowed to the east or west through prairie country, timber was likely to be more extensive on the north side than on the south. 

This asymmetrical distribution of woodlands can be explained by the fact that winds tend to blow from the west or south at the close of the growing season, when prairies were ripe for burning. Prairie fires were swept by the wind and killed trees along the margin of the prairie, but trees on the lee side of a stream were protected from the flames. Because fires were less likely to burn against the prevailing wind, trees were more likely to escape fires on the east or north side of a stream. 

Woodlands that Burned Infrequently or Not at All 

My land was surrounded with a very heavy growth of the finest timber I ever saw, being clustered up with grape vines, that sometime we would have to cut several trees before we could make them fall to the ground . . . . 覧 W.H. Smith, who came to Fulton County in 1837. 

Some areas escaped fires for substantial periods, which allowed woodlands to develop a typical forest structure that is, a dense stand and a fairly continuous canopy of large overstory trees with tall, straight trunks, with a well-developed understory of shade-tolerant trees and shrubs, and herbaceous species that are adapted to life beneath a canopy of trees and shrubs. These forests could be found on some bottomlands and on rugged uplands where streams and steep slopes were effective firebreaks, halting the spread of fires from adjacent areas. 

People who saw these "heavily timbered" areas in virgin condition sometimes marvelled at the size of the trees, and sometimes they were vexed by the density of the undergrowth and vines. Occasionally, though, the bottomland forests were described as being remarkably free of understory trees and shrubs. Much of the woods that lined riverbanks probably did not burn very often 覧 if at all 覧 but the trees often were young because flooding and meandering of the streams kept the vegetation youthful. 

Cane 

Opposite to Harmony, on the Wabash bottom, on the Illinois side of the river, a tract of about five miles wide was occupied by a full and heavy growth of cane. Across this bottom and through this cane the Harmonites had cut a road. . . . Passing along this road, the traveler had on either hand a wall of impenetrable verdure, in many places, and for a long distance, full twenty feet in height. 覧 George Flower, recalling White County in 1817 and 1818. 

Giant cane (Arundinaria gigantea) formed dense colonies or "canebrakes" along the Wabash, Ohio, and lower Mississippi Rivers. Riverbank canebrakes were conspicuous to travelers, and cane grew on well-drained bottomlands away from the rivers. Cane grew eight or ten to 20 feet tall; several reports said that it reached 40 feet, but this height may have been attained only in Kentucky and farther south. Canebrakes were favored haunts of bison and bears; both species ate the cane, and bears sought shelter in it. Canebrakes were destroyed by pasturage of livestock, especially in the winter when the cane afforded ideal forage. The species may have also declined because of fire suppression and perhaps other unknown causes. Today's stands of Arundinaria are thin shadows of the formerly extensive, thriving colonies. 

Rushes 

. . . the banks appear every where to abound with the sand or scrubing Rush, . . . I measured a stalk of it which was 8 feet 2 inches in length & 3_ inches in circumpherence . . . . 覧 Captain Meriwether Lewis, on the Mississippi River about 10 miles above Cairo in November 1803. 

The scouring rush or horsetail (Equisetum hyemale) formed dense colonies along the riverbanks and in bottomlands of southern Illinois. This plant was generally known simply as a rush in pioneer days. Compared with today's specimens, these bamboo-like relatives of ferns were gigantic. Rushes provided ideal winter forage for cattle, and the plants were decimated by grazing. 

Pea Vines and Buffalo Clover 

marcht through broken cuntry plenty of peavine campt in peavine grove on rock River 覧 John Tilford, a soldier in the Black Hawk War, between Colona and Rock Island in August 1832. 

Explorers and settlers reported an abundance of viny legumes, or "pea vines." These plants were encountered on streambanks, in prairies, and in open wooded habitats. Pea vines provided important forage for free-ranging livestock and for the steeds of wilderness travellers, but leguminous vines are no longer as generally abundant as in the past. Pea vines probably were comprised of a number of species, including ground-nut (Apios tuberosa) and hog peanut (Amphicarpa bracteata). Another legume, buffalo clover (Trifolium reflexum), received little mention in early Illinois, and it is now an endangered species. 

