The Great Black Swamp

by Carolyn V. Platt

[from “TIMELlNE” - a publication of the Ohio Historical Society - February-March 1987]
[Printed in the April & July 1987 issues of “The Towpath” by Editor Janet Fledderjohn]

Drowned worms always showed up in the Bowling Green, Ohio, city park after heavy rains. Their pale bodies strewed the sticky surface of grayish-brown mud where children tried to play without miring their shoes. Pools of tepid water stood about under the dark trees, trapped by the land's flatness and the layer of watertight clay just beneath its surface. The same damp scene often faced us when my father drove the family farther afield to Mary Jane Thurstin Park twenty miles north on the Maumee River.

A sizable ditch flowed beside each county road, spiked with cattails and gaudy in late June with orange ditchbank lilies. In spring we scooped tadpoles into glass jars from roadsides close to home. It was years before I discovered that roads didn't always mean ditches as well. In the banks of many, you could see the round pink clay tile that dripped water from the level black fields into the area drainage system, and sometimes heaps of tile where a farmer planned to improve the fields' under-draining. Once in a while, the car's nose would lift slightly, and we would slide over a mighty ridge, perhaps ten feet higher than the flat, flat countryside. On plowed land, the slight rise would look sandy yellow rather than the dark, loamy brown that stretched around it to the horizon.

My sister and I would remember with pleasurable shivers that we lived in the middle of what had once been the legendary Great Black Swamp of northwestern Ohio. As we rode, we tried to imagine that the small wood lots dotting the fields were spreading to cover the corn and soybeans, blotting out the midsummer sun, and surrounding us with mysterious gloom. There wasn't much for the imagination to work with, though; the great swamp has faded with fewer traces than almost any other part of Ohio's wilderness.

This waterland was once enormous. It stretched south of the Maumee River, 30 to 40 miles wide, for 120 miles from the Sandusky River in the east, nearly to Fort Wayne, Indiana, in the west. It crossed the area of ten counties, and was poorly drained by four rivers: the Maumee, the Auglaize, the Portage, and the Sandusky. Water stood in it during the wetter seasons, and moisture oozed underfoot in all but the driest periods. Beginning with the Indians, almost everyone avoided its knee-deep mud and ravenous mosquitoes. Indian villages ringed the swamp, and a look at any map shows that later settlements followed their example. Port Clinton, Fremont, Findlay, Delphos, Van Wert, Fort Wayne, Defiance, Napoleon, Maumee, and Toledo fall into a clockwise pattern around the old swampland's edge. Only Bowling Green lies in its heart.

The glaciers prepared the land for the swamp. They ground down the country's earlier relief, and when they melted about 12,000 years ago, they formed Lakes Maumee, Whittlesey and Warren ­earlier, and larger versions of present Lake Erie. As the lakes in turn withdrew, they left behind a pavement-flat plain covered with fine, clay sediment impervious to water and crossed occasionally by low moraines and old, sandy beach ridges.

These were the factors that formed the big morass: a slope toward the northeast of only about four feet each mile, fine blue clay subsoil that cupped water, and low beach ridges that ran across the direction of drainage. For awhile, the area must have been a vast cattail marsh, busy with waterfowl, but natural plant succession gradually formed a thick swamp forest. Ancient elm and ash trees grew with their roots in the standing waters, with massive oaks and hickories on the sandy beach ridges. Windfalls, especially the tumbled trees uprooted by occasional tornadoes, together with the deep, heavy mud, made the region almost impassable. No one knows the origin of the name "Black Swamp”. Nineteenth-century land speculators claimed that it referred to the rich black soil, but it seems just as likely that early travelers were thinking about the forest's gloom and its feeling of ominous remoteness.

Northwestern Ohio remained Indian territory later than most areas of the state, and important Ottawa villages dotted the Maumee Valley until the end of the eighteenth century. In 1794 Anthony Wayne marveled at "the very extensive and highly cultivated fields" that lay at the present site of Defiance, where the Auglaize enters the Maumee. The first decades of the nineteenth century saw the tribes ceding more and more of their lands through a series of treaties. Gradually, removed even from their reservations, the Indian exodus left the territory open to white penetration.

