The following is just part of a chapter from the book, Lost Ohio - More
Travels into Haunted Landscapes, Ghost Towns, and Forgotten Lives.
wamp fascinating! Enjoy!
Travels in the Great Black Swamp
Nature took twenty-five thousand years to create the Great Black Swamp; and humans took fifty years to strip it. The glacier did the heaviest work, grinding the earth like a bowling ball on an anthill. At Cleveland, the ice was eight thousand feet thick. Retreating fourteen thousand years ago, it dammed a poorly drained area on the eastern end of the Lake Erie basin to form one of the nine ancient lakes, which
eventually dried and left sand ridges in the clay soil the way ridges form on a beach. Along the newer Lake Erie, the lake plains evolved into a larger pear-shaped region in northwest Ohio, black organic matter piled on glacial soil to nurture swampy forests for ten thousand years. It was the ultimate compost heap.
Swamp chestnuts produced millions of nuts that covered the water and ground an choked other young trees. In this dark, wet place, [in ancient times,] armies of spiny hellrats -- flashing their snouts and sharp claws, they resembled weasels -- probed the mulch for nuts. Another nut-eating dinosaur, the American harrack, ate the nuts and the hellrats.
Centuries later, before the arrival of the white man, the Great Black Swamp remained untouched and covered by water nine months a year. Vegetation grew wildly, becoming by the 1700's the largest deciduous forest in north America. Its soil was a black, oozing muck. An early observer describe the swamp as thoroughly impregnated with lime, forming a tough, waxy mud that stuck to wagon wheels.
According to some estimates, the swamp measured 120 miles long and 40 miles wide. The worst part was an area as large as Connecticut, between the Maumee and Auglaize rivers. It had a split personality; just when it appeared to be all wet, dark, and muddy, a prairie would pop up to tantalize visitors. Some scientists believe the swamp stretched from Lake Erie to New Haven, Indiana. Because nature doesn't provide
boundaries like fences, no one knows for certain where the swamp began or ended. Most people agree that it consisted of eight contiguous counties, including Lucas, Wood, Paulding, Hancock, Defiance, and Putnam.
Neighboring counties were swampy enough for many people to consider them Black Swamp territory. They included parts of Van Wert, Seneca, Ottowa, Fulton, Sandusky, Erie, and Henry counties. (I call these places the swamp suburbs.)
Pioneers did not draw much distinction between areas inside and outside the swamp. By more liberal estimates, its murky fingers extended as far south as Allen and Mercer counties, north to Williams and Lucas, east to Hardin, and west to Indiana. (An old surveyor's wall map, which hangs in the study of the Sherman House in Lancaster, shows the Great Black Swamp covering Ohio's entire northwest quarter, all the way to the Indiana border in the west and the Darke County line in the south.) "The perfect uniformity of the soil has given the forest a homogeneous character,"
historian Henry Howe wrote of the swamp in the late 1800's. "The trees are all generally the same height, so that when viewed at a distance through the haze, the forest appears like an immense blue wall stretched across the horizon."
By the time I traveled in the area, everything had changed. I drove for miles without seeing a single tree. Then I'd see clumps of them. I never did find a swamp, and only one marsh. When I visited my wife's family in Van Wert County, I was surprised to learn that their farm -- started by her German immigrant grandfather in the late 1800's-- once stood on the swamp's edge. Nowadays, few people know that a big swamp once existed there, or that their ancestors stripped primeval forests, set up logging and tile-making industries, and later established the former swamp as one of the nation's richest farming areas. They transformed the land, created an agrarian culture, and in the process eliminated the songbird, panthers, bears, and wolves.
Pioneers saw the forest as a challenge to their collective ax. They chopped, sawed, smashed, bumped, banged, and pulled down as many trees as possible. Or they held "burning bees," competitions to burn down the forests. The earliest settlers found 95 percent of Ohio filled with trees -- twenty five million acres of virgin forest. (Today, naturalists identify only about seven hundred Ohio forested acres as virgin.)
Because of the wet conditions, Ohio's nine northwestern counties developed last, from 1850 to 1900. By 1930, they were the most heavily farmed counties in the state. Probably the larges forest left in northwest Ohio is in Paulding County -- three hundred acres of old-growth ask, walnut, basswood, red maple, oak, and hickory.
Seemingly obsessed, the whole state considered tree-cutting its patriotic duty. And in the swamp, where trees were overly abundant, the cutting took on the fervor of a religious ritual.
Soldiers called the swamp their personal hell. Its bad reputation spread throughout the West. Simon Girty, the hated white renegade who led the Indian attack on Fort Henry in 1777, hid in the Black Swamp, thus adding to his -- and its -- sinister image. (Today he would be called a terrorist.)