Milk Sickness 

At night we Stopped and put up at the house of Mr. Stephen Boyd's. Here we fed the first Prairie hay. This family freely admitted that they had the Milk Sickness in this Section. Cant Say I like the Country here. 覧 Immigrant William Marsh, on his first day in Illinois, near Mahomet on August 14, 1853. 

Milk sickness or "trembles" affected people who drank cows' milk, and it sometimes was fatal. The cause of this affliction was long a mystery. Eventually the source of the disease was discovered to be white snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum), which grew in woodland pastures. Cows ingested a toxin when they ate white snakeroot, and people became sick when they consumed the milk of these cows. 

USES, CHANGES, AND LOSSES OF WOODLANDS 

Farming, Settlement, and Clearing of Woods 

The environs of the cabin appear very extraordinary to an European; for it is generally built in a small clear spot in the midst of a forest, and surrounded with large trees which have been girdled, and blackened with fire, till they resemble huge pillars of charcoal. 覧 William Blane, in the Little Wabash River valley in 1822. 

The earliest pioneer farmers often chose to settle at the edge of a woodland bordering an open prairie because trees provided fuel, construction material, shade, shelter from wind, partial protection from wildfires, and refuge from biting flies that swarmed the prairies. Woodlands tended to be better drained than prairies, and they did not have as much of the dense sod that resisted tillage. Wooded areas were also more likely to have a dependable supply of water in creeks and springs. 

By settling at the boundary between woodland and grassland, pioneers could reap the benefits of both environments. Many of the first roads, towns, and graveyards established by white immigrants were in open woods at the edge of a prairie. Clearing for farmland is the main reason why woodlands have been lost in Illinois; except for bottomland forests, the overall extent of this clearing reached a maximum around the turn of the century. 

Fuel and Mining 

. . . we hope you will fix and Establish a certain boundry for said Lick sufficient to suply the Lick with wood for Ever. and at the Largest Calculation three or four miles on Each side of the Saline Creek be ginning as far above the woorks as will be thought necessary Extending down to the mouth of said Creek which will be amply sufficiant . . . . 覧 Residents of Shawneetown, petitioning the Territorial Governor about the saltworks at the Saline Lick in 1811. 

The availability of wood for heating and cooking probably has always been a significant factor determining where people lived. A major settlement at Starved Rock was relocated in the late 1600s because fuelwood had been depleted around the town. 

The early mineral industry consumed vast amounts of wood for mine props, as well as to fuel fires at lead smelters and saltworks. During much of the 1800s, the United States Saline in Gallatin County was the major producer of salt in the interior of the United States, and many square miles were reserved by the Federal government to insure that enough timber would be available for the furnaces that evaporated the saltwater. Coal eventually replaced wood as the primary fuel in Illinois, and surface mining for coal has removed many hundreds of square miles of the state's woodlands. 

Construction and Woodworking 

The mightiest of the trees that one sees there are a species of cotton-wood, which are unusually stout and lofty; wherefore the savages use them to construct canoes, all of one piece, 50 feet long and 3 feet wide, in which 30 men with their baggage can embark. 覧 Louis Jolliet, reporting on the Illinois Country in 1674. 

Wood has been used to build houses and to make household articles from time immemorial. The prehistoric archaeological record shows widespread use of wood for construction, and the earliest European explorers encountered large wooden boats and wood-frame houses. Black walnut, white oak, pecan, mulberry, and sassafras were prized for construction. Black walnut was particularly exploited, and historians in the late 1800s and early 1900s bemoaned the decimation of this species. 

Food 

. . . we discover'd a Kind of Manna, which was a great Help to us. It was a Sort of Trees, resembling our Maple . . . . There being no Sugar-Canes in that Country, those Trees supply'd that Liquor, which being boil'd up and evaporated, turn'd into a kind of Sugar somewhat brownish, but very good. 覧 Henri Joutel, at Chicago in 1688. 

