Archive for the ‘Colonial North America’ Category

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

John Lawson’s Voyage to Carolina (1700-1711)

July 27, 2012

I love reading accounts of the early explorers in America because they describe the natural environments before man modified (or in my opinion destroyed) them.  John Lawson was a well-to-do young man of 26 when he decided to explore and later settle in the Carolinas beginning in 1700.  He gives us the first literate account of the environments of the Carolinas in his book,  A New Voyage to the Carolinas, which was published in 1709.  Although his botanical descriptions don’t match those of William Bartram, who traveled through the south 70 years later, his account is fascinating nonetheless, and his quaint manner of language is interesting to decipher.

Route of John Lawson’s 1000 mile journey through North and South Carolina in 1700.

John Lawson’s journey in America began in Charleston, South Carolina shortly after Christmas.  In 1700 European colonization was restricted to a narrow band along the coast, and Charleston was the sole “metropolis.”.  Lawson took 6 Englishmen and 4 Indians on the journey with him.  They spent the first few nights at various islands along the coast including Bull’s Island where feral cattle and hogs abounded.  They spent another night with a Scotsman on Dix’s Island and ate oatmeal the Scot had scavenged from a Scotch shipwreck.  Despite the cool winter weather, mosquitoes plagued Lawson’s party at night.  While in the low country the party lived on venison, wild hogs, raccoons, fish, shellfish, waterfowl, and rice, the latter of which they purchased from nearby plantations.  They left the coast in a canoe and went inland for miles through uninhabited cypress swamp til they came into contact with Indians burning a canebrake.  Lawson related how the hollow bamboo stems exploded after ignition.

As we went up the river, we heard a great noise, as if two parties were engaged against each other, seeming exactly like small shot.  When we approached nearer the place, we found it to be some Sewee Indians firing the Cane Swamps, which drives out the Game, then taking their particular stands, kill great quantities of both bear, deer, turkies, and what wild creatures the parts afford.”

They continued their journey through cypress swamps that were in flood that time of year.  All the trees in 1 swamp had been felled by a hurricane, and they had a hard time navigating between the fallen giants.  During the journey they only slept on the ground when they had no alternative.  Usually, they could find a hunter’s cabin or an Indian town.  The hunter’s cabins were often unoccupied but well stocked with food.  As was the custom then, they’d leave beads and trinkets in exchange for food–a kind of honor system.  A typical  cabin pantry stored red beans, dried corn, dried peaches, and chinkapins–much healthier food than can be found in a McDonalds or any other fast food dump adjacent to our modern highways.  Indian towns were spaced about 20-30 miles, or a day’s journey, apart with nothing but wilderness in between.  At this particular time in history, all the Indians they met were friendly, though some tribes had a bad habit of pilfering Lawson’s party’s belongings.  One of Lawson’s comrades got robbed by an Indian whore on one occasion.  She stole his moccasins while he was sleeping after the party paid a fortune just so this 1 guy could get laid.

Upon reaching the piedmont region Lawson noted that his party could travel a whole day without seeing a single pine tree.  This region then was mostly an oak forest–a contrast from the second growth woods found in the Carolina piedmont today where pine is a dominant species.  The oak forests supported huge flocks of turkies.  Lawson saw 1 flock numbering over 500 birds.  At this point they ran short of bread and salt, and the only thing they had to eat was turkey.  They became so tired of eating turkey that 1 of the Indian guides shot and ate a skunk for variety.  Lawson also witnessed the legendary passenger pigeon and gives the following account.

In the mean time we went to shoot pigeons, which were so numerous in these parts, that you might see many millions in a flock; they sometimes split off the Limbs of stout Oaks, and other trees, upon which they roost o’nights.  You may find several Indian towns, of not above 17 houses, that have more than 100 Gallons of Pigeons Oil, or Fat; they using it with Pulse, or Bread, as we do butter, and making the Ground as white as a sheet with their Dung.  The Indians take a light, and go among them at Night, and bring away some thousands, killing them with long Poles, as they roost in the Trees.  At this time of the Year, the Flocks, as they pass by, in great measure, obstruct the light of the day.”