There in the mud, Mother Nature joined forces with the enemy. When General Anthony Wayne signed the treaty of Greenville wit the Indians in 1795, he generously gave them some of the Black Swamp.
Wayne had found and burned Ottawa cornfields on lowlands of the Maumee and Auglaize. Later, he wrote that he had never "beheld such immense fields of corn, in any part of America, from Canada to Florida."
While standing in the swamp's woods, people couldn't see the sun. This unnerved them. Dark shadows covered everything. The Indians refused to live there; they entered only the river bottoms to hunt and trap. In the early 1800's, the pioneers settled on its edges. Only the fearless chopped down trees and built cabins in the swamp. It was so dense that a hunter got lost only a short distance from Fort Meigs; for three days, he wandered among the trees and wolves, until he accidentally walked into the fort's walls, at which point he did not recognize his wife or children or even know his name. A blacksmith named Jacob Nofziger wasn't so lucky: He tried to go from the Tiffin River to the Maumee and was never seen again. Neither were his oxen, wagon, and belongings. Another settler, Christian Lauber, tried to cross a creek, but his exhausted oxen stopped in the middle and refused to move. Returning the next morning, he and a neighbor found the team frozen in the water. They broke the ice, freed the animals, and slid provisions across the icy creek. When traveler William Woodbridge arrived at Fort Meigs on January 18, 1815, he wrote: "My great terrour, the Black Swamp, is passed. No part of this road seems so very bad as has been presented, but the evil in it is in its perfect sameness; an a moderately wet season it will be generally covered by two or three inches of water and mud nearly a foot, with few exceptions of dry spots."
Such conditions -- and fear of the unknown -- convinced many travelers to bypass the swamp on their way west, although the new route required them to travel hundreds of additional miles by wagon. Most travelers never regretted the inconvenience. Experienced frontiersman William Henry Harrison, who fought at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, said a couple of trips across the Black Swamp could kill a brigade of packhorses. American army scouts feared the swamp, but troops at Fort Meigs were awed
by its dark wonders. They saw fish so plentiful that their jumping frightened horses on Maumee fords. In keeping with the swamp's larger-than-life reputation, a soldier in Wayne's cavalry company at Fort efiance once claimed he caught a [fish] so large that his entire unit feasted on it.
In late winter, mud and water often stood three feet deep, making passage impossible. The swamp had little natural drainage. Two thirds of it was under water. As late as 1870, brave people ice-skated the thirty-five miles from Paulding to Van Wert. In summer, water stood in big pools, breeding black clouds of gnats. The wet, low environment encouraged hundreds of flora species, including basswood, elm, ironwood, oak, cottonwood, ash, maple, sycamore, poplar, hickory, beech, and black walnut. An early surveyor wrote in his journal, "Water! Water! Water! Tall timber! Deep water! Not a blade of grass growing or a bird to be seen." Added Williams County pioneer George W. Perky: "We read that God divided the land from the water, but here is a place He forgot."
During the War of 1812, American and British generals knew the swamp cut off the western United States from Michigan.
If the Canadians fortified western Lake Erie, they could use the swamp as a buffer and the British navy could control the lake. American scout Robert Lucas, who would become an Ohio governor, realized the swamp's strategic value, so he traveled from the Maumee to the advancing American army to make reports. His journal contained the first reference to the Black Swamp: "Traveled about twenty-five miles, a very rainy day and then encamped in what is called the Black Swamp, had a disagreeable night of wet and mosquitoes."
Disagreeable? Travelers saw dark mists heading toward them -- mosquitoes! They grabbed their napes, and saw blood all over their hands. Animals were bitten so many times, they almost went mad. Malaria-- then called "swamp fever"-- was common; some people contracted it so often that they became immune. But newcomers died from it.
It turned the skin yellow, caused violent chills and high fever, and left the lucky ones exhausted. Only quinine helped relieve the symptoms. When immigrants dug the canal in the early 1840s, they lived in shanties and practically lived on whiskey and quinine.
They breathed air polluted with malarial effluvia from the swamps, and as a result they caught the fever and ague. On the Maumee River, "the fever spared no one," the Black Swamp pioneer Louis Simonis wrote in 1835. The area was a "forsaken, desolate, ague-smitten, tangled, and inhospitable wilderness where diseases spread with rapidity and with relentless morality." Strangely, the Indians did not seem to come down with malaria and other fevers as often as whites, perhaps because they had developed immunity.
Ague-- a malarial fever with chills -- was so widespread in the swamp that families kept salt, pepper, and quinine on their kitchen tables. Cholera and typhoid struck, too. Pioneers disagreed about the fever's transmission; some said it came from eating swamp fish; other said it came from air poisoned by decaying vegetation. Apparently they did not consider the blood-lusting mosquitoes that attacked in squadrons.