But settlement had scarcely touched the land by 1820. Settlers numbered 1,781 that year in the first federal census to include northwestern Ohio. One reason for the delay in taking up the land was the letters and journals of less-than-enchanted soldiers fighting in the War of 1812. Robert Lucas, probably the first to write about the Black Swamp by that name, reported in his journal: "Started from the foot of the Rapids [Maumee] to meet the army, proceeded through the wilderness towards Urbana, traveled about 25 miles - a very rainy day, and then encamped in what is called the Black Swamp, had a disagreeable night of wet and “Musketoes”. Others complained bitterly of mud that reached their horses’ saddle skirts and that oozed ankle-deep in their tents at night.

Both transportation problems and the financial panics of 1819 and 1837 caused settlement to lag after the war. In an attempt to retain control of Detroit, General William Hull's army had marched there from Urbana, Ohio in 1812, building Hull's Trace directly south to north through the heart of the swamp in Wood County. But that was merely a sodden wagon track. Another route was badly needed to cut through the swamp that blocked travel between the Western Reserve and the growing settlements in southeastern Michigan.

In 1823 Congress authorized the Maumee and Western Reserve Road from Sandusky to the Maumee Rapids (now the site of Maumee, southwest of Toledo). Completed in 1827, the route soon became notorious as "perhaps the worst road on the continent”, according to the History of Sandusky County. Many travelers preferred to brave Lake Erie squalls by boat or to travel overland through Ontario to reach Detroit. A tavern stood at every mile on the road between Fremont and Maumee to offer mired travelers lodging and other solace. Settlers made cash by pulling stalled teams out of mudholes.

During the 1830s, settlement stepped up, especially near present-day Maumee, Perrysburg, and Fremont. In 1832 a brave or foolhardy family even settled in the depths of the swamp on the site of Bowling Green itself. Yet huge tracts remained nearly empty, especially in Ottawa, Wood, Henry, Putnam, and Paulding counties. Transportation improved during the 1840s when both the Miami and Erie and the Wabash and Erie canals opened along the Maumee and Auglaize Rivers, but holding of land by the government and by land speculators restrained settlement. So did new reports of disease among the canal-building crews - typhoid, pneumonia, cholera, and especially malaria, usually called “ague” or "the shakes."

A Wood County doctor reminisced about his early Black Swamp years in 1897: "Whenever a new family made their appearance and settled down, we would all say, ‘There is another family with whom we can divide the shakes.’ It took from three to five years to get acclimated. The day the chill was to come on you could look out from 10 A.M. until 2 P.M. and you could see the boys come in to take their shake, as much so as to take their dinners. We had no need of a doctor to bleed the patient, for the pesky mosquitoes did all the bleeding that was necessary." A poem published in an 1837 edition of the Maumee City Express commented:

There's a funeral every day,
without a hearse or pall;
They tuck them in the ground
with breeches, coat and all.

Such reports must have discouraged the more cautious from settling in such an unwholesome region. Malaria disappeared only during the second half of the century, probably not because the swamps were drained - area residents know that there are still plenty of "pesky mosquitoes”, but through use of screens and medication that destroyed the disease's reservoir in humans.

Cholera and milk sickness were major problems as well. After a particularly devastating cholera epidemic in 1854, unfavorable publicity disturbed residents so much that they resolved at a meeting to change area place names. The village of Gilead was renamed Grand Rapids, the only new name that stuck. Attempts to change the Maumee River to Grand Rapids River and the town of Maumee to South Toledo failed. Milk from cows that ate poisonous white snakeroot caused milk sickness, prevalent in the 1840s and 1850s. It often killed, especially children.

Railroads and drainage ditches were the real keys to the magical transformation of early travelers' "frightful swamp" into today's neatly cultivated fields of corn, wheat, and soybeans. Developing the two proceeded hand-in-hand. Railroads arrived close on the heels of the canal gangs. The flat topography of northwest Ohio was no challenge for railroad construction, and by 1860 several important lines radiated from Toledo, and others fringed the area. By 1886 they webbed thickly over the whole region.

Not only did these iron roads surpass the canal’s ability to link farmers with markets, they also created an insatiable demand for wood - wood for the engines and for railroad ties as well. Much white oak also went to make rot-resistant masts and planking for Great Lakes ships and docks. While earlier settlers elsewhere had often simply cut and burned their timber, Black Swamp farmers sold theirs for extra cash. They gained both cleared fields and the ready cash to drain the rich soil at the same time. Professional lumbermen moved in as well, bringing logging crews from Canada: Eber Brock Ward built Ward's Canal at the swamp's northeastern edge to float logs into Lake Erie. He cleared a large area in the 1860s, and by 1869 seven sawmills operated near the village of Bono.