His noisy party kept away most predators but he does give this account of an encounter with a cougar (what he erroneously refers to as a tiger).

As we were on our road this morning, our Indian shot at a Tyger, that cross’d our Way, he being a great distance from us.  I believe he did him no harm, because he sat on his Breech afterwards, and look’d upon us.  I suppose he expected to have had a Spaniel Bitch, that I had with me,  for his breakfast, who run towards him, but Midway stopt her Career, and came sneaking back to us with her Tail betwixt her legs.”

After the journey was completed, Lawson settled in a cabin near the Neus River and worked as a surveyor when he wasn’t farming, and he founded 2 towns–Bath and New Bern.  He recounts an interesting experience with an alligator that took up residence under his first cabin.

I was pretty much frightened with one of these once; which happened thus: I had built a house about a half a mile from an Indian town, on the Fork of the Neus River, where I dwelt by myself, excepting a young Indian fellow, and a Bull-dog, that I had along with me.  I had not then been so long a Sojourner in America, as to be throughly acquainted with this Creature.  One of them had got his Nest directly under my House, which stood on high Land, and by a Creek-side, in whose banks his Entring-place was, his Den reaching the Ground directly on which my house stood, I was sitting alone by the Fire-side (about nine a Clock at Night, some time in March) the Indian fellow being gone to the Town, to see his Relations; so that there was no body in the House, but my self and my Dog; when all of a sudden, this ill-favoured Neighbor of mine, set up such a Roaring, that he made the House shake about my Ears, and so continued, like a Bittern, (but a hundred times louder, if possible) for four or five times.  The Dog stared, as if he was frightened out of his Senses; nor indeed, could I imagine what it was , having never heard one of them before.  Immediately again I had another Lesson; and so a third.  Being at the time amongst none but Savages, I began to suspect, they were working some Piece of conjuration under my house, to get away my Goods; not but that, at another time, I have as little Faith in their, or any others working miracles, by diabolic means as any person living.  At last my man came in, to whom when I had told the Story, he laugh’d at me, and presently undeceived me, by telling me what it was that made that Noise.”

He also had lots of experiences with black bears while living in the North Carolina low country.

The bears here are very common, though not so large as in Greenland, and the more Northern countries of Russia.  The Flesh of the Beast is very good and nourishing, and not inferior to the best Pork in Taste.  It stands betwixt Beef and Pork, and the young Cubs are a dish for the greatest epicure living.  I prefer their flesh before any Beef, Veal, Pork, or Mutton; and they look as well as they eat, their fat being as white as snow and the sweetest of any Creature’s in he World.  If a Man drink a Quart thereof melted, it never will rise in his Stomach.  We prefer it above all things, to fry Fish and other things in.  Those that are strangers to it, may judge otherwise; But I who have eaten a Great Deal of Bears Flesh in my Life-time (since my being an Inhabitant of America) do think it equalizes, if not excels any Meat I ever eat in Europe.  The Bacon made thereof is extraordinary meat; but it must be well saved, otherwise it will rust.  This Creature feeds upon all sorts of Wild Fruits.  When Herrings run, which is in March, the Flesh of such of those Bears as eat thereof, is nought, all that Season, and eats filthily.  Neither is it good, when he feeds on Gum-berries, as I intimated before.  They are great Devourers of Acorns, and oftentimes , meet the swine of the woods, which they kill and eat, especially when they are hungry, and can find no other food.  Now and then they get into the fields of Indian Corn or mais, where they make sad Havock, spoiling corn ten times as much as they eat.  The Potatoes of the Country are so agreeable to them, that they never fail to sweep ’em all clean, if they chance to come in their way.  They are seemingly a clumsy Creature, yet are very nimble in running up Trees, and traversing every Limb thereof.  When they come down, they run Tail foremost.  They sit by the Creek-sides, (which are very narrow) where the fish run in; and there they take them up as fast as it’s possible they can dip their paws into the Water.”

By herring, Lawson meant shad which is in the herring family.  He also wrote a long paragraph about hunting bears and the uses of bear’s oil.  Today, I don’t think there are any bears in the Carolina low country.

