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The Primitive Forests


Contributor::

Transcription contributed by Martie Callihan 28 Oct 2004

Sources:
The History of Warren County Ohio
Part III, The History of Warren County
Chapter IV. Pioneer History
(Chicago, IL: W. H. Beers Co, 1882; reprint, Mt. Vernon, IN: Windmill Publications, 1992)

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It is not easy to describe the Miami Valley as it appeared in its primitive luxuriance to the eyes of the pioneers.. No woodland to-day, even in the most unfrequented spot, wears the rich and exuberant garb which nature gave it. Under the transforming power of civilization, the earth assumes a new aspect. Even the woods and the streams are changed. Herbage and shrubs which once grew luxuriantly in our forests have been eaten out by cattle until they can only be found in the most secluded and inaccessible places. Trees cut down are succeeded by others of a different growth.

The general face of the country exhibited to the pioneer of the Miamis a wild luxuriance which cannot well be described. The great fertility of the soil was attested by the variety and exuberance of its vegetation. The native forests covered the whole surface of the county, unrelieved by those open plains or natural meadows so common fifty or seventy-five miles north. Even without the savage war-whoop, it was a wild country. There stood the forests, not as now, by their contrast with the sunny fields and dusty roads inviting the trav-

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eler and laborer to repose in their shade, but every tree seemed an enemy to be slaughtered by the woodman's steel. Now the grove is the attractive spot; then the clearing which let in the sunlight seemed only inviting.

One hundred and three species of trees and herbaceous plants, native of the Miami woods, were catalogued by Dr. Daniel Drake at the beginning of this century, thirty of which rose to the height of sixty feet or more. There is no dividing line in nature between a tree and a shrub, but most botanists have agreed arbitrarily upon thirty feet as a minimum height of a species entitled to be called a tree. The richness of the Miami woods will be seen when it is stated that in all Germany, embracing the whole of Central Europe, there are but sixty species of trees. In France, the number is given by some as thirty; by others, as thirty-four. In Great Britain, there are but twenty-nine species above thirty feet high, and of these, botanists describe but fifteen as large or moderately high.

In Warren County many species of valuable hardwoods grew to magnificent size and of good texture. The white oak here attained a remarkable development of size, if it did not quite reach the same strength attained in West Virginia. This noble tree, at the first settlement, would be found wherever there was a good clay soil, three or four feet in diameter and three or four hundred years old, but still green and flourishing; now these monarchs of the forest no longer flourish. The old and large white oaks are dying throughout Warren County; scarcely any large ones can be found which are not dead at the top. Other valuable trees are also dying slowly but surely from the top downward. The wild cherry, so valuable to the cabinet-worker, was scattered throughout the county, and, in some localities, was abundant. Now it is rarely found. On the plain between Muddy Creek and Turtle Creek, west of South Lebanon, stood an extensive forest of wild cherry trees of large size, which long since disappeared. Large black walnut trees were cut down and reduced to ashes, a single one of which could now be sold as it stood upon the ground for more than an acre of cultivated land in some parts of the county. Along the margins of the streams were seen the giant sycamores and elms; near by on the alluvial bottoms, the camp of sugar-maples, with its undergrowth of papaw, indicative of a rich soil; on higher grounds, the poplars, hickories and white walnuts grew to a stately height. In some places, the beech had almost exclusive possession. But a single grove of native chestnut trees was found between the Miami Rivers. It stood near the boundary line between Butler and Warren Counties, not far from Pisgah Church. The trees reached a diameter of four feet and produced large quantities of chestnuts. Of the trees and plants whose fruit might furnish food for man or mast for game and swine, the fox grape, fall grape and winter grape, the gooseberry, the black currant, the haw, the crab-apple, the mulberry, the beech, the black walnut, the butternut, the hickory and several varieties of the oak, the hazel nut and the persimmon, were all natives of the Miami forests.

An undergrowth of spice brush was spread over all the richer uplands of the county, almost as impenetrable as the cane brake of Kentucky, and, like the cane, it has disappeared with the encroachments of civilization. The spice bushes greatly retarded the work of the early surveyors. They were abundant on the plat of Lebanon long after the town had become a county seat. The flowers of the shrub appeared early in spring before the leaves, and were succeeded by small clusters of berries, which, when ripe, in September, were of a bright crimson color. The berries are said to have been used sometimes instead of allspice. A decoction from the branches made a gently stimulating drink, sometimes used in low fevers, and the shrub was often called the fever-bush.

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There was beauty as well as magnificence in the primeval forests. Under the branches of the giant trees grew shrubs and flowers, as perfect as if they had been cultivated by the skillful florist. There were wild lilies and roses. In the early spring were seen the bright green of the buckeye leaves, the pure white blossoms of the dogwood, the purple hue of the red-bud, and on the ground the many hues of more than a hundred species of wild flowers. A tall weed covered the fertile bottoms of the streams, growing thick as hemp and overtopping horse and rider.

The age of the gigantic denizens of our forests has probably been overstated. Some writers have spoken of them as of many centuries' growth. There are probably very few trees now standing in the Miami Valley which had begun to grow before the discovery of America in 1492. The greatest portion of even our largest trees are probably less than three hundred years old. Our hardwood species probably attain a diameter of thirty inches in two and a half centuries. A limited number of species, or a single species having possession of a forest, it is thought, indicates that the forest has but recently sprung into existence, and at no distant period the ground was destitute of trees. The tendency of forests is toward a multiplication of the varieties of trees. The great number of species of trees would indicate that most portions of the Miami Valley have long been clothed with a forest covering.


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