Archive for the ‘Colonial North America’ Category

The Nature of Trials of the Earth by Mary Hamilton

August 10, 2016

One of the last great stands of wilderness in eastern North America existed along the Mississippi River during the late 19th century.  Loggers ruined this environment between 1880-1910, but in Mary Hamilton’s autobiography, Trials of the Earth, she described the awesome nature of this region.  Though her book focuses on her personal life and all the tragedies and hardships her family endured, I collected all of the interesting tidbits of natural history that she wrote about.

A fascinating book about the pioneer life of a woman in Mississippi and Arkansas during the turn of the 19th century.

In 1896 Mary Hamilton, along with her 2 young children and her brother and sister, followed her husband to a logging camp on Concordia Island, Mississippi.  The island was bound by a chute of the Mississippi River and the main channel.  Her husband was a supervisor at the camp, and he was too busy to bring her himself.  Instead, he marked a wagon trail through the wilderness, and a guide (actually an inexperienced teenaged boy) helped her find the camp where she eventually worked as a cook for 30 lumberjacks.  She was accustomed to this work, having boarded over 100 lumberjacks at a previous camp.

The family settled in a big white tent.  The island consisted of a dense forest of large mature oak, sweetgum, hackberry, and tulip trees with a thick undergrowth of bamboo cane that grew all the way to the lower limbs of the tall trees.  (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2013/01/28/canebrakes-are-forlorn-landscapes/)  Closer to the river, the forest thinned out, probably because of frequent flooding, and enormous sycamores and cottonwoods grew here.

The lumberjacks felled the trees and lashed them together in rafts to be tugged down the river to sawmills.  Some species of trees float, while others sink, so the lumberjacks had to lash “floaters” with “sinkers.”  Sweetgum and oak sink and had to be lashed to cottonwood, ash, or cypress.

Some species of trees sink, while others float.  Lumberjacks had to lash logs from “floaters” with logs from “sinkers” when they sent them downstream to the mills.

This is how people with wagons crossed rivers before bridges were built.  People who owned the ferry charged for its usage.

Mary’s younger brother was an accident prone Gomer Pyle type, and her husband was afraid he would hurt himself or somebody else, if they put him to work as a lumberjack.  Therefore, they assigned him the task of hunting and fishing to supplement their supplies.  It was difficult to supply this camp with food.  During times of high water, wagons couldn’t reach the camp, and supply wagons occasionally got lost in the wilderness and never arrived.  Sometimes the man in charge of the supply wagon ignored the grocery list and bought candy and cakes instead of the staples they needed.  So hunting was useful.  Deer and black squirrels were abundant.  Apparently, the black phase of the fox squirrel (Scirius niger) was the only species of squirrel on this island.  This surprises me because gray squirrels (Scirius carolinensis) prefer the kind of dense forest Mary describes.  In the south fox squirrels generally prefer more open woodlands.

Black phase of the fox squirrel.

One day Mary’s brother encountered a mother bear playing with her cubs.  He threw down his gun and ran for his life, yelling “there’s a dozen lions after me.”  Bears were plentiful on the island, and the lumberjacks’ diet here included bruin along with local beef and pork (wild hogs ran wild everywhere) and corned beef from New Orleans.  Animals took advantage of the lumber camp as a source of food as well.  A bear stole a quarter of a beef left to hang outside one night.  Raccoons, opossums, and bobcats fought over the camp garbage every night, and Mary heard panthers screaming and wolves howling nightly.  Later, when her family moved to an homestead on the nearby Sunflower River she insisted her husband shine the lantern on her when she went outside to bring in the laundry every night  because she heard a panther screaming regularly on both sides of the river.  People didn’t know much about panthers and wolves then and were very afraid of them. Mary didn’t consider all nature unpleasant.  She liked to hear the birds and frogs in the spring, and one day she collected 5 gallons of blackberries the size of Guinea hen eggs.  The rich delta soil produced berries larger than modern cultivated ones sold in farmer’s markets.

Mary’s husband built a “freshwater shrimp” trap for her brother.  The trap worked and captured bags of “shrimp” everyday, but her brother didn’t know “shrimp” meant crawfish.  He always threw away the crawfish until he was informed of his ignorance.

The Mississippi River shifted direction during their time on Concordia Island.  This caused a near disaster.  The river started eroding the bank overhanging all the rafts of lumber.  The rafts could have become covered in sediment and lost.  They immediately sent for tugboats that hauled the floating rafts and most of the logs were saved.  This event, referred to as “sloughing,” must have been an impressive sight.  Trees fell into the river, and the sediment collapsing made a “boom, boom” sound.

Next, Mary’s family moved to a lumber camp near the Sunflower River, a tributary of the Yazoo.  This region too was all canebrake and woods where panthers screamed and wolves howled every night.  Getting water at this camp was laborious and difficult.  Iron pipes were driven into the ground to reach well water, but oftentimes this was hard water high in magnesium and calcium.  Hard water is safe for drinking but can’t be used for washing dishes or clothes.  Mary softened the water by adding lye made from wood ashes.  The addition of a base binds the calcium and magnesium ions, making the water usable for cleaning.  Too much water became a bigger problem at this camp.  Rainy weather flooded all the surrounding bayous, isolating the camp from civilization, and they ran short of food.  They realized the rising water was going to completely inundate the camp and the wooden clapboard house where they were living.  So Mary’s husband cut a path through a canebrake that led to an Indian mound located above the floodplain, and he built a small boat.  The boat wasn’t big enough for all of them, and he had to make 2 trips to save his wife and 3 children.  Mary waited with her 5 year old daughter and infant son for 6 hours, while her husband carried their other small child to safety and returned.  She spent all this time standing on a chair on the highest ground, holding her baby and comforting her young daughter.  The baby slept the entire time, despite the rain.  She saw a bear, deer, rabbits, mice, and snakes swimming by them, looking for high ground.

Tornadoes often storm up the Mississippi River valley, then turn inland and smash through forest.  Mary describes one such area that was known as “the cyclone,” an area estimated to be at least 36 square miles.  “The cyclone,” located near the present day site of the Parchman State Penitentiary, was an eerie landscape without a single standing tree.  Instead, the ground was littered with fallen timber covered in grapevines, poison oak, and thorny brier bushes.  Ecologists call these environments windthrows.  This windthrow was on rich soil and hosted luxuriant tangles of vegetation, making the area impassable.  Mary tells the story of a well-liked Jewish paymaster who chose to take a shortcut through “the cyclone” rather than travel the 5 mile path around it.  He was bringing the pay to a neighboring lumber camp.  He got lost for 4 days and went half-mad from panic and dehydration.  The thorns tore all his clothing off as he scrambled through the briers.  Search parties failed to find him.  He finally wandered close to the camp, completely naked and incoherent but with the money in his hand.

Mary Hamilton described an area near the present day site of Parchman Penitentiary as “the cyclone.”  It was a windthrow of at least 36 square miles covered in an impenetrable stand of vines, briers, and cane.