Lawson enjoyed an idyllic life of fishing, hunting, and farming while he lived in the North Carolina low country.  Like the majority of people living in the days prior to grocery stores, his life focused upon food production.  He grew corn, wheat, and vegetables, and he had a successful fruit orchard.  Unlike most fruits, peaches produce true to seed–the offspring resemble the quality of the parent.  Peaches were so widespread among the Indians that Lawson mistakenly believed they were a native fruit.  The Indians obtained peaches from the Spanish as early as 1550, and it quickly became an important food they ate fresh, dried, stewed, and in bread. Most, if not all, of the varieties Lawson grew came from seed he got from the Indians.  One variety was large and luscious.  Lawson called it a vinegar peach because he made vinegar from the fermented fruit.  He also had a tree that produced yellow freestone nectarines.  He claimed this tree never produced less than 15-20 bushels of fruit every year.  This is surprising considering he only farmed for about a decade and the tree must have been young.  He also claimed his peach trees began producing when they were as young as 3 years old.  Lawson’s vinyard consisted of native grapes, but he did have to import apple scions because all good cultivated apples are mutants.  Cider was an important drink and a substitute for beer which was considered essential for civilized life then.  His list of apple varieties includes rare antique types and some that are probably extinct.  He planted a 200 foot row of native strawberries, and like Bartram, he reported seeing wild strawberry fields of miles in extent. (See https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2011/04/)

John Lawson is the sole source of information for many of the Indian tribes who inhabited the Carolinas.  Most of these tribes suffered extinction during the 18th century.  Lawson estimated the population of Indians in the Carolinas decreased by 85% between 1650-1700, explaining why wilderness was reclaiming so much land.  Smallpox and alcohol addiction caused the decline.  The Indian words for rum (the chief spirit they imbibed) was sick or poison, yet they couldn’t control their addiction.  Indians evolved in isolation from these 2 scourges, and they had little resistance.  Smallpox occasionally annihilated whole Indian towns.

I was surprised to learn some Indians that bring to mind the far west lived in the Carolinas.  Most of the tribes were Sioux.  Lawson even met some Flatheads who made their skulls flat by fastening a board to their infants’ heads.

Most Indian culinary practices revolted Lawson.  They cooked most game without removing the entrails.  A favorite Indian dish was deer fawn, removed from a dead pregnant deer and cooked in the natural placental bag.  However, Lawson did praise 1 particular Indian cook who repeatedly washed her hands before cooking and could make white bread.  Other Indian women ladled out stew with their bare hands even though they possessed wooden ladles.  Red beans were an Indian favorite, and Lawson provides an amusing account of its effects.

The small red pease is very common with them, and they eat a great deal of that and other sorts boil’d with their Meat, or eaten with Bears Fat, which Food makes them break Wind backwards, which the Men frequently do, and laugh heartily at it, it being accounted no ill Manners amongst the Indians.  Yet the Women are more modest, than to follow that ill Custom.”

Lawson held liberal views on Indians, so it’s a shame they captured, tortured, and killed him in 1711.  The stupid, sadistic brutes tied him to a stake, stuck wooden splinters all over his body, and set him on fire.  Lawson never married his sweetheart, Hannah Smith, but she bore him a daughter.  He left all his land to them in his will.

Artist’s depiction of the Tuscarora Indians capturing Lawson who was surveying land up the Neuse River.  He must have known the Indians were unpredictable and his job was hazardous because he wrote a will.   They let his partner go to spread the word and scare the settlers.  It was an act of terrorism that ultimately failed.  A war between the settlers and the Tuscarora Indians broke out shortly after they burned Lawson alive, and the Indians were defeated.

Reference:

Lawson, John

A New Voyage to Carolina

The University of North Carolina Press 1967

The whole book is available for free online at http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=1447078&pageno=6

Excerpts from the Journal of an Expedition to Kentucky in 1750

April 20, 2012

Dr. Thomas Walker led 5 men on an expedition through the wilds of western Virginia and eastern Kentucky in 1750.  This was 20 years before Daniel Boone hunted and trapped the then Indian territory.  Dr. Walker kept a fascinating if brief journal of his experience.  Lyman Draper included the journal in his manuscript, The Life of Daniel Boone.

