The Hand of Extermination & Extirpation: Environmental Histories of the Scioto Valley

Here’s an excerpt from the talk I recently gave before the Environmental Educators Council of Ohio.  It represents my new foray into writing an environmental history of the Scioto Valley.  ~ ALF

The valley’s forests at the end of the 18th century swarmed with wild life and left its first American visitors in awe.  James B. Finley, an early settler in the valley recalled his first trip up the Scioto in 1796:

“It would be impossible for me to describe the beauty of these rich bottoms. The soil itself for richness was not exceeded by any in the world. The lofty sugar [maple]-tree, spreading its beautiful branches; the graceful elm, waving its tall head, the monarch of the forest; the black and white walnut; the giant oak, the tall hickory; the cherry and hackberry; the spicewood, with its fragrance; the pawpaw, with its luscious fruit; the wild plum; the rich clusters of grapes, which, hanging from the massy vines, festooned the forest; and, beneath all, the wild rye, green as a wheat-field, mixed with the prairie and buffalo clover — all formed a garden of nature most enchanting to behold. The clear and beautiful rivulet creeping through the grass, and softly rippling over pebbly bottoms, the gentle zephyrs [breezes] freighted with nature’s incense, pure and sweet, regaled our senses, and filled us with delight. All nature had a voice which spoke most impressively to the soul; and while all the senses were pervaded with an unutterable delight, the solemn stillness seemed to say, God reigns here. The song of the lark and nightingale, the melancholy wail of the dove [passenger pigeon] or whistle of the whippoorwill, the low hum of the bee, the chirping of the grasshopper, the bark of the squirrel, the drumming of the pheasant, the bleat of the fawn, the growl of the bear, the hoot of the owl, the howl of the wolf, the scream of the panther, and the yell of the Indian, were all that broke the silence in this deep and beautiful forest.”

The reign of God, like the reign of the Shawnee and other Indians, however, was coming to an end.  Within a generation, American settlers of European and African descent would claim dominion over the valley and its flora and fauna, forever changing the natural history of  the region.

While we might call him Homo Americanus, and thereby emphasize the distinctly American characteristics of our subject, it is also quite clear that many reputable historians have argued in favor of emphasizing the role of Western culture in shaping the American character.  And, in some academic circles, particularly those of an environmentalist bent, the West and its Judeao-Christian and Roman-Greek grounded cultural heritage has been the primary force behind the degradation of nature, in general, and the depletion of the Earth’s limited natural resources and exploitation of animal and human labor.  Historian Richard Tarnas notes:  “Disenchanted eyes are now cast onto the West’s long history of ruthless expansionism and exploitation — the rapacity of its elites from ancient times to modern, its systematic thriving at the expense of others, its colonialism and imperialism, its slavery and genocide, its anti-Semitism, its oppression of women, people of color, minorities, homosexuals, the working classes, the poor, its destruction of indigenous societies throughout the world, its arrogant insensitivity to other cultural traditions and values, its cruel abuse of other forms of life, its blind ravaging of virtually the entire planet.”

A typical pioneer homestead as one would find in the Scioto Valley. Note the pioneer practice of girdling trees to clear the forest for farm and home. Original presentation slide by Andrew Lee Feight.

But, what Tarnas associates with modern-day environmentalist writers, was really not so new.  In 1871, Ross County historians Rufus Putnam and Isaac Finley captured this sense of exploitation

“To cultivate this land it was necessary first to clear it, which was a laborious job. Much of this timber, especially on Walnut creek, consisted of the finest yellow poplar, tall and straight, and many of them four and six feet in diameter. To get these trees out of the way required much labor, as there were no saw mills, stationary or portable, then, to work up those remarkable trees, but thousands of them were deadened and suffered to stand and dry a few years, then cut down and burned by using the smaller limbs and other timber as “niggers.” To clear a farm thickly set with timber was a work of years, and was accomplished only by persevering industry.

“The beauty of these forests as they then stood, interspersed with all the varieties of timber common to this country, can only be imagined; and there is not a single nook or corner in the bounds of this township that has not been despoiled, not so much by the “scythe of time,” as by the ” ax of progress.” It scarcely seems possible that so great a change could be wrought in all our forests in seventy years as has already been. And it seems scarcely credible that in the settlement of a whole township, not one land owner could have had forethought enough to have saved a ten-acre lot of timber in its natural glorious state, with its magnificent poplars, walnuts, oaks, sugars, grapevines, pawpaws, spice-wood, etc. Such a ten-acre lot, as it once stood seventy years ago, would to-day be a greater curiosity, and attract more attention, than the best thousand acre farm in Ross county. ….