Mary worked hard most of her life, but shortly after she married she did enjoy a bit of a vacation in Missouri where she stayed with friends by the Castor River.  Here, she learned how to fish.  She mostly caught bass, but on one early morning before anyone else was awake she caught an eel.  This sent her screaming in terror back to the house.  She was so scared she didn’t let go of the rod and carried the eel to the front door.  Mary wanted to get rid of it, but her husband was from England where eel is considered a delicacy, and he prepared it for supper.  One kind of fish that Mary caught here was referred to as a “white salmon.”  It took a little research, but I determined her “white salmon” was actually a walleye (Sender vitreus).  The old Ozark term for walleye is “jack salmon.” 

Mary caught bass, an eel, and walleye (which she called “white salmon”) in the Castor River.

I’d like to live in a wilderness where panthers scream and wolves howl every night.  And it would be rewarding to live off the land, gardening and raising animals for food.  But I wouldn’t want to do this without modern conveniences.  Mary worked from dawn to past dusk for most of her life.  I envy the wilderness she got to see but not the hard life she endured.

 

 

Landscape Paintings by Philip Juras

July 9, 2015

The kind of natural environments I’d like to see are either extinct or currently exist as tiny remnants.  It’s too hot this time of year to get in a car and drive for hours to visit any of these remnant landscapes.  Instead, I like to relax and open up a book entitled The Southern Frontier: Landscapes Inspired by Bartram’s Travels by Philip Juras.  This artist paints landscapes that were once common across the southeast but now exist as rare relics.  In some cases the environments he portrays no longer exist at all, and he has to base his work on descriptions William Bartram made about his travels through the region in 1775/1776.

My favorite landscape is the open oak savannah of the piedmont region.  I’ve written a series for my blog about my imaginary life in a wilderness located in the Georgia piedmont 36,000 years ago.  I envision my wilderness homestead surrounded by open oak savannah as depicted in the below illustrations.

Old growth oak savannah painted by Philip Juras. Imagine centuries old trees with a grassy understory.

Painting of an old growth oak savannah at Sprewell Bluff.  Imagine bison, horses, and mammoths here as they were during the Pleistocene.

Anthony Shoals on the Broad River.  This is what Piedmont rivers originally looked like.  If I lived near these shoals during the Pleistocene, I’d set fish traps up here.

Depiction of the Kiowee Valley, South Carolina as it was in 1775.  Today, this valley is inundated by a reservoir.  This is so beautifulWhat do I like best about it?  No sign of people.

Evidence from pollen records shows that the abundance of oaks and other hardwoods increased while the abundance of pine decreased during warm interstadials and interglacials.   Broad-leafed trees outcompete pines in climates with greater precipitation, milder temperatures, and higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  Conversely, pines predominate over broad-leafed trees in colder windier conditions with lower atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, such as occurred during Ice Age stadials.  Natural fires and the grazing, trampling, and foraging of megafauna kept oak woodlands more open during the Pleistocene than modern day woods.  Later, Indians frequently set fire to the woods, maintaining these primeval oak savannahs.  Light grass fires killed saplings, but mature oaks are fire resistant, and burned grass re-sprouts from underground roots.

I like oak savannahs because this type of environment supports a large population of wildlife, and the open nature allows for easy wildlife viewing.  During the Pleistocene a piedmont oak savannah was home for mammoth, bison, horse, peccaries, tapir, deer, elk (probably not until 15,000 BP), llamas, and bear.  Predators attracted to these prey species included saber-tooth, giant lion, jaguar, cougar, bobcat, dire wolf, and coyote.  Squirrels were even more abundant than they are today, and cottontails thrived in thickets left per chance unburned.  Big flocks of turkeys, passenger pigeons, and hundreds of species of songbirds frequented oak savannah.  Just imagine all the wildlife that could be seen from just a glance out the window of a homestead built in the middle of a Pleistocene piedmont oak savannah.

Philip Juras did find a rare remnant of an oak savannah in western Georgia located in Sprewell Bluff State Park.  When I drive through the countryside, I occasionally see an acre or so with old growth oaks and a grassy understory.  I remember seeing an example of this environment on the other side of the road near the base of Ladds Mountain in Bartow County.  This environment is rare now because men have clear cut and cultivated so much of the original landscape.  When the land is eventually left fallow, it doesn’t come back like it used to be.  Men suppress fires and build roads that act as firebreaks.  The native grasses no longer occur in the seed bank, and the soil has been used and eroded.  The trees grow thick on poor soil without light grass fire tinder.  It’s nothing like it used to be.  Pines predominate in the piedmont today, but circa 1704 John Lawson traveled a day through the North Carolina piedmont without seeing a single pine tree.  Instead, the land was covered by oaks and other hardwoods.

Since Philip Juras published his book, he’s continued painting landscapes.  He’s traveled to Little St. Simon’s Island, Martha’s Vineyard, and Colombia.  He’s posted these new paintings on his website http://www.philipjuras.com/  Here’s 1 of my favorite new paintings of his.

This is a freshwater wetland known as Goose  Pond on Little St. Simon’s Island.

Escaped Slaves Lived a Primitive Life in the Great Dismal Swamp Wilderness

March 21, 2015

The geological origin of the Great Dismal Swamp is similar to that of the Okefenokee.  Formerly, the Atlantic Ocean extended over both locations.  The Okefenokee region emerged above sea level early during the Pleistocene about 2 million years ago, while the location of what was to become the Great Dismal didn’t emerge above sea level until about 100,000 years ago.  Ocean currents deposited a layer of impermeable clay over both locations, explaining why drainage is so poor.  For most of the Wisconsinian Ice Age pine and spruce forests along with wet meadows and acidic bogs covered most of what’s now the Great Dismal.  Though climate was drier during cold stadials, the cooler temperatures meant a slower evapotranspiration rate, allowing for the existence of wetlands.  There was likely an influx of northern hardwoods during warmer interstadials.  Pollen studies show pine and spruce gave way to beech/hemlock forests about 13,000 calendar years ago, and oak hickory forests dominated during the middle of the Holocene when climate became hot and dry.  But about 4000 years ago, the swamp began to develop its modern characteristics.

A combination of alternating drought, fire, and tropical storms created marshes consisting of high grass, reeds, and bamboo cane covered with tangles of greenbrier and vines.  Impenetrable stands of fire-adapted white cedar grew in some places, and cypress and tupelo forests prevailed in the wettest areas.  The peat from generations of dead grass and reeds added to the impermeability of the soil, but when drought dried the peat, lightning storms ignited it.  The burning of layers of peat actually lowered elevation in places, creating large shallow lakes. The Great Dismal originally encompassed 2000 square miles.  Few ventured into this vast wilderness where thick plant growth stymied the advance of man on foot or horseback.  This made the Great Dismal an ideal hiding place for persecuted Indians, escaped slaves known as Maroons, and white outlaws.

The Great Dismal Swamp originally covered about 2000 square miles between Chesapeake Bay and Albemarle Sound. Most of it was drained and now there are just 200 square miles left.

The  Maroons lived in wattle and daub houses.  They either learned this construction technique from the Indians or they remembered how to make it from when they lived in Africa. Humans have been making dwellings from tree branches and clay for at least 6000 years. How ingenious.

 

A Native American Morrow Mountain point

Indian projectile point believed to have been reworked by escaped slaves known as Maroons.