I wish I could’ve seen Kentucky in 1750.  Some early explorers reported seeing a thousand animals including bison, elk, deer, bear and flocks of turkeys all within 1 view of a Kentucky prairie landscape–a scene as rich as any on the African plains.  Though not as pristine as it was during the Pleistocene before the Indians, it must have been much more beautiful and impressive than any landscape in today’s America.  I’ve copied excerpts from Dr. Walker’s journal for this blog entry, and I’ve alternated them with my comments (in italics).  Most amusing is the way Dr. Walker sums up incredible adventures in 1 short sentence without any elaboration whatsoever.

***

Thomas Walker’s Journal 1750

Having on the 12th of December last, been employed for a certain consideration to go to the westward in order to discover a proper place for a Settlement, I left my house on the 6th day of March at 10 o’clock in Company with Ambrose Powell, William Tomlinson, Colby Chew, Henry Lawless, and John Hughs.  Each man had a horse and we had two  to carry the Baggage.  I lodged this night at Col. Joshua Fry’s in Albemarle, which County includes the Chief of the head branches of James River on the East side of the Blue Ridge.

March 13th.  We went early to William Calloway’s and supplied ourselves with Rum, Thread, and other necessaries and from thence took the Waggon Road leading to wood’s or the New River.  It is not well cleared or beaten yet, but will be a good one with proper management.  This night we lodged in Adam Beard’s low grounds. Beard is an ignorant, brutish fellow, and would have taken us up, had it not been for reason, easily to be suggested.

That last sentence is not clear to me.  I think it means Beard was being inhospitable because he thought they weren’t going to pay him enough for lodging.  Sounds like the exasperated Dr. Walker had to talk him into it.

March 15th.  We went to the great Lick on a Branch of the Staunton and bought corn of Michael Campbell for our horses.  This lick has been one of the best places for game in these parts and would have been of much greater advantage to the Inhabitants than it has been if the Hunters had not killed the Buffaloes for diversion, and the Elks and Deer for their skins.  This afternoon we go to the Staunton where the houses of the Inhabitants had been carryed off with their grain and Fences by the Fresh of last Summer, and lodged at James Robinson’s, the only place I could hear of where they had corn to spare, notwhithstanding the land is such that an industrious man might make 100 barrels a share in a Seasonable year.

Even this early in colonial history, overhunting wiped out the game in some areas.  Salt licks abound in Kentucky, formerly making it a destination for large herds of game.  A Fresh is an archaic term for flood.

March 24th.  We went to Stalmaker’s, helped him raise his house and Camped about a quarter mile below him…

This guys were handy, capable of building a log cabin in a day.

March 27th.  It began to snow in the morning and continued till Noon.  The Land is very hilly from West to North.  Some Snow lies on the tops of the mountains N.W. from us.

How unusual is snow in West Virginia in late March?  A cooler climate did prevail in the 1700’s compared to the present day.

March 31st.  We kept down Reedy Creek to Holston where we measured an Elm 25 feet around 3 feet from the ground.  We saw young Sheldrakes, we went down the River to the north Fork and up the north Fork about a quarter mile to a Ford, then crossed it.  In the Fork between Holstons and the North River, are five Indian Houses built with loggs and covered with Bark, and there were abundance of Bones, some whole Pots and Pans, some broken, and many pieces of mats and Cloth.  On the West side of the North River, is four Indian Houses such as before mentioned.  we went four miles Below the North River and camped on the Bank of Holstons, opposite to a large Indian Fort.

Wow, an elm with a 25 foot circumference, and an abandoned Indian village.  Nice day of exploration.

April ye 1st. The Sabbath.  we saw perch, mullets, and carp in plenty, and caught one of the large Sort of cat fish.  I marked my Name, the day of the month and date of the year on several Beech trees.

No telling what kinds of fish these were because he used familiar English names for American species of fish.

April 2nd.  we left Holston and travelled through small Hills till about Noon, when one of our Horses being choked by eating Reeds too greedily, we stopped having travelled 7 miles.