Individual farmers had plowed drainage furrows for some years, but demands soon arose for systematic area drainage systems. By 1850 a small enclave of settlers from Holland established farms on either side of the Miami and Erie Canal in the southwest corner of Putnam County, where their experience with the Dutch lowlands may have provided some technical advice for these early drainage efforts. An 1859 state law authorized digging of public ditches, and heavy farm taxes were levied to provide funds. Between 1859 and 1886, draining transformed the entire area. The biggest project, called the Jackson Cut-off, was dug in 1878-1879, diverting the Portage River's headwaters into Beaver Creek and the Maumee River. The nine-­mile ditch still drains parts of Wood, Henry, Putnam, and Hancock counties. Farmers also began to bury inverted wooden troughs and then clay tile to under-drain the fields, and by 1880 more than fifty tile factories used the region's plentiful clay to supply them. Free of standing water, the heavy black loam proved incredibly productive. By the 1880s the rich, flat northwestern Ohio cornfields and wood lots looked much as they do today - though woodcutting still goes on at a rather alarming pace. At present rates of cutting, experts estimate the lots will disappear by about the year 2030.

The enormous water-lands of the Great Black Swamp may have been settled later than other areas of the state, but they disappeared faster and with fewer traces than almost any other ecosystem in Ohio. They passed before anybody systematically studied their trees and plants, their animals, or their bird life. Because of this, anyone who tries to reconstruct a picture of the area's natural history engages in a fair amount of guesswork. Certainly, the area's ecology was nothing like the scene that my mother, sister and I took for granted in the 1950s when we looked for ring-necked pheasants and cottontails along the scrubby fencerows, and if lucky, might find a clutch of quail eggs nestled in the tall grasses.

The area's original trees formed a splendid deciduous swamp forest, whose diversity far surpassed that of beech-maple or oak-hickory associations. Small drainage differences produced this great variety of trees, which grew tall and small-crowned as they competed for sun in the canopy. Elm, black ash, sour gum, and silver or red maple shared the wettest spots with pin oak, swamp white oak, and sycamore. White ash, buckeye, shell bark hickory, honey locust, black cherry, and red and yellow oak claimed slightly better-drained land, threaded by enormous tangles of grapevine and poison ivy. There were no conifers. On the drier sandy ridges grew beech­-maple or oak-hickory forests. Yet there were spots too wet for even the water-rooted elms and ashes, especially in Wood and Sandusky counties. Here, where water stood two or three feet deep, the dark shade opened into prairies where dragonflies hovered in the hot sunlight among waving eight­-foot grasses and tall, showy flowers of yellow, purple, and white.

Few animals or birds lived in the swamp forest - the case in most climax forest communities. Wood frogs probably called in the early spring pools, and a few kinds of salamanders sheltered under damp logs. More varied amphibians and reptiles populated the prairie openings. A county history tells the intriguing story of a boy bitten by a "black viper”, almost certainly a massasauga or swamp rattler. An Indian approached the failing boy's doctor and offered to cure the young man for a jug of whiskey. When the patient quickly recovered, the doctor offered his colleague three more jugs for the secret remedy. Though the Indian agreed, there are no further references to the miracle cure. It must be said that bites from these small rattlers almost never kill, except, perhaps, the very young or feeble. Possibly the native doctor knew that.

Bird life was limited as well. Barred and great horned owls probably broke the dusky stillness with their startling hoots, mutters, and shrieks. Woodpeckers' drumming must have sounded often; downy, hairy, red-bellied, and big pileated woodpeckers scoured the mature forest's dead trees for insects, grubs, and eggs. Wild turkeys, long ago hunted out, lived under the trees, and possibly some ruffed grouse. Passenger pigeons may have roosted in the trees, though they preferred beech­maple forests for feeding on their favorite beechnuts. Woodland songbirds like red-eyed vireos, scarlet tanagers, flycatchers, redstarts, and exquisite blue cerulean warblers added notes of song and color to the dim green background.