Dan Sayers supervises archaeological excavations of small islands within the Great Dismal.  He believes islands within the swamp were home for thousands of people between 1700-1865.  The people who lived here had few material possessions and lived such a primitive life that little physical evidence remains.  Their wattle and daub houses, made with woven sticks and muddy clay, have long rotted away, and termites have consumed just about every wood artifact.  Nevertheless, he’s found foundation post holes of their dwellings and digging around the vicinity often yields artifacts, including re-used lead shot, gun flint, glass, and iron nails.  The Maroons were so desperate for tools, they even remade Indian projectile points.  What to us would be a curious artifact was for them an essential tool for survival.

Americans began digging canals in an attempt to drain the swamp in 1823.  (George Washington was 1 of the 12 original American owners of the swamp but he sold his share early on.) Maroons worked on the canals in trade for goods they needed.  The engineers in charge of excavating the canals were not always strict about enslaving every black person they encountered.  Efforts to raid the Maroon hide-outs were futile because the Maroons knew their way around the swamp better than the “lawmen” who always got lost looking for them.

It’s too bad the Maroons were illiterate and left no written record of their experiences in the Great Dismal.  Their experiences would have been of great interest to the naturalist.  J.F.D. Smythe was an English loyalist who hid in the Great Dismal from angry revolutionaries.  He did write about the Maroons in 1790 when he finally made it back to England.  He reported that the runaway slaves lived there for 10-30 years on corn, hogs, and chickens they raised.

I’m sure the Maroons depended heavily upon trapping small mammals, turtles, and fish.  It would have been difficult for them to access firearms and ammunition, so I don’t think they often exploited the abundant bear and deer populations. Instead, animals such as marsh rabbits and snapping turtles served as more attainable sources of protein.  Marsh rabbits lived on the islands with them.  Slaves were known to set fire to fields where marsh rabbits lived.  Rabbits fleeing the fire could be clubbed by the hundreds. Brave waders could catch snapping turtles and catfish by hand.  Catching catfish by hand is called “noodling,” a technique the Maroons probably learned from the Indians.  It’s possible to catch snapping turtles without injury, if the shell is grasped from behind where their jaws can’t reach.

The primitive conditions of living in the Great Dismal were difficult, but it beat living in bondage.  The Great Dismal has been drained and reduced to just 200 square miles, but that’s still enough territory for archaeologists to get lost in.  A fugitive could still potentially hide here, but prisoners probably have a better life than a person eking out a living in this bug-infested environment.  Also, the primitive skills to survive here have been lost in our modern “tech savvy” culture, and I doubt a single inmate in North Carolina or Virginia would last long here.

References:

Levy, Gerald

“The Vegetation of the Great Dismal Swamp: A Review and Overview”

Virginia Journal of Science Winter 1991

Unnamed Author

“Digging up the Secrets of the Great Dismal Swamp”

Popular Archaeology April 2011

The Pennsylvania Mammal Holocaust of 1760–A Rare Record of an Old-Fashioned “Varmint” Drive

July 27, 2014

The old timey pioneers did not appreciate wildlife or wilderness at all.  They saw their environment as a dismal wasteland filled with vermin, a word later Americanized to varmint.  Today, what most consider a beautiful animal was then viewed as a wealth-destroying scourge.  During the 18th century most people didn’t hold large amounts of money in banks but instead measured their wealth in the quantity and quality of the agricultural produce the land they owned produced. There was an economic basis behind their desire to exterminate all competing large mammals because if herds of deer ate their corn or a pack of wolves ripped apart their sheep, they would be financially ruined.  Nevertheless, the methods they used to accomplish this goal of ridding the countryside of varmints seems appalling to modern sensibilities.  One of the methods was known as a ring hunt.  Ring hunts were especially popular in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and settlers used them annually from about 1750-1850.  By the middle of the 19th century, all large wild animals had been completely extirpated from these 2 states.  Ring hunts were popular social events where men got together to enjoy the wonton slaughter of animals.  Few of the participants had any scientific interest in the composition of the animals they killed, and accordingly, the results of most of these murder parties have been forgotten.  However, 1 detailed account has been handed down to us.

A man known as Black Jack Shwartz led a ring hunt in Snyder County, Pennsylvania about 1760.  (Shwartz must have been a charismatic leader because he was previously known to have headed a group of volunteer sharpshooters for General Braddock during the French and Indian War.)  Shwartz organized a group of 200 settlers into a ring surrounding about 30 square miles of wilderness near the Mahantengo Creek, a tributary of the Susquehanna River.  The Mahantengo, translated from the local Indian language, means “where we had plenty of meat to eat.”  The name suggests this region was particularly rich in game, although at this early date wilderness still bordered the young city of Philadelphia, and wild animals ranged throughout the state.  The hunters, standing at intervals about 200 yards apart, made bonfires, rang bells, and fired their muskets into the air, while gradually advancing toward a cleared area in the middle of the circle.  They drove all the wild mammals into the clearing, then shot and killed 1200 of them.  Hundreds of animals did escape.  Faced with a choice between a concentration of wolves, cougars, and bears or puny but noisy humans, hundreds of bison, along with some deer and elk, stampeded through the perimeter and broke free.  This probably explains why the ratio of carnivores in the final talley is so unusually high.  The death toll included 198 white-tail deer, 111 bison, 2 elk, 109 wolves, 112 foxes, 41 cougars, 114 bobcats and/or Canadian lynx, 17 black bears, 1 white bear, 12 wolverines, 3 fishers, 3 beavers, 1 otter, and 500 smaller mammals probably consisting of assorted rabbits, squirrels, possums, raccoons, and skunks.  It seems amazing that such a concentration of wildlife lived in just a 30 square mile area, but other written accounts from Kentucky and Oklahoma also claim high numbers of animals in places prior to the advancement of civilization into formerly pristine environments.

Map of Pennsylvania highlighting Snyder County 

Location of Snyder County, Pennsylvania where pioneers wiped out most of the large mammals within a 30 square mile area in a day.  “Varmint” drives such as this were common in the 18th century, explaining how wildlife rapidly disappeared in the east. 

An albino black bear mother.  The white bear killed in Pennsylvania during a “varmint” drive was probably an albino black bear but may have been a polar bear straggler. (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2012/09/16/a-polar-bear-ursus-maritimus-fossil-in-breck-smith-cave-kentucky/)

Photo: Wolverine, Gulo gulo.

Wolverines lived in Pennsylvania til about 1865.  A total of 3 were killed in the 1760 circle hunt.

A few choice cuts of meat and a few hides were taken, but most of the dead animals were placed in a pile as “high as the trees.”  This was set on fire, creating a stench that forced some settlers to leave their cabins, even though they lived 3 miles away.  According to the author of the below reference, a mound, within which bones from this mammal holocaust were interred, still marked the site in 1917.  I wonder whether this mound is still there today.

The local Indians were so furious over this destruction of their food supply that they later ambushed and killed Black Jack Shwartz.  They also murdered 12 settlers.  But these murders did not discourage the settlers.  Instead, the settlers continued to hold annual ring hunts, purposefully aggravating the Indians.  The settlers took joy in poking the Indians in the eye.  They held ring hunts as much to insult the Indians as to eliminate varmints.  Ring hunts helped the settlers starve the Indians, while protecting their crops and livestock. 

The concept of a ring hunt is especially revolting to the modern day naturalist.  There are no National Parks east of the Mississippi that host the variety and numbers of wildlife killed in just the 1 ring hunt for which we have a detailed record.  I wish I could live in a wilderness where wildlife was that abundant, yet other people who did have that opportunity chose to destroy it rather than enjoy it.  How ironic.