By reeds he undoubtedly meant bamboo cane which grew abundantly in pre-Colonial Kentucky.  He treated the horses that choked on reeds by giving them a lot of water to wash them down.

April 7th.  We rode 8 miles over Broken Land.  It snowed most of the day.  In the Evening our dogs caught a large He bear, which before we could come up to shoot him had wounded a dog of mine, so that he could not Travel, and we carried him on horseback, till he recovered.

They had many encounters with bears.  Note–it snowed again.

April 12th.  We kept down the Creek 2 miles further, where it meets with a large Branch coming from the South West, and thence runs through the East Ridge making a very good Pass; and a large Buffaloe Road goes from that Fork to the Creek over the West Ridge, which we took and found the Ascent and Descent tollerably easie.  From this Mountain we rode four miles to Beargrass River.  Small Cedar Trees are very plenty on the flat ground nigh the River, and some Bayberry trees on the East side of the River.  on the Banks is some Beargrass.  We kept up the River two miles.  I found some Small pieces of Coal and a great plenty of good yellow Flint.  The water is the most transparent I ever saw.  it is about 70 yards wide.

Herds of buffalo trampled down vegetation and earth into sunken roads as much as 3 feet deep and often 20 yards wide.  Indian paths followed these Buffalo roads.  Today, many state highways follow these same paths.  Coal and flint demonstrate interesting geology.  River waters were clear then, unlike today’s muddy rivers.

April 13th. We went four miles to a large Creek, which we called Cedar Creek, being a branch of Beargrass, and from thence Six miles to Cave Gap, the land being Levil.  On the North side of the Gap is a large spring, which falls very fast, and just above the spring is a small Entrance to a large Cave, which the Spring runs through, and there is a constant Stream of Cool air issuing out.  The Spring is sufficient to turn a mill.  Just at the foot of the Hill is a Laurel thicket, and the Spring Water runs through it.  On the South side is a plain Indian Road, on the top of the Ridge are Laurel Trees marked with crosses, others Blazed and several figures on them.  As I went down on the Other Side, I soon came to some Laurel in the head of a Branch.  A Beech stands on the left hand, on which I cut my name.  This Gap may be seen at a considerable distance, and there is no other, that I know of, except one about two miles to the North of it, which does not appear to be So low as the other.  The Mountain on the North Side of the Gap is avery Steep and Rocky, but on the South side it is not so.  We called it Steep Ridge .  At the foot of the hill on the North West Side we came to a Branch, that made a great deal of flat Land.  We kept down it 2 miles.  Several other Branches Coming in to make it a large Creek, and we called it Flat Creek.  We camped on the Bank where we found very good Coal.  I did not Se(e) any Lime Stone beyond this Ridge.  We rode 13 miles this day.

This is a more detailed entry than others.  I think he’s describing a gap through the mountains to aid  future settlers.

April 16th.  Rain.  I made a Pair of Indian Shoes, those I brought out being bad.

These guys had to be a jack of all trades.  In additions to making their own shoes, they could build cabins and canoes in about a day.

April 19th.  We left the River but in four miles we came on it again at the Mouth of Licking Creek, which we went up and down another.  In the Fork of Licking Creek is a Lick much used by Buffaloes and many Large Roads lead to it.  This afternoon Ambrose Powell was bit by a Bear on the Knee.  We rode 7 miles this day.

This is my favorite passage.  Oh yeah, and by the way, a bear bit Ambrose on the knee.  No elaboration whatsoever.  I wish he’d taken some literary license and added some exciting details.  Like what happened to the bear?

April 20th. we kept down the Creek 2 miles to the River again.  It appears not any wider here than on the mouth of Cl0ver Creek but much deeper.  I thought it proper to Cross the River and began a bark Canoe.

April 21st.  We finished the Canoe and tryed her.  About noon it began to thunder, lighten, hail, and rain prodigiously and continued for two hours.

They made a canoe out of bark in a day.  No mention is made of the shelter I’m sure they made to stay out of the rain.