Woodlands provided early residents with a bounty of fruits and nuts. Species that appear most commonly in early chronicles include the persimmon, pawpaw, crabapple, blackberry, strawberry, mulberry, grape, hickory, pecan, hazelnut, and walnut. Pecan trees often were felled to secure their nuts. Locally manufactured maple syrup and sugar were staples at the home table and were important commercial items before other forms of sweetener were imported. Wild honey was often gathered by cutting down the tree that held it. 

Hide Tanning 

But of all the destructives "your ______ tanner" is the worst. He with his myrmidons sallies forth axe in hand and levels in the dust the monarchs of the wood who haply have withstood the blasts of three hundredwinters, and, having stripped them of their bark, leaves them to rot. 覧 William Oliver, Eight Months in Illinois (1843). 

Tanneries were important industries during the days of fur trapping, harness making, and leather clothing. The tanning process required oak bark, and the trees were killed when their bark was stripped. As with so many other consumptive uses of trees, the impact of the tannery industry was eclipsed as woodlands were cleared for farmland. 

Plank Roads and Railroads 

To render the streets and side walks passable, they were covered with . . . boards resting upon cross sills of heavy timber. . . . Under these planks the water was standing on the surface over three-fourths of the city, and as the sewers from the houses were emptied under them, a frightful odour was emitted in summer, causing fever and other diseases, foreign to the climate. 覧 J.L. Peyton, at Chicago in 1848. 

The 1850s saw a booming demand for timber to build wagon roads and railroads. The timber was sawed into planks to pave highways. Railroads consumed trees for ties, trestles, and fuel; railroads also fostered a rapid expansion of settlement and attendant clearing of woodlands.

Grazing

Any description of the groves of McLean County which leaves out of the statement some account of the shrubs, bushes and wild flowers or other undergrowth, will be decidedly imperfect. The deer, wild hogs, and browsing cattle left, in many places at a very early day, but few evidences of the undergrowth.History of McLean County (1908). 

Early woodlands often were rather open and grassy, so they served as pastureland. Foraging by livestock replaced wildfires as the process that kept an understory from growing up in savannas and open woodlands. The open character of many woodlands has been maintained to the present day by a continual history of grazing, but this pasturage has contributed to the decline of native woodland herbs. Grazing has also severely limited the reproduction of native overstory trees. Pasturage of woodlots has declined greatly in the past three decades, and former grazed woods have grown up with dense thickets of both native and exotic trees and shrubs.

Fire Suppression

So surely does a young growth spring up after settlement, that we could generally pretty nearly tell how long a particular section had been settled, by the size of this young growth. 覧 Editors of the Prairie Farmer, riding from Chicago to Springfield in 1844.

One of the most widely remarked natural phenomena during the pioneer era was how barrens and some other woodlands rapidly grew up into dense timber as soon as farmers settled in a region and put a stop to wildfires. Many of today's forests originated during this era of fire suppression, and they have developed in an environment in which fire is an uncommon occurrence. The nature of most Illinois woodlands has changed because fire has been effectively excluded for so long.

Early Pleas for Forest Conservation

Originally about two-thirds of the county was covered with a magnificent growth of timber, about one-third being prairie. The timber has been cut and sold or burned in the logheaps of the pioneer until now, in 1908, there is no timber worth mentioning in Marion county.Brinkerhoff's History of Marion County (1908). 

Pioneers originally worried that there would not be enough wood in the prairie regions of Illinois, but their fears were allayed when vigorous growths of trees appeared as soon as settlers halted wildfires. Accelerated and unabated destruction of woodlands eventually elicited appeals to plant trees and protect forests. In 1867 a Wisconsin forestry commission held forth Illinois as a model for woodland conservation. Trees and woodland wildflowers were focuses of fledgling conservation and nature preservation efforts in America, and Illinoisans were among the first leaders.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Research for this article was supported in part by the Illinois Department of Conservation's Wildlife Preservation Fund. Lisa Bell and Beverly Miller of Ecological Services completed part of the literature review. John Hoffmann and staff of the Illinois Historical Survey were a great help to the effort.


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