Reference:

Shoemaker, H.

Extinct Pennsylvania Animals

Altoona Tribune Press 1917

 

 

 

https://archive.org/stream/extinctpennsylva00shoe#page/n9/mode/2up

 

William Bartram’s Visit to St. Simons Island in 1774

July 10, 2014

I didn’t go to St. Simons Island this summer as I’d initially planned, but I wasn’t disappointed.  I’m sure the island is not as interesting as it was when William Bartram visited it in the spring of 1774.  Bartram stayed for a few days with James Spalding, then the president of the settlement of Frederica and a merchant involved in the Indian trade.  Although a remnant of an old growth maritime forest has been preserved for the modern day naturalist to enjoy, Bartam had the opportunity to see the island when it was mostly undeveloped.  One day, he left Frederica on horseback to survey the island.  Thick groves of live oaks surrounded the town.

500 year old live oak on John’s Island South Carolina.  There may have been quite a few trees of this age on St. Simons Island when Bartram visited in 1774.

Bartram rode through the virgin live oak woods and found a “beautiful green savannah” about 2 square miles in extent.  Long-horned cattle, horses, sheep, and deer fed in this natural pasture.  On the other side of this savannah, he followed an old road that had fallen into disrepair.  The road went through an open woodland of live oaks and longleaf pines spread far enough apart that grass and shrubs could grow in the understory.  The road ended after 5-6 miles when he reached an impenetrable thicket growing on a sandhill.  The thicket was composed of live oak, myrtle, holly, beautyberry, silverbell, alder buckthorn, hoptrees, bully trees, hornbeam, and bignonia.  Several of these species are evergreen and subtropical.  Greenbriar vines covered the thicket, and there was a salt marsh on the other side of the sandhill.  Bartram referred to it as a “salt plains.”

Bartram did find a freshwater creek between the forest and the salt marsh.  Here, he rested and enjoyed the fragrant beauty of diamond frost, morning glory, lycium (a thorny plant in the nightshade family), scarlet sage, and white lily; all of which were blooming in April.

Diamond Frost Euphorbia Diamond frost in the Euphorbia genus.  It is related to the more famous Christmas poinsetta.  This is one of the flowers Bartram saw growing on St. Simons Island.  Actually, it is the leaves that look like flowers. 

Bartram turned south and found the beach where he saw living and dead starfish, corals, jellyfish, snails, whelks, clams, and squid; all washed upon the sand.  He left the uninhabited beach and headed west, coming across 50-60 beehives lined up in a grove of oaks and palms.  He met a farmer and beekeeper who was resting upon a bearskin rug after a morning spent hunting and fishing.  The man gave Bartram venison and honey-sweetened water spiked with brandy.  They had a picnic amidst the mockingbirds, painted buntings, and hummingbrids.  Jasmine, honeysuckle, and azaleas scented the air. 

William Bartram met a farmer and beekeeper on St. Simons Island who was lounging outside on a beer skin rug while drinking brandy mixed with honey and water.  He must have caught the bear raiding his bee hives.

 ©Zachary_Huang 

An apiary.  Beekeepers and bears do not get along.

On his way back to Frederica, Bartram saw many abandoned plantations.  Even Fort Frederica itself, still manned at the time by a small garrison, was falling apart.  Peach, fig, and pomegranate trees grew through the broken walls.  General Oglethorpe had ordered the construction of the fort 60 years earlier, but funds in 1774 were not available to maintain it.

Fort Frederica on St. Simons Island, Georgia.  General Oglethorpe ordered it built circa 1712 to repel any possible invading colonial force such as the Spanish.  By 1774 it was already in ruins.

I envy the bucolic life of the farmer that Bartram met.  The man had half of St. Simons Island to himself.  For an 18th century existence, this was living in paradise.  Poor city folks in London then were lucky if they had bread.  But this man lived on a beautiful plantation with quite a variety of food available from both land and sea.  On the other hand, he didn’t have air conditioning and television.  And the bikini had yet to be invented.  Today, his plantation has been transmogrified into a landscape of condos built as closely together as possible.  If this farmer could visit the present day for a week, I wonder if he would envy our modern life as I envy his or would he wish to return to his old life.  I wonder…would he trade places with me?

The Nature of 12 Years a Slave

May 21, 2014

Some past Oscar winners are so bad they’re unwatchable, but 12 Years a Slave is a great movie that topped a lot of other really good movies released in 2013.  The setting of the movie is primarily in Louisiana between 1841-1853.  Because this region was frontier wilderness then, the movie inspired me to read the book for insight into the area’s natural history.  Most of this essay will focus on this natural history, but first I want to comment on the literary quality of the book, and an odd misconception of slavery I found while researching this topic.

12 Years a Slave is the true story of Solomon Northrup, a freed black man, who was kidnapped and forced into slavery for 12 years until he was rescued by his white friend from New York.  Solomon Northrup is credited with authoring the book–it is his story.  But he had an excellent ghost writer by the name of David Wilson.  Though Northrup was not illiterate, he had been forbidden to read or write for 12 years, and there is no way such an unpracticed individual could have produced such a well written book without professional writing help.  Some of the best books I’ve ever read were written by ghost writers.  Ozzie Osboure had an amazing ghost writer for his biography.  Ozzie is admittedly illiterate due to a learning disability.  Moreover, it’s difficult to understand his mumbling speech.  Nevertheless, Ozzie’s ghost writer did a fantastic job capturing his voice, just as Wilson captured Solomon’s voice.

Northrup

Portrait of Solomon Northrup.  When one of his psychopathic slave-owners attacked him with an axe, he fled into a virgin bottomland forest and saw dozens of alligators and hundreds of cottonmouth water moccasins in just 24 hours.

While researching this topic, I came across a stupid blogger who claimed slaves were well off because they had room and board.   This is a surprisingly prevalent revisionist view among some right-wingers. I wonder if any of these right-wingers would be willing to trade room and board for whippings, forced labor, rape, and being separated from their children forever.  What kind of cuckoo land propaganda brainwashes these delusional dumb asses?

Solomon Northrup endured 4 “masters.”  One was a nice guy, though, of course, misguided; two were greedy sadists, and another was an homicidal maniac.  One day, the homicidal maniac tried to kill Solomon with an axe.  Fortunately, Solomon was able to overpower this crazy little dude and choke him unconcious, giving him time to flee into a virgin bottomland swamp. (This scene was not depicted in the movie.) When Tibeats, the name of this psycho, revived, he jumped on his horse and sought the help of professional slave trackers who used a pack of a vicious type of mutt to hunt down slaves.

Virgin bottomland forest of cottonwood and hackberry in Louisiana.  The forest Solomon fled through was swampier than this and had cypress and tupelo giants growing in it.

This  dog is known (if you’ll excuse the ugly adjective) as a nigger hound.  It isn’t actually a hound but rather a cross between an old fashioned working bulldog and a mastiff.  Slave-owners used them to hunt down escaped slaves.