April 23rd.  Having carried our Baggage over in the Bark Conoe, and Swam our horses, we all crossed the River.  Then Ambrose Powell, Colby Chew, and I departed, Leaving the others to provide and salt some Bear, build an house, and plant some Peach Stones and Corn.  We travelled about 12 miles and encamped on Crooked Creek.  The mountains are very small heareabouts and here is a great deal of flat Land.  We got through the Coal today.

Well, this answers the question of what happened to the bear that bit Ambrose.  I guess they were contemplating making this a regular stop, if they planted corn and peach seeds.  I wonder how the peaches did without any human care.  Unlike most fruits which are mutants that need grafting, peach trees will grow similar quality fruit as their parents, and they can produce in as little as 3 years.

April 26th.  The River is 150 yards wide and appears to be navigable from this place almost to the mouth of Clover Creek…On the Lower Side of the mouth of the Creek is an Ash mark’d T.W., a Red Oak A.P., a white hiccory C.C. besides several Trees blazed Several ways with 3 Chops over each blaze.  we went up the North Side of the River 8 miles, and Camped on a Small Branch.  A Bear Broke one of my Dogs forelegs.

They initialed their names on the trees. I’m sure these trees are long gone. Initialing trees was a way of proving where they were in case they got kidnapped by Indians or killed.  I’m surprised about how aggressive bears were.

April 28th.  We kept up the River to our Company whom we found all well, but the lame Horse was as bad as we left him, and another had been bit in the Nose by a Snake.  I rub’d the wounds with Bear’s oil, and gave him a drench of the same and another of the decotion of Rattle Snake root some time after.  The People I left had built a House 12 by 8, clear’d and broke up some ground, and planted Corn and Peach Stones.  They also had killed Several Bears and cured the meat.  This day Colby Chew and his Horse fell down the Bank.  I Bled and gave him Volatile drops and he soon recovered.

Physicians still practiced the medieval treatment of bleeding.  Colby Chew recovered despite the archaic treatment.

May 1st.  Another Horse being bit, I applyed Bears Oil as before mentioned…

The rattlesnake population must’ve been very high.  The rocky country is favorable habitat for them because it provides plenty of denning areas.

May 7th.  We went down Tomlinson’s River the Land being very broken and our way embarrassed by trees that had been blown down 2 years ago.

This is a landscape not often seen but common then.  Lumber companies often harvest storm blown trees.

May 12.  Under the Rock is a Soft Kind of Stone almost like Allum in taste; below it a layer of Coal about 12 inches thick and white Clay under that., I called the Run Allum Creek…

Interesting geology.  Probably been stripmined since.

May 17th.  Laurel and Ivy are very plenty and the Hill still very steep.  The Woods have been burnt some years past and are now very thick, the Timber almost all kill’d.  We Camped on a Branch of Naked Creek…

May 26th.  We kept down the Branch almost to the River, and up a Creek, and then along a Ridge till our Dogs roused a large Buck Elk, which we followed down to a Creek.  He killed Ambrose Powell’s Dog in the Chase, and we named the Run Tumbler’s Creek, the Dog being of that Name.

Poor Ambrose.  First bitten by a bear, then his dog gets stomped by an elk.

May 30th.  We went to the head of the Branch we lay on 12 miles.  A Shower of Rain fell this day.  The Woods are burnt fresh about here and are the only fresh burnt Woods we have seen these Six Weeks.

The Indians burned the woods regularly to improve habitat for game.  It was unusual for Dr. Walker to have travelled so long through country that hadn’t been burned lately.  I wonder, if the local Indians had suffered a smallpox epidemic, and there weren’t that many setting fires here.

May 31st.  We crossed 2 Mountains and camped just by a Wolf’s Den.  They were very impudent and after they had been twice shot at, they kept howling about the Camp.  It Rained til Noon this day.

June 4th.  I blazed several trees four ways on the outside of the low Grounds by a Buffalo Road, and marked my Name on Several Beech trees…We left the River about 10 o’Clock and got to Falling Creek, and went up till 5 in the Afternoon when a very black Cloud appearing, we turn’d out our Horses, got tent Poles up, and were just stretching the Tent, when it began to rain and hail, and was succeeded by a violent Wind which Blew down our Tent and a great many Trees about it several large ones within 30 yards of the tent.  we all left the place in confusion and ran different ways for shelter.  After the Storm was over, we met at the Tent and found all safe.

