George P. Marsh: 1850-1900

Excerpt from "Man and Nature; or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action*"
By George P. Marsh, 1864

First Removal of the Forest

As soon as multiplying man had filled the open grounds along the margin of the rivers, the lakes, and the sea, and sufficiently peopled the natural meadows and savannas of the interior, where such existed, he could find room for expansion.

The origin of the great natural meadows, or prairies as they are called, of the valley of the Mississippi, is obscure. There is, of course, no historical evidence on the subject, and I believe that remains of forest vegetation are seldom or never found beneath the surface, even in the sloughs, where the perpetual moisture would preserve such remains indefinitely. The want of trees upon them has been ascribed to the occasional long-continued droughts of summer, and the excessive humidity of the soil in winter; but it is, in very many instances, certain that by whatever means the growth of forests upon them was first prevented or destroyed, the trees have been since kept out of them only by the annual burning of the grass, by grazing animals, or by cultivation. The groves and belts of trees which are found upon the prairies, though their seedlings are occasionally killed by drought, or by excess of moisture, extend themselves rapidly over them when the seeds and shoots are protected against fire, cattle, and the plough. The prairies, though of vast extent, must be considered as a local, and, so far as our present knowledge extends, abnormal exception to the law which clothes all suitable surfaces with forest; for there are many parts of the United States-Ohio, for example- where the physical conditions appear to be nearly identical with those of the States lying farther west, but where there were comparatively few natural meadows. The prairies were the proper feeding grounds of the bison, and the vast number of those animals is connected, as cause or consequence, with the existence of these vast pastures. The bison, indeed, could not convert the forest into a pasture, but he would do much to prevent the pasture from becoming a forest.

There is positive evidence that some of the American tribes possessed large herds of domesticated bison. What authorizes us to affirm that this was simply the wild bison reclaimed, and why may we not, with equal probability, believe that the migratory prairie buffalo is the progeny of the domestic animal run wild?

There are, both on the prairies, as in Wisconsin, and in deep forests, as in Ohio, extensive remains of a primitive people, who must have been more numerous and more advanced in art than the present Indian tribes. There can be no doubt that the woods where such earthworks are found in Ohio were cleared by them, and that the vicinity of these fortresses or temples was inhabited by a large population. Nothing forbids the supposition that the prairies were cleared by the same or a similar people, and that the growth of trees upon them has been prevented by fires and grazing, while the restoration of the woods in Ohio may be due to the abandonment of that region by its original inhabitants. The climatic conditions unfavorable to the spontaneous growth of trees on the prairies may be an effect of too extensive clearings, rather than a cause of the want of woods.

. . . The destruction of the woods, then, was man's first physical conquest, his first violation of the harmonies of inanimate nature.

Primitive man had little occasion to fell trees for fuel, or, for the construction of dwellings, boats, and the implements of his rude agriculture and handicrafts. Windfalls would furnish a thin population with a sufficient supply of such material, and if occasionally a growing tree was cut, the injury to the forest would be too insignificant to be at all appreciable.

The accidental escape and spread of fire, or, possibly, the combustion of forests by lightning, must have first suggested the advantages to be derived from the removal of too abundant and extensive woods, and, at the same time, have pointed out a means by which a large tract of surface could readily be cleared of much of this natural incumbrance. As soon as agriculture had commenced at all, it would be observed that the growth of cultivated plants, as well as of many species of wild vegetation, was particularly rapid and luxuriant on soils which had been burned over, and thus a new stimulus would be given to the practice of destroying the woods by fire, as a means of both extending the open grounds, and making the acquisition of a yet more productive soil. After a few harvests had exhausted the first rank fertility of the virgin mould, or when weeds and briers and the sprouting roots of the trees had begun to choke the crops of the half-subdued soil, the ground would be abandoned for new fields won from the forest by the same means, and the deserted plain or hillock would soon clothe itself anew with shrubs and trees, to be again subjected to the same destructive process, and again surrendered to the restorative powers of vegetable nature.

In many parts of the North American States, the first white settler found extensive tracts of thin woods, of a very park-like character, called "oak openings," from the predominance of different species of that tree upon them. These were the semi-artificial pasture grounds of the Indians, brought into that state, and so kept, by partial clearing, and by the annual burning of the grass. The object of this operation was to attract the deer to the fresh herbage which sprang up after the fire. The oaks bore the annual scorching, at least for a certain time; but if it had been indefinitely continued, they would very probably have been destroyed at last. The soil would have then been much in the prairie condition, and would have needed nothing but grazing for a long succession of years to make the resemblance perfect. That the annual fires alone occasioned the peculiar character of the oak openings, is proved by the fact, that as soon as the Indians had left the country, young trees of many species sprang up and grew Luxuriantly upon them.

*Charles Scribner, 1864, 124 Grand Street, New York, NY.