The standard slave hunting dog, known variously as a Cuban bloodhound or nigger hound, was not an hound at all but rather a cross between an old fashioned  American bulldog and a mastiff.  In Louisiana most slaves were easily captured because few knew how to swim, and eventually they’d reach a bayou they could not cross.  The dogs would either tree the slave or trap them against the watery barrier.  Dogs often seriously injured or killed slaves before the trackers could catch up to them. Solomon knew how to swim and successfully escaped the dogs by fleeing deep into the swamp and losing his scent in the numerous watercourses.  He found himself inside a virgin bottomland forest of immense trees consisting of cypress, tupelo, oak, and sycamore.  Tree frogs croaked constantly as Solomon navigated around alligators and cottonmouth water moccasins.  He claimed to have seen over 100 of the latter during 12 hours of daylight.  He traveled all night and eventually found his way back to his old “master” who still owned the deed on him, though he had mortgaged him to Tibeats.  (Slaves were traded in lieu of cash for debts.)  Ford, the nicer “master,” convinced Tibeats to rent Solomon to another plantation-owner instead of punishing him for fending off the axe attack.  Tibeats later sold Solomon to a greedy sadist who whipped slaves almost daily.

Solomon later learned of a trick slaves could use to keep nigger hounds from tracking them, though he never again dared attempt a direct escape.  He knew of an escaped slave that built an hut in the wilderness and lived there for a year before she returned to the plantation.  The plantation dogs refused to track her because when no one was looking, she had intimidated the dogs and showed the dogs she was dominant over them.  Solomon often had to supplement his diet with raccoon or oppossum, and he used a club and the plantation dogs to hunt these critters.  When he was in the woods with the dogs, he’d become dominant over them, so that if he ever tried to escape again, they’d refuse to track him.

The ration Solomon received was miserable–cornmeal, maggoty bacon, and the occasional sweet potato.  With no cooking utensils he had to subsist on unleavened cornbread baked in ashes–in other words…a dog biscuit.  The bacon was often so infested with fly spawn it was not edible.  He built a box fish trap and baited it with corn dough, and this supplied him with most of his daily protein.  He didn’t write what kind of fish he caught, other than they tasted good.  The nearby Allemande Lake is known as the “catfish capitol of the world.”  Solomon likely caught channel, flathead, and blue catfish in his trap.

The area where Solomon slaved for most of his days in captivity is known as Bayou Beouf, named for all the feral longhorn cattle that formerly abounded in this neighborhood. These longhorn cattle were wild descendents of cows the Spanish brought from Europe.  This is a dangerous breed capable of fending off large predators.  There were also planty of feral hogs here.

La Bayou Boeuf was named after all the feral and semi-tame cattle that roamed the region when Americans first settled in this wilderness.  The cattle descended from those brought to Texas from Spain.

When Solomon was first brought to Louisiana he stayed at Ford’s plantation in “The Big Piney Woods.”  This plantation was located in the middle of a longleaf pine savannah–a now rare type of environment that formerly covered most of the southeast’s coastal plain.  While working for Ford, he also encountered Chickasaw Indians, still living in the region.

Tibeats rented Solomon to a man in the process of clearing a forest on his plantation.  To reach this territory, Solomon’s party traveled through a massive canebrake–a huge monotypical stand of bamboo cane, also a now rare environment that formerly was commonplace.  This is how he describes it:

“After passing through Baton Rouge swamp, and just at sunset, turning from the highway, we struck into the “Big Cane Brake.”  We followed an unbeaten track, scarcely wide enough to admit the wagon.  The cane, such as are used for fishing rods, were as thick as they could stand.  A person could not be seen through them the distance of a rod.  The paths of the wild beasts run through them in various directions–the bear and the American tiger abounding in these brakes, and wherever there is a basin of stagnant water, it is full of alligators.”–Solomon Northrup 1853

Apparently, jaguars occurred as far east as Louisiana until as late as 1887 (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2012/09/26/how-recently-did-the-jaguar-panthera-onca-roam-eastern-north-america/)  Early colonists referred to them as “the American tiger” to distinguish them from a cougar which they called “panther.”

Brutal: The 20-stone cat sunk its teeth into the eight-foot reptile before dragging it back across the water and into the jungle

Jaguar killing a caiman.  Solomon Northrup and the early Louisiana settlers referred to jaguars as the “American tiger.”  They abounded in an area known as the “Big Canebrake.”

Solomon didn’t mind the hard work of cutting down trees, but the mosquitoes and gnats were intolerable in this virgin swamp forest on the other side of the Big Cane Brake.

We may consider outselves more enlightened than people were in the 19th century, but I’m certain there are just as many greedy sadists and violent psychopaths now as there were then.  The wilderness, however, is gone.  I prefer the wildernes over humanity.

The Land Walt Disney Ruined

May 12, 2014

1,145,956 people live in Orange County, Florida today, making it one of the most crowded colonies of Homo sapiens in the United States.  A satellite view of this county reveals a densely packed network of suburbs surrounding the many lakes that dot this once beautiful piece of real estate.  It appears as if green space has been entirely extinguished here.  Walt Disney is responsible for much of the ungodly mess Orange County has become.  He created Disney world, a shitty tourist trap constructed between 1965-1972.  In my opinion the entertainment value of Disney World is nil, and a blank television screen is preferable to 95% of the series presently aired on Disney-owned ABC network.  I can’t understand how even small children are entertained by the imbecilic cartoon characters created by Disney’s company.  Ironically, the man behind Bambi destroyed more deer habitat than any other business criminal in history.  It disgusts me how the real interesting fauna of Florida has been replaced by artificial anthropomorphized animals.

Map of Florida highlighting Orange County

Orange County, Florida.

Walt Disney with one of his imbecilic cartoon characters.  Real animals are far more interesting than Mickey Mouse.

There were at least 7 different types of natural communities that formerly made up the landscape of Orange County.  In 1774 William Bartram found hardwood hammocks growing on the lake shores and islands within the lakes in north central Florida.  The tree composition consisted of live oak, palm, magnolia, orange, and many other temperate and subtropical species.  Orange trees were not native to Florida but Indians widely planted this fruit from seeds they obtained from early Spanish colonists 200 years earlier.  Large orange groves, abandoned by declining Indian populations, were being invaded by native trees in some places.  Other wild fruit trees included papaya (Carica papaya), tallow plum (Ximenia americana), coco plum (Chrysohailaanos icaco), and pawpaw (Asimina triloba).  Ivy and grape vines covered the hammocks and spectacular flowers such as hibiscus grew in the understory.

Hibiscus coccineus.  Bartram found stalks of this flower growing 12 feet tall.

Silver Glen Springs in Ocala National Forest.  The numerous springs and lakes of Orange County acted as firebreaks protecting hardwood hammocks that would have otherwise been converted to longleaf pine savannah.

Florida has more thunderstorms and lighting strikes than any other region of North America.  Accordingly, lighting ignited wildfires shaped the most common type of environment found in Orange County.  Lakes acted as firebreaks that protected hardwood hammocks, but longleaf pine savannahs predominated on uplands away from water.  Widely spaced pines with grassy understories supported lots of wildlife.  Great herds of bison, feral longhorn cattle, horses, and deer used to roam the savannah along with mighty flocks of cranes and turkeys.  Burrowing owls and caracaras preferred the heavily grazed grasslands where they had a good view of potential threats.  By contrast the now nearly extinct grasshopper sparrow preferred to nest in tufts of bunchgrass perchance left ungrazed.  This species requires large ranges because the type of habitat they need is ephemeral, annually disappearing in some areas and appearing in others.  A slight dip in elevation of only a few inches differentiated 2 similar but distinct natural communites–dry longleaf pine savannah and wet pond pine savannah.  They shared some species of flora and fauna but carried many different species as well.  Crayfish for example preferred the latter.