Sounds like they got caught in a downburst.

June 13th.  We are much hindered by the Gust and a shower of Rain about Noon.  Game is very scarce here, and the mountains very bad, the tops of the Ridges being so covered with Ivy and the sides so steep and stony, that we were obliged to cut our way through with our Tomohawks.

June 15th-16th. We got on a large Creek where Turkey are plenty and some Elks. we went a hunting and killed 3 Turkeys.  Hunted and killed 3 Bears and some Turkeys.

June 19th.  We got to Laurel Creek early this morning and met so impudent a Bull Buffaloe that we were obliged to shoot him, or he would have been amongst us…

Dr. Walker considered the wolves and buffaloes as impudent, if they didn’t flee the vicinity when people appeared.

June 20th…my riding Horse was bit by a Snake this day, and having no Bear’s Oil I rub’d the place with a piece of fat meat, which had the desired effect.

June 21st. We found the Level Nigh the Creek so full of Laurel that we were obliged to go up a Small Branch and from the head of that to the Creek again, and found it good travelling a Small distance from the Creek.  we Camped on the Creek.  Deer are very scarce on the Coal Land.  I having seen but 4 since the 30th of April.

July 13th.  I got home about Noon.  We killed in the Journey 13 Buffaloes, 8 Elks, 53 Bears, 20 Deer, 4 Wild Geese, about 150 Turkeys, besides small Game.  We might have killed three times as much meat, if we had wanted it.

I’m surprised bears were the most common large mammal killed on the trip.  I wonder, if the bears were attracted to the food cooked at camp. or were they simply more numerous in the heavily wooded country.  Just 6 men sure did a lot of damage to the wildlife in just 5 months.  No wonder market hunters wiped out all the large game in Kentucky by about 1840.

William Bartram’s “Magnificent” Forest

April 11, 2011

Portrait of William Bartram.  In his classic Natural History book, Travels, this author and botanist gave us valuable information about the original ecology and landscapes of southeastern North America, many of which either no longer exist or occur as extremely rare remnants.  He traveled through South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi,  Louisiana, and North Carolina in the 3 years prior to the American Revolution.

A passage from William Bartram’s Travels inspired my trip to the Congaree National Park last week.  I longed to see a forest of giant trees, the kind that used to commonly occur in the southeast until European settlers raped the land.  Though the Congaree has the largest trees in North America east of the California redwoods, the largest trees there are only half the size of the ones Bartram measured in a forest in east central Georgia.  This incredible stretch of woods was 7 miles long (the width is unreported) and existed in  what today is Taliaferro County.  Here’s Bartram’s description of this forest:

Leaving the pleasant town of Wrightsborough, we continued eight or nine miles through a fertile plain and high forest, to the north branch of the Little River, being the largest of the two, crossing which, we entered an extensive fertile plain, bordering on the river, and shaded by trees of vast growth, which at once spoke of its fertility.  Continuing some time through these shady groves, the scene opens, and discloses to view the most magnificent forest I had ever seen.  We rise gradually a sloping bank of twenty or thirty feet in elevation, and immediately entered this sublime forest; the ground is a  perfectly level green plain, thinly planted by nature with the most stately forest trees, such as the gigantic black oak (Q. tinctoria) Liriodendron, Juglans nigra, Platanus, Juglans exalta, Fagus sylvatica, Ulmus sylvatica, Liquid-amber styraciflua, whose mighty trunks, seemingly of an equal heighth, appeared like superb columns…

(I assume “thinly planted by nature” and “level green plain” meant grass grew between the trees.  For those not up to Latin names for trees, the forest consisted of black oak, tulip, black walnut, sycamore, shell bark hickory, beech, elm, and sweetgum.”)

