Prairies are landscapes of history, not just the pioneer settlements of 200 years ago, but extending thousands of years into the past. Their very existence is intimately tied to human activity; this was true millennia ago, and is still true today.
Stick with me for a history lesson; I have pictures, I promise!
When we think of prairies, we often think of the Great Plains, where vast areas in the rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains were covered with nutritious shortgrasses that sustained vast herds of grazing animals. Ohio’s original prairies were different, however. They were tallgrass prairies, less nutritious to grazing animals, with a different ecosystem. Thousands of years ago, Ohio was mostly covered with forests and wetlands. It is often said that a squirrel could travel from tree to tree from Pennsylvania to Indiana without setting foot on the ground during the Archaic Period of North American history. This era was before writing existed, when the ancestors of historical Native American tribes such as the Adena and Hopewell people lived in Ohio. This was also an age that saw a climatic period known as the Xerothermic Interval, a warm and dry period after the last glaciers had retreated north, roughly from 8,000 to 4,000 years ago. This warm climate allowed the expansion of grassland plant and animal species from the western part of the continent into Ohio, establishing the first prairie areas here. Prairie areas this far east were wetter than their western counterparts, leading to different ecological features. When the first European settlers arrived in the Ohio country, the area was from 2 to 4 per cent prairie.
Why such a small area? Forests and wetlands covered far more land area for one simple reason: prairie grasslands, left to the cycle of nature, eventually see trees take root, and as the trees grow, shade discourages the prairie plant species and returns the land back to forest. So, how did those small portions of Ohio stay prairie land?
The answer was Native Americans. Peoples across the world for thousands of years have set fires to grasslands. Native Americans found the hunting of such animals as White-Tailed Deer, Elk and Bison easier on prairie lands. After several years of growth, prairies become difficult to walk through; after several more years, they start to return to forestland as trees grow taller. The way to prevent this is to periodically burn the prairie, killing the young trees so the forest cannot once more take root. This also fertilizes the soil with the remains of prairie plants and grasses. Prairie plants can easily survive fire because their underground roots live on and produce new plants. Also, a very efficient way to hunt game is to set fires to drive deer and other species into a line of waiting spearmen and bowmen, who can kill a herd of game animals and cure the meat to last through the long winter season. So fire is an effective hunting strategy as well as a way to keep the prairie from returning to forestland. Natural lightning fires are too few to keep the prairie naturally cleansed this way; prairies were (and still are) symbiotic with humanity.
When the European settlers displaced Native Americans, they found that Ohio’s prairie soil was particularly rich in nutrients. Wooden plows gave way to John Deere’s more efficient steel moldboard plows, and prairie land became easier to farm. This sealed the fate of most of Ohio’s prairie lands. A landscape that had been born in a warm dry climate period and had survived with human assistance for thousands of years had become fertile farmland for growing crops. What one people had sustained had come to an end at the hand of another people. By 1900, most of the Ohio prairie was gone.
Luckily, some remnants survived. There were always areas such as ditches, pioneer cemeteries, and railroad right-of-ways that had preserved bits and pieces of prairies in Ohio. In the late 1800s, college botany departments and such dedicated individuals as Edwin Lincoln Moseley, a Sandusky High School science teacher, had collected hundreds of plant specimens from prairie fragments.
Here is one such area- Bigelow Pioneer Cemetery State Nature Preserve. Created in 1978 on the site of an early 1800s pioneer cemetery in Madison County, this half-acre of land has never been plowed or grazed. I visited it one early August morning. It is nestled deep in farm country.
The soil of the cemetery is higher up than the farmland surrounding it, which has eroded over the years.
The grass pathways in the cemetery are narrow and surrounded by prairie plants and grasses.
The earliest tombstones here date from 1814- a year previous to that date, settlers from Vermont and Pennsylvania had started farming here along the ‘post road’ (now State Route 161). Veteran Benjamin Hough started a family farm near here with a military land grant. The last burial here is from 1892. Many buried here died in infancy or childbirth. Some lived into their 60s and beyond.
As funds become available, worn tombstones are being replaced.
Big Bluestem is the most common prairie tallgrass in Ohio. At one time, this grass covered perhaps a million acres of the state.
Royal Catchfly is an endangered species in Ohio.
A patch of Gray Headed Coneflower.
Woodland Sunflowers brighten the cemetery.
Soapwort was made into a lathery substance used as a soap substitute by settlers.
Prairie Dock can grow up to 10 feet tall.
In modern times, as the environmental movement went mainstream, there was interest in bringing back prairies to Ohio. In 1976 the central Ohio Metropolitan Parks system began a prairie restoration project. Quantities of seeds were harvested from the fragments of prairie remnants, and were eventually sown on 1,100 acres of parkland at Batelle Darby Creek and Prairie Oaks Metro Parks. The area where these parks are located was once part of the Darby Plains prairie ecosystem. Now, when you visit these parks, you can walk through a prairie landscape that has not been seen in this area of Ohio for nearly 200 years. Here are some images from my visit this morning to Batelle Darby Creek’s restored prairie.
The oak savanna is a particular fire-resistant type of prairie ecosystem.
There are pioneer accounts of riding through tallgrass prairies where the vegetation towered over men on horseback.
Hairy Sunflowers are quite numerous in August.
American Goldfinches love prairie areas- there are all sorts of good things to eat for them here.
This Purple Coneflower is a bit ragged now, but its seed head looks promising.
Bison have been reintroduced to this part of the park. Ohio never had the vast Bison herds that once covered the Great Plains, but a smaller amount of this animal’s ancestors walked the Darby Plains for thousands of years.
Every so often, Metro Parks does a controlled burn of the restored prairie areas; as Native Americans knew, this will perpetuate the prairie ecosystem for future generations. I have to say I’m quite impressed with the work they’ve done in helping bring back the prairie to Ohio.
A great site to learn more about Ohio’s prairies is The Ohio Prairie Association’s webpage.