Sand scrub habitat hosted gopher tortoises, a species Bartram referred to as abundant in 1774 but has probably been extirpated from modern day Orange County.  There are many commensal species that co-occur with the gopher tortoises, including the spectacular indigo snake.

Gopher Tortoise Burrow

Gopher tortoises, now endangered, were formerly abundant on all areas of Florida with sandy soils.

Cypress swamps with 1000 year old specimens grew in low lying areas.  Drought or storm-killed trees attracted the now extinct ivory-billed woodpecker.  This bird required freshly killed trees infested with beetle larva.  Some cypress trees were exceptionally large, and they were covered with Spanish moss.  The myriads of mosquitoes made these swamps a paradise for several species of bats that nested in cypress snags.  Mosquito county was the original name of Orange County.

An 1000 year old, 90 foot tall cypress tree in Louisiana.  Trees this age used to be common in Orange County.

Some low lying areas were treeless marshes where grasses and sedges grew.  This was the habitat of the marsh rabbit and many species also found on the savannahs.

Swamprabbit

Marsh rabbit.  The artificial Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck replaced this real living and breathing animal in Orange County.  Walt Disney, a so-called animal lover, hypocritically destroyed most of the marsh rabbit habitat here.

Modern lakes in Orange County are often polluted from fertilizer runoff.  Gizzard shad are the only species of fish to thrive in these algal blooms.  Formerly, these lakes supported much higher largemouth bass populations that fed alligators and wading birds.  Wintering ducks and geese used to be much more abundant.

Bartram wrote that the most common songbirds in Florida were green jays, loggerhead shrikes, and rufous-sided towhees.  I’m sure the jays he saw were the Florida scrub jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens); rare now but still present in Florida.  Bartram must have been color blind because there is no green on this bird.  Green jays occur no farther north than the Rio Grande, but there was a species of green jay that lived in Florida during warm stages of the Pleistocene.  Bartram is the only person to record the king vulture in Florida–a bird that today is restricted to tropical regions of South America.  He saw them scavenging reptiles unable to escape wild fires.

Bartram saw bears, wolves, and bobcats in Florida.  Bears fed on oranges and wild fruits.  The Florida black bear is the largest subspecies of Ursus americanus, thanks to the year round foraging opportunities that preclude the need for hibernation here.

Rock Springs is a Pleistocene fossil site located in Orange County, Florida.  It yielded a typical Rancholabrean large mammal fauna.  For a list of species found at the site here’s a link to a wikipedia article. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orange_County,_Florida_paleontological_sites).  Rock Springs is a good avifossil site.  The abundant fossils of ducks and wading birds show that wetlands have often been common here.

Orange County was still a sportsman’s paradise in the first half of the 20th century.  Though many of the natural communities had been transformed into citrus orchards and cow pastures, there was still enough green space to make for superior deer and quail hunting, while the black bass fishing remained outstanding.  But the citrus business shifted south following a killing freeze, and pastureland has transmogrified into unending suburbs, and now the land is ruined.

The late George Leonard Herter lamented this ruination.  He enjoyed dining at a long gone local restaurant owned by Peter Miller.  Miller served largemouth bass, dressed, skinned, and boiled whole and covered with dill-flavored mayonaise and a side of garlic-infused sourkraut.  None of the chain restaurants that currently add to the congestion of this suburban nightmare serve a dish this unique.  The unique natural beauty of Orange County is as forlorn a thing as a locally-owned restaurant.

 

Wassaw Island has Virgin Maritime Forests

February 19, 2014

The pristine condition of Wassaw Island, located southeast of Savannah, Georgia, surprises me.  It’s hard for me to believe that such a prime piece of real estate has never been logged, cleared for agriculture, or developed for tourism.  Before European colonization Native Americans fished and hunted on the island, and they left small shell mounds.  They also gave the island its name, Wassaw, which means sassafras; but Anthony Odingsell is the earliest known European to own it.  He willed the island to his mulatto son who enjoyed a bucolic existence here with his 11 slaves.  Though I’m sure they maintained vegetable gardens and fruit trees, the land was never lumbered nor cleared to grow cotton.  In 1866 the Odingsell family sold the island to George Parson, and his descendents used the island as a fishing and hunting destination.  One-hundred years later, The Nature Conservancy bought the island and sold it to the federal government for a dollar, and now it is a National Wildlife Refuge.  The ruin of a fort erected during the Spanish-American War is about the only sign of man on the island besided a boat dock that provides the only access here, unless one wants to traverse miles of salt marsh, then swim the tidal creek that separates Wassaw from the mainland.

Map of Wassaw Island.

Wassaw Island consists of over 10,000 acres of salt marsh, beach dune, interdunal wetlands (See https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2013/05/14/when-pleistocene-megafauna-roamed-interdunal-wetlands/), and maritime forest.  Old growth oak, pine, cedar, palm, and holly dominate the forest composition.  There must be centuries old live oaks here.  The island provides an unique opportunity to study what barrier island flora was like before European settlement because it’s the only island where feral livestock were never introduced, yet as far as I can determine no botanist has ever studied the flora on Wassaw.  Some university professor needs to hire a boat man and survey this rare gem.

Photo of the north end of Wassaw Island.  The beach is eroding into the forest here but it is building up on the south side of the island.

Freshwater wetland on Wassaw Island.

Over 200 species of birds have been recorded on the island.  During the summer neotropical songbirds swell the avian population, and during winter Wassaw provides refuge for migrating ducks.  Painted buntings, rare elsewhere, are reportedly common here.  White-tail deer and alligator are the only large animals on the island.  Deer were hunted to extirpation on the island, but deer from Wisconsin were introduced, and they brought a northern species of parasite with them.  I found a youtube video of a man who sails to Wassaw Island. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYOsXVSHEC8) He caught a bonnet head shark offshore adjacent to the island.

I couldn’t find many scientific studies of the island–it’s notably understudied.  I did find a paleotempestology study that determined 9 hurricanes have hit Wassaw Island over the last 1900 years, so it endures direct hits about once every 200 years, perhaps altering the floral composition.  (Scientists can look at sand overwash layers in the salt marsh to determine when hurricanes events occurred.)  The response of floral and faunal composition to past hurricanes would be another worthy subject of scientific inquiry.

Wassaw Island is of recent origin being in the neighborhood of 7000 years old.  It began forming with the rise of sea level that occurred following the dissolution of the massive glacial Lake Agassiz in Canada.  Longshore currents are eroding the north end of the island but building the south end.  Skidaway Island, located directly behind Wassaw Island, is a Pleistocene-aged barrier island.  Skidaway Island is part of what is known as the Silver Bluff shoreline, and it was at sea level between ~41,000 BP-~36,000 BP…before the Last Glacial Maximum.  This climate phase was a warm interstadial, the temperatures similar, but probably a little cooler than those of today.  The Silver Bluff shoreline formed as sort of a pause in the lowering of sea level during the Wisconsinian Ice Age.