…To keep within the bounds of truth and reality, in describing the magnitude and grandeur of these trees, would, I fear, fail of credibility; yet, I think I can assert, that many of the black oaks measured, eight, nine, ten, and eleven feet in diameter five feet above the ground, as we measured several that were above thirty feet girt, and from whence they ascend perfectly strait, with a gradual taper, forty or fifty feet to the limbs; but, below five or six feet, these trunks would measure a third more in circumference, on account of the projecting jambs, or supports, which are more or less, according to the number of horizontal roots, that they arise from: the Tulip tree, Liquidamber, and Beech, were equally stately…

 

Painting by Philip Juras.  Bartram inspired this artist to create 68 landcape paintings based on descriptions from his book, Travels.   This painting is of a piedmont woodland opening, much like what Bartram describes in his passage on the “magnificent” forest, though I think the trees aren’t as big. Philip Juras’s portfolio will be on display at the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta from May 28-August 14.  I can’t wait to see them in person!

The composition of William Bartram’s magnificent forest puzzles me.  The forest was dominated by “thinly planted” black oaks which implies a forest dependent upon frequent fires for oaks and grasses to grow. Oaks and grasses are fire tolerant but shade intolerant.  However, the other species of trees in this fores are fire intolerant, yet shade tolerant.  I asked Marc Abrams, a forest ecologist from Penn State, about this curious composition of trees.  He explained that Bartram’s description was of a lower slope mixed mesophytic forest with the exception of the black oaks which don’t fit into this kind of forest because it is not pyrogenic.  He had no definitive answer as to how this forest developed.  Reading the next paragraph in Travels, however, gave me an idea.

Not far distant from the terrace, or eminence, overlooking the low grounds of the river, many very magnificent monuments of the power and industry of the ancient inhabitants of these lands are visible.  I observed a stupendous conical pyramid, or artificial mount of earth, vast tetragon terraces, and a large sunken area, of a cubical form, encompassed with banks of earth; and certain traces of a large Indian town, the work of a powerful nation, whose period of grandeur perhaps long preceded the discovery of this continent.

This impressive forest apparently was adjacent to an ancient Indian town, probably a large one.  If I recall my archaeology correctly, the mound-building Indians abandoned their towns between 1300AD-1500AD.  Bartram’s magnificent forest may have been this town’s hunting grounds which they managed by periodically burning it to maintain a grassy oak savannah favorable for game such as deer, buffalo, and turkey.  After the Indians abandoned the area, the fire intolerant/shade tolerant species, first establishing themselves alongside the abundant creeks, colonized this woodland, but the black oaks remained, living to a great age, and thus explaining their size.  Black oaks can live to be 250 years old.  The passage was written in 1773; the moundbuilders abandoned the town some time in the previous 150 years, so this stretch of woods was still an oak forest, but eventually was on the way to becoming a forest dominated by shade tolerant beech, sycamore, and elm.

European settlers probably clear cut this forest between 1830-1860 after they kicked the Indians out of the state but before the Civil War stifled the economy.  They also probably ploughed, flattened, and destroyed  the Indian mounds. I’ll have to take a day trip and explore this area some time this summer and see if I can find any remnants of what Bartram saw.

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An addendum to last week’s blog entry–The natural history of the Congaree

Last week, I wrote that as far as I knew there had been no palynological studies determining the age of the Congaree Swamp.  To prove myself wrong, I google searched and did find one–“Palynology and Paleoecology of Late Pleistocene to Holocene, organic rich, paleomeander/rim swamp deposits in South Carolina, and Georgia” by Art Cohen, et. al. from the Geological Society of America 38 (7) Oct. 2006.  Scientists took cores in a place known as Muck swamp within the Congaree.  The oldest zone dated to 21,000 BP, and they found pollen and macrofossils of water lillies, diatoms, algae, spruce, and an evening primrose flower related to a species found in Alaska.  They interpeted this to mean that Muck Swamp was an oxbow lake during this time period.  It must have been an important refuge for waterfowl because during this cool arid climatic stage, wetlands were scarce.  A younger, undated zone contained pollen of oak, hickory, chestnut, and walnut.  They interpet this zone to be a marsh, but it seems more like an upland hardwood forest to me.  Zone 3, dating to about 3500 BP contained pollen of pine, sweetgum, alder, cypress, tupelo, and magnolia. Cypress was the last of the modern day representatives to colonize (or perhaps recolonize) the swamp.