Because the swamp died so quickly, we lack records of changes in small mammal populations, though it seems clear that open country species like deer mice, red foxes, and fox squirrels largely replaced their woodland counterparts, white-footed mice, gray foxes, and gray squirrels. (But gray squirrels still seem to dominate the Bowling Green parks and shade trees.) Brown rats and mice moved into barns and corncribs. The demise of game birds and large mammals is better documented. Many of them took refuge in the as yet un-drained swamp forest of northwestern Ohio, making the swamp, which had been poor in animal life, a paradise for hunters during the mid-nineteenth century. Hunting parties gathered there each year from more settled parts of the state, but woodcutting and hunting soon eliminated most game species.

The figures are eloquent: while a local newspaper reported that one hunting group alone shipped out about 350 deer carcasses in 1869, the last deer were killed only twenty years later. (Hunting completely wiped out deer state-wide, but they were reintroduced early in this century. Now they are common, even in the heavily farmed Black Swamp counties.) Bison and elk, never abundant in the area, vanished by the early years of the nineteenth century. Beaver abandoned the Maumee Valley by 1837. River otters dwindled throughout the century, and the last pair of cougars was killed in 1845, while lynxes and wolverines were gone by roughly the same date. Bobcats, however, were reported as being common as late as 1878. Gray wolves and bears were probably very rare by the 1860s. At least one Wood County pioneer paid for his land by hunting wolves for bounties: John Carter garnered $4.25 for grown wolves' scalps and $2.50 for those of cubs. An 1843 newspaper clipping states that he collected more than a fourth of all the wolf bounties paid that year in Wood County.

Wild turkeys seem to have hung on until nearly the end of the century, at least in the less settled areas of the Oak Openings west of Toledo, and passenger pigeons, the most numerous bird of the century's first half, were hunted out by 1900. Ruffed grouse and prairie chickens, birds of the more open areas, faded at about the same time. Some of the saddest casualties of settlement were the immense spawning grounds on the Black Swamp tributaries for lake sturgeon, Great Lakes muskellunge, and northern pike. Milldams blocked the fishes' spawning runs upstream from Lake Erie, silt covered their eggs and destroyed aquatic vegetation, and falling oxygen levels killed off the hordes of mayflies and other Great Lakes fish foods. A foot of good topsoil has washed into the streams from the naked earth between the rows of corn on the cleared land.

The area now supports those small birds and mammals of the open country that thrive close to human settlements. Many of these moved in only after the swamp's clearing and draining. Small birds became much more common than they were in the old swamp forests. Brown headed cowbirds, bobolinks, and horned larks moved in from the western grasslands, and savannah sparrows from the North. Vesper sparrows, song sparrows, dickcissels, and eastern meadowlarks appeared as well. Common crows and red-headed woodpeckers replaced their deep-woods counterparts - the common raven and pileated woodpecker.

Yellow-throated, cerulean, and golden-winged warblers declined or disappeared, to be replaced by the much-loved bluebirds, cardinals, and tufted titmice that moved in from the South. Robins became more common. A game bird of the open country, the ring-necked pheasant, was successfully introduced beginning in 1902. Barn swallows, purple martins, chimney swifts, and eastern phoebes began nesting in barns, martin houses, chimneys, and bridge structures - all provided by humans. Starlings and house sparrows, unwisely introduced in the nineteenth century, proliferated.

But small birds' numbers have fluctuated greatly over the past century: bobolinks, dickcissels, meadowlarks, red-headed woodpeckers, bluebirds, and ring-necked pheasants are far more rare than they were fifty years ago, because wooden fence posts were replaced first with concrete and then metal ones and because new, intensive farming methods eliminated fencerows altogether, leaving little cover at field edges. Forty years ago, flocks of fifty pheasants were common, and high schools regularly recessed the first day of pheasant hunting season. Now one is lucky to see two or three of these birds in a summer.


The heavy cover of massive trees and the black mud below them may have been responsible for the region's name of Black Swamp. Mud and the wind-felled logs that littered it made travel through the swamp extremely difficult. General "Mad Anthony" Wayne's 1794 victory over the Indians at the Battle of Fallen Timbers took its name from a tangled area created by a tornado. The swamp was a major barrier to settlement during the next half-century.

Enormous oaks dominated the drier parts of the swamp. Bur oaks were especially adaptable because, unlike many trees, their roots could tolerate water soaking. Thanks to the Goll family, who loved their trees too much to sell them, one nearly virgin stand of swamp forest remains in northwestern Ohio at Goll Woods State Nature Preserve. Only a few trees have been cut from the tract, first during World War I, when lumber was needed for the war effort, and more recently, when Dutch elm disease killed American elms.