I’ve visited Skidaway Island State Park.  There is a nice museum with an impressive fossil replica of the giant ground sloth, Eremotherium.  I walked on a nature trail behind the museum and saw live megafauna–a deer in its reddish summer coat.  Wassaw Island may be difficult to access for people without a boat, but Skidaway Island was worth the visit.

Alexander Von Humboldt’s Journey on the Apure River

September 10, 2013

I wish I could time travel to the Pleistocene and take a boat ride on one of Georgia’s major rivers, such as the Savannah, Altamaha, or Chattahoochee.  I would love to write an account of that experience.    Most people don’t realize how utterly devoid of wildlife the modern world is compared to the time before man decimated nature.  Alexander von Humboldt’s boat ride on the Apure River in 1800 may be the closest real life experience anyone has ever recorded that might be comparable to my wishful journey.  Humboldt traveled throughout the Spanish-claimed colonies of South America between 1799-1804.  For over 50 years after this, he was the sole scientific source of knowledge on the nature of South America.  The Spanish government granted permission to this German scientist to make a scientific expedition through their colonial territories.  This was unusual because the rulers of Spain were influenced by the Catholic Church and didn’t understand the value of science.  Paranoid authorities there assumed foreigners who wanted to travel in their colonies were spies working for enemy governments interested in fomenting revolutions that would result in Spain losing their New World territories. 

The Apure River is located in what today is Venezuela.  At the time of Humboldt’s journey it flowed through one of the more remote regions where few missionary settlements had been established.  The wildlife present then was rich in numbers and diversity.  Many of the same or similar species lived in Georgia during the Pleistocene.  This explains why this part of his journey holds such a fascination for me.

Map of Alexander Humboldt’s scientific expedition from 1799-1804.  This journey provided most of the scientific knowledge in Europe of South America’s natural history for over 50 years because the Spanish and Portuguese governments normally forbade scientific explorations of their colonies.

The Apure River flows through the Apure State in Venezuela.  It empties into the Orinico River.  Alexander Von Humboldt journeyed on this river circa 1800.

Humboldt, and his companion, Bonpland, made the journey with the governor’s brother-in-law, a pilot, and 4 Indian oarsmen.  They used a pirogue made from oxhides stretched over a wooden frame.  The cabin on the boat had a thatched roof.  For food and drink they carried chickens, eggs, cassava, chocolate, oranges, tamarinds, sherry, and brandy.  But the majority of their diet came from animals they hunted including manatees, capybaras, turtles (and their eggs), chacalacas, and currasows–the latter 2 being chicken-like birds.  (Humboldt pronounced manatee as delicious.) They also ate fish both fresh and dried and made into meal.  They used lances more than firearms because the latter often didn’t work in the humid climate.

They suffered from mosquitoes, gnats, and a type of insect that burrowed under their toe and finger nails.  The mosquitoes are so bad in this part of the world that the customary salutation is “How bad were the mosquitoes last night?” instead of “hello” and “goodbye.”  Nevertheless, Humboldt thought the trip was worth the torment just to see all the wildlife.

Humboldt wrote that 4 or 5 caimans, which he referred to as crocodiles, were always in view of the pirogue.  Thick hedges grew alongside the river, interrupted by passages made by peccaries and tapirs that used the same paths daily to access the drinking water.  Neither showed any fear of man.  Both were spotted by Humboldt’s party frequently along with the occasional deer.  Manatees and pink dolphins, known as toninas by the Spanish, swam in the main river channel and in the flooded plains and forests.  Manatees were so abundant that 1 region of the river was called Cano de Manatee.  Clouds of birds flew in the sky, and Humboldt noted the cries of herons, spoonbills, and flamingos were constant.  The presence of pirhanas annoyed Humboldt who wanted to bathe his itchy mosquito bites but feared the vicious “caribe” fish.  When they camped at night, the jungle was alive with the sounds of monkeys, sloths, and jaguars.  Vampire bats fluttered around their camp, and even fed on the blood from Humboldt’s dog.

During the rainy season the Apure River flooded the nearby grasslands turning it into a massive lake.  The floodwaters often rose so fast that horses drowned, attracting caimans and huge flocks of vultures.  Caimans occasionally attacked swimming horses that hadn’t drowned yet.  After the waters receded, some caimans dug holes in the savannahs and hibernated til the floods returned.  One time. Humboldt’s party was startled when a caiman emerged from the ground under a tent where they’d spent the night.  The reptile sprinted through the tent toward the river.  The floods caused some river banks to be covered in sand and silt rather than hedges.  Ten or more caimans often sunned themselves on these beaches.

Herds of 50-60 capybaras could be found everywhere on the Apure.  They were the main food of the surprisingly common jaguars.  Humboldt’s party had numerous encounters with the big cats.  His party saw a very large jaguar that Humboldt said was bigger than any tiger he’d ever seen in a European zoo.  Humboldt said the jaguars here were no danger to man because they had plenty of capybaras to prey upon, though on another river later in his expedition he lost his dog, a mastiff, to a jaguar.  Mastiffs are large dogs, sometimes weighing in excess of 100 lbs.  Nevertheless, 1 particular jaguar viewed it as food.

Capybaras were extremely abundant along the Apure River during Humboldt’s journey, and they helped support very large jaguar and caiman populations.  Two species of capybaras lived along Georgia’s coastal plain rivers during the Pleistocene.

Humboldt walked right by a large jaguar while collecting plants.  It scared the shit out of him, but he walked slowly back to camp, so the jaguar wouldn’t be incited by his flight to attack.  Jaguars were one of the most common large predators in southeastern North America during the Pleistocene.

Humboldt feared that he would become a jaguar’s dinner as he relates in the following account.

I left my companions while they beached the boat and prepared the meal.  I walked along the beach to observe a group of crocodiles asleep in the sun, their tails, covered with broad scaly plates, resting on each other.  Small herons, white as snow, walked on their backs, even on their heads, as if they were tree trunks.  The crocodiles were grey-green, their bodies were half covered in dried mud.  From their color and immobility they looked like bronze statues.  However, my stroll almost cost me my life.  I had been constantly looking towards the river, and then, on seeing a flash of mica in the sand, I also spotted fresh jaguar tracks, easily recognizable by their shape.  The animal had gone off into the jungle, and as I looked in that direction I saw it lying down under the thick foilage of a ceiba, eighty steps away from me.  Never has a tiger seemed so enormous.

There are moments in life when it is useless to call on reason.  I was very scared.  However, I was sufficiently in control of myself to remember what the Indians had advised us to do in such circumstances.  I carried on walking, without breaking into a run or moving my arms, and I thought I noted the wild beast had its eye on a herd of capybaras swimming in the river.  The further away I got the more I quickened my pace.  I was so tempted to turn around and see if  the cat was chasing me!  Luckily, I resisted this impulse, and the tiger remained lying down.  These enormous cats with spotted skins are so well fed in this country well stocked with capybara, peccary, and deer that they rarely attack humans.  I reached the launch panting and told my adventure story to the Indians, who did not give it much importance.”