“The great pervading element our pioneers brought with them was destructiveness to trees, vines, flowers, and shrubs; to wild beasts, from the fat bear to the little ground squirrel; and from the wild turkey to the humming bird, the same hand of extermination was extended.”

The animal species that would soon disappear included some of those mentioned by Finley, such as the passenger pigeon, white-tailed deer, wolf, black bear, and panther.  But others he failed to mention would also be extirpated in the Scioto Valley, such as the American Bison and the Carolina Parakeet, the last of which, like the Pigeon, would go completely extinct.

Henry Bannon, prominent Portsmouth attorney, Republican Party leader, and popular local historian, whose book, Stories Old and Often Told, includes a chapter on "The Big Game in Scioto County." Original presentation slide by Andrew Lee Feight.

Scioto valley historians have long embraced a highly critical opinion of the settlers’ treatment of the natural environment.  In 1927, when local Portsmouth attorney, Henry Bannon wrote his natural history of the “Big Game in Scioto County,” Bannon concluded that “Whenever the government grants to settlers its title to the public domain, without reserving sanctuaries for the wild game, the wild game will be exterminated.”

In 1938, when Floyd Chapman, the late Field Ecologist with the Ohio Division of Conservation, related his telling of the region’s environmental history he did not restrain his judgement either.

“The history of the land in that region is one that the people of Ohio cannot be proud of.  After colonization began in 1788, came an era of exploitation of the natural resources — cutting, burning, mining — destroying without restoring — reducing a priceless heritage to bare soil, muddy streams and blackened stumps.  Game disappeared, the big game first, then the valuable fur-bearers, non-game birds and mammals.  Streams carried a scum of dead fish, aquatic habitats were ruined by mine acids, stream bottoms became buried with silt, whole stream systems were converted into open sewers, and streams and ponds were covered with crude oil in misguided attempts to control mosquitos.  The inevitable result of this abuse was the depletion of the wildlife resources of the region.  What a heritage for succeeding generations!  After the protective vegetation was removed, there was a long period of further land abuse in which millions of tons of soil and humus were washed away, or consumed in burning operations.  Natural low water tables were reduced still further, until today, in Southwestern Scioto County, a valley well must be drilled to a depth of 100 feet or more before a suitable flow occurs.  Even then the water may be brackish and unfit to drink.”

Chapman explains the rapid extirpation of the large fauna of the region as the direct result of the destruction of the Old Forest.  “Since the main arteries of travel were the waterways,” writes Chapman, “the first settlements were located along the larger streams.  Clearing of the land for villages and farms was a slow process, but it was begun in so many places in central and southeastern Ohio at about the same time, that the effects were immediately felt by elk and buffalo, which became extirpated very early after settlement began.

Chapman continues his narrative of destruction and decline by pointing out how quickly the original settlers and land owners came to abandon the lands of what became Shawnee State Forest.  “Soil and water abuse did not continue long,” explains Chapman,

“before it became impossible to make a living on the steep hillside farms.  Land owners rented their land to tenant farmers, who, in most cases, did not manage the lands as well as the original occupants.  The tenants moved away to the cities.  Then followed land abandonment.  Tax delinquency became exceedingly high, and this resulted in the curtailment of certain government functions such as roads and school maintenance.  ….

“From 1788 to about 1833, Ohio pioneers were occupied with the huge task of clearing the land.  They were impatient to become established in their new homes, to settle down, and to farm their lands. ….  When crop failure occured, poverty resulted because the settlers had no other foodstuffs to rely upon.  Early historians tell of oft-recurring times when squirrels destroyed the newly planted corn crop, or the ripened crop standing in the fields.”

Chapman sites a 1938 study, to point out that “Land abandonment was underway in parts of southeastern Ohio before the fertile flat lands of northwestern Ohio had been settled.”  Chapman indicates that much of the forest was cut down for the [iron] furnaces, as well as for props in the coal mines and for tanneries.  “In most cases, however,” he notes, “timber was merely cut or burned down to get it out of the way.  Forest fires were often purposefully set, and whole townships were burned over.

Deforestation of the bottom lands of the river, hundreds of square miles, that were once populated with massive, hundred or more year old sycamores, would be cleared for the planting of corn.  While sycamores, the largest deciduous tree species in America, can still be found along the edges of the Scioto, the Ohio, and the smaller tributaries of the region, such as Turkey Creek, here in the Shawnee State Forest, the ancient giants are gone.

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