Young American elms still growing with their roots in standing water at Ottawa National Wildlife Area in Lucas County are perhaps the best remaining example of swamp forest. Because the area is diked to maintain water levels for the Lake Erie marshes' waterfowl, standing water still creates conditions similar to those in the old swamp. Even the fine tract of forest at Goll Woods State Nature Preserve in Fulton County lacks standing water because surrounding farmlands have been drained.

Miterwort grows in May against the trunk of a more than 400-year-old oak at Goll Woods. Indians and settlers alike have passed close to its trunk, and gray wolves have howled beneath its branches. In spring, sheets of delicate flowers bloom under the venerable trees.

Blue violets and jewelweed are still common plants throughout Ohio's moister areas. While violets bloom in May, jewelweed blossoms orange or yellow in late summer. Juice from its leaves can soothe the itches of mosquito bites and poison ivy. Children also call jewelweed "touch-me-not," since its ripe seed pods explode at the touch of a finger.

Wood frogs must have bred widely in the Black Swamp's vernal pools. Few other animals, however, lived in the mature swamp forest. More varied animals and birds inhabited the wet prairie openings and the less dense oak habitat that formed on the area's sandy beach ridges.

The heavy clay soils that held captive the surface waters of the Black Swamp also furnished the means by which they could be drained away. Clay suitable for drain tile manufacture was abundant and rarely more than a foot or two beneath the surface. About 1880 there were eleven tile factories operating in Putnam County alone.

In the last decade of the nineteenth century a wood-fired kiln was turning out drainage tile at Grove Hill in Paulding County. Paulding's settlement was retarded both by natural conditions and by the ownership of much of its land by speculators anticipating the construction of railroads.

Dancing swarms of crane flies shimmer above the Black Swamp's woodland pools. Though the two-winged flies look like large mosquitoes, they do not bite. Swarms of voracious mosquitoes, however, were one of the Great Black Swamp's major hazards. Mosquito-carried malaria, or "the shakes" was common in northwestern Ohio until well into the nineteenth century. In season, the disease would lay farmers low for as many as two days a week.

Black Swamp hardwoods were an important source of income for land-clearing farmers, and furnished the raw materials for local enterprises.

Sawmills such as the Huron County plant followed the retreating forest westward across the Black Swamp counties. Their machinery was readily portable, and the ramshackle structures that housed it could be dismantled or abandoned when the local supply of timber was exhausted.

Until the mid-1880s iron furnaces at Cecil and Antwerp created a demand for charcoal. When they closed, local timber production was still sufficient to supply raw materials for fifteen stave mills in Paulding County.

Sodden fields would be the scene of much back-breaking labor for man and beast before they could be brought under cultivation. Timbering off was but the first step; the grubbing of stumps and cutting of ditches might be the work of several seasons.

By 1910, the Black Swamp region was on its way to being the most intensively cropped area of Ohio. At the eastern extremity of the Corn Belt, the formerly inundated lands led the rest of the state in the production of cash grain crops. Threshing scenes were typical of the thousands of farms that had displaced the soggy primeval landscape.

The Great Black Swamp is today little more than the dark ghost of a bygone habitat. Almost nowhere, except at Goll Woods State Nature Preserve in Fulton County, portions of Ottawa National Wildlife Area in Lucas County, and a few other scattered wood lots, can one find examples of the primeval swamp forest. And yet, it's hard to mourn wholeheartedly the passing of that dark, old morass, mud-banks steaming with humidity in the summer heat, malaria "Musketoes" whining dismally in the car, poison ivy matting the spaces between trees. Dreaming about the dark past was better than living it for two young girls of the 1950s; gathering red-orange bittersweet and wild grapes along the barbed-wire fences in autumn was more fun than listening to the shrieks of owls or wolves during the long nineteenth-century nights would have been. The memory of driving past billows of maturing corn and massive red barns (Red Man Tobacco; Chew Mail Pouch - Treat Yourself to the Best) now evokes as much nostalgia as that childhood vision of an unspoiled wilderness. How can we balance wanting wilderness - beautiful, compelling, but often hostile to us - with our need for security, comfort, and human prosperity? Few of us today would want to live in the Great Black Swamp’s shadow, but its memory and the sparse remnants that remain enrich our increasingly tamed landscape.