Reference:

Alexander Von Humboldt: Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent

Penguin Books 1995

New York City Used to be a Hunter’s Paradise

May 27, 2013

I’m taking my blog on an imaginary vacation this week away from Pleistocene Georgia to New York City…but not to the metropolis of today.  Instead, I’m going to visit the area in 1626 when it was known as New Amsterdam.  An open woodland of giant oak, tulip, maple, hickory, and elm trees grew on most of Manhattan Island.  The centuries old trees were so widely spaced apart that grass predominated in the understory.  Indians maintained this open parkland landscape by burning the woods frequently.  This practice improved habitat for wildlife.  Eric Sanderson theoretically reconstructed the original environment of Manhattan Island based on information from a Revolutionary War era map.  He concluded there were 55 different natural communities on Manhattan Island–more than most, if not all, of our modern National Parks.  Manhattan consisted of 77% forest and shrub, 10% grassland, 8% salt marsh, 2% freshwater marsh, 1% old Indian fields,  and 1% beach.  The balance was pond and tidal creek.

Times Square circa 2013.  What a godawful terrorist attack trap.

Beaver Pond surrounded by meadow with red maple, black cherry, and spruce.  Photo by Jess Riddle.  This is what Times Square looked like circa 1626.  Which do you prefer?

Dr. Sanderson thinks oak-chestnut woodlands dominated the upper drier hills of Manhattan, while oak-tulip-maple woodlands grew in the lower richer soils.  A red maple-hemlock-beech community grew adjacent to the creeks and springs.  Pitch pine-scrub oak covered sandy soils.  Beach plum thickets were found near the shore.  There was some white pine, spruce, and cedar on the island as well.  There were at least 61 creeks and springs, today located underneath skyscrapers, and 21 ponds.  Collect pond, a 70 foot deep kettlehole formed by glacial meltwater, was New York City’s source of freshwater for 200 years, until 1830 when a tannery factory poisoned the pond.  This once beautiful wonder of nature has since been filled, and the New York City municipal building stands over it today.

In spring and summer the sweet smell of wildflowers permeated the air.  In June wild strawberries were so abundant they dyed everything red.  There was a beaver pond surrounded by red maple trees where Times Square stands today.  A wooded swamp stood between what today is 5th and 8th avenues.  The land below 4th street was described as a “forested glade.”  North of Manhattan, there was an 150 acre treeless meadow.  This grassy plain and salt marsh would later become Harlem.  On the edge of this meadow, cherry and peach trees grew.  Florida Indians obtained peaches from the Spanish a century earlier, and the various tribes traded amongst themselves for the seeds, until the tree had spread all the way to Manhattan.  The neighborhoods to become Greenwich Village and Wall Street were Indian hunting grounds.

Coney Island was a brush-covered barrier island separated from Brooklyn by a tidal creek.  The tidal creek was eventually used as a garbage dump and landfill, so now Coney Island is connected to south Brooklyn with dirt-covered garbage.  The island abounded in rabbits, hence the name coney which is an old Dutch and English word for rabbit.  (Bunny is a derivative of coney.)  Rabbit hunting continued to be the main attraction of the island til after the Civil War when it became renowned as an amusement park.  Instead of rabbits, 60,000 people now live on this island despite it being just 4 square miles.  I’d prefer the rabbits.

Long Island’s natural environment resembled that of Manhattan and mostly consisted of open woodland, but part of the island included a 64 square mile prairie that hosted many grassland species.  Staten Island was more thickly wooded than the other islands and may have been subject to less burning.  Unlike the other islands, the forest here was closed canopy.  Governor’s Island was known as nut island because it was covered with groves of hickory trees.

Earliest known drawing of New York City circa 1626.

Reconstructed aerial vew of Manhattan Island circa 1609.  Note the beautiful kettle pond that served as New York City’s source of drinking water for 200 years.  It was filled in and today the city municipal building is located on top of it.  What an ugly transformation.  The lines represent where the island has been expanded by landfill consisting of garbage plus dirt from hills that were leveled.

By 1626, 200 Europeans had settled on Manhattan, and they lived there with 15,000 Indians.  The combined settlements took up less than .1% of the island.  The rest was wilderness.  The first European settlers were shepherds, but wolves ate every last sheep within the first year, and the Europeans were forced to rely on venison and turkey instead of mutton as their main source of protein.  This was not a problem on Manhattan: deer traveled in herds of 25-30 and turkeys in flocks as large as 500, and the Indians were willing to sell game meats door-to-door.  Occasionally, even elk and moose wandered on to the island.  Nearby Staten Island, where the woods grew more dense, was renowned for its bear hunting.  Fur traders made a fortune.  In 1626 the pelts of 7,520 beaver, 853 otter, 81 mink, 36 Canadian lynx, and 34 muskrat were shipped from New Amsterdam.  That doesn’t even count pelts used locally.  Millions of passenger pigeons roosted on the island during summers.  In 1609 when Henry Hudson became the first European to discover New York Harbor, the Indians gave him a feast of pigeons.  One English hunter bagged 100 prairie chickens in 1 day just south of where Times Square stands today.  This species of prairie chicken, known as the Heath Hen, is now extinct.  (See https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2011/10/05/pleistocene-prairie-chicken-tympanuchus-cupido-fossils-found-in-southern-states/)

By 1656, a population of 1000 Europeans lived in New Amsterdam.  The new immigrants complained they couldn’t sleep at night because of the constant quacking and calling of the thousands of ducks and geese.    They also complained that a wall of swans blocked their view of the Hudson River.  (By contrast, I’ve never seen a wild swan in my life.)  Hundreds of osprey, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and vultures nested on The Narrows Cliffs.

The eel grass beds located offshore offered a rich base of the food chain for marine life.  Early settlers ate 12 inch long oysters and could trap as many lobsters as they could eat.  New York Harbor, scoured to an abyss by glaciers, was habitat for deep sea species of fish and even whales in the days before whalers decimated their populations.  Enormous sturgeon spawned on the Hudson River near where Albany, New York is now located.  Flounder, mullet, salmon, striped bass, and eel swam in the tidal rivers and creeks.  Schools of menhaden often used to wash ashore in the thousands, and dozens of bald eagles would gorge themselves on the rotting fish.  One would be hard pressed to find 1 eagle in the entire state of New York today.

The New Amsterdam of 1626 puts all of our modern National Parks to shame.  Let’s face it: all of our National Parks and Wildlife Refuges are garbage lands that were discarded because they had little economic value.  The lands were of such poor quality we left it to the animals.  The Everglades and the Okefenokee Swamp are examples of wetlands that were too expensive to drain.  Developers were willing to give them up…after they removed the best cypress trees.  The area destroyed by Disney World was far richer in wildlife than these wildly overrated wilderness destinations.  The forests of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were  utterly destroyed. Lumber companies let the government have the land only after they were finished raping it. All the best quality wildlife habitat in North America has been converted to urban, suburban, and agricultural uses.  All remaining wilderness areas are marginal lands nearly devoid of wildlife compared to New Amsterdam of 1626.

1869 sketch of what today is the intersection of E. 75th Street and FDR Drive.  This beautiful area was soon to be ruined.

References:

Bakeless, John

America as seen by its First Explorers

Dover Publications 1961

Folse, John

After the Hunt

John Folse Publishing 2008

Sanderson, Eric; and Marianne Brown

“Manahatta: An Ecological First Look at the Manhattan Landscape Prior to Henry Hudson”

Northeastern Naturalist 14 (4) 2007

http://www.esf.edu/efb/gibbs/efb413/NortheasternNaturalist_SandersonBrown2007.pdf