From “Small Worthless Marshes” to the Corn Belt: Reconstructing Indiana’s Historical Environment from General Land Office Field Notes

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Written By: Chelsea Day, Walter Guardino, Jenna Jarosinski, Andrew Russell, and Cara Sullivan

The modern Midwest bears the mark of human hands. Over the last 200 years, it has been transformed from a land of swamps, oak forests, barrens, and Native American cornfields, to one of drained wetlands, denuded ridges, and industrial agriculture. The swamps have become farmland, the rivers have become canalized, the diverse Native American crops have become genetically modified corn, and the trails so used by indigenous people and early settler colonists have become paved highways carrying the latest products of world industry.  Earlier artificial landscapes have been replaced by later ones, and Indiana has become a stranger to itself.

To understand how this radically transformed landscape has evolved over the past 200 years, we are working to reconstruct how the physical and cultural landscape of the Midwest appeared prior to extensive European colonization. As undergraduate researchers within the Historical Landscapes Laboratory (HLL) at Indiana University, we are collaborating with John Baeten and Rebecca Lave to reconstruct the historical landscape of the Corn Belt from General Land Office field notes recorded in the early 1800s, with an initial focus on Indiana. Surveyors with the General Land Office (GLO) conducted pedestrian surveys across the U.S. in order to lay out a rectilinear grid system of public lands in the late 1700s to the mid-1800s. The grid system process consisted of 6-mile square townships, each of which contained 36, 1-mile square sections. This system was devised to organize sets of land so they could be sold to settler colonists moving West (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Diagram of a Township and its 36 Sections (Bureau of Land Management)

Surveyors used compasses, to maintain a straight line, and actual chains, to measure distance, with a single “chain” measuring 66-feet in length (80 of which equaled one mile). Each chain was made up of 100 links of 7.92 inches each. Surveyors established markers, such as posts, mounds, or witness trees to mark section corners within a Township, and  would record features to distinguish how the section appeared, including species of trees, water features such as swamps and brooks, land features such as prairies and barrens, and cultural features such as roads, houses, and Native American trails, villages, and fields. These features recorded in the GLO notes present a remarkably comprehensive set of data of how Indiana’s landscape appeared in the early 1800s (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Map showing the progression of GLO surveys across Indiana, including names of lead surveyors and dates of surveys (Collett, J. “An Outline Map of Indiana: Showing the Districts as Subdivided by the U.S. Surveyors, Together with Each Name and Date of Survey.” Indiana Department of Geology and Natural History, 20th Annual Report. 1882)

As researchers within the HLL, we are working to make these field notes accessible to the public for the first time. Our work began with locating the field notes, which were housed as microfilm at IU’s Wells Library, and as bound copies within the Indiana State Archives. We digitized the notes for the entire state of Indiana, which consisted of 84 volumes, from which we are now transcribing the notes into spreadsheets at the individual township scale. We record notable data such as the date of survey, name of surveyor, and locations of water, land, cultural features, names of trees, as well as the detailed land descriptions written by the surveyors (Figure 3 and 4).

Figure 3: Example of the somewhat rare occurrence of legible survey notes written by Arthur Henrie in 1804 for an area near modern day Paoli, IN
Figure 4: Data from figure 3 integrated into our spreadsheet to link to the GIS

We then link these spreadsheets to a GIS, where we are able to create interactive maps, such as locations of roads, rivers, or the composition of trees within a section. We have thus far completed these steps for two eco-regions within Indiana, the Southern Hills, which spreads from Bloomington to the Ohio River, and the Kankakee Swamp, which spreads across the state’s northern boundary. The Southern Hills dataset contains just under 40,000 lines of data, including more than 48,000 observations of tree species (see Figure 5).

Figure 5: Composition of tree observances noted in the field notes for the Southern Hills

Although the GLO field notes are remarkable records that present multi-faceted and well-preserved information. it is important to understand the  process of land surveying as one of settler colonialism and ecological imperialism. The surveyors documented land recently acquired through from Native Americans through theft, coercion, or other means, and the surveying of this land allowed the Federal Government to sell it for profit. The survey also set the stage for the “orderly” introduction of white settlers in replacement of Native Americans and helped create the basis for future local government. Perhaps most importantly, the manner with which the surveyors described the land and classified its utility was very much colored by the ways that white Americans interacted with and extracted value from their environments. Nevertheless, the information these records preserve are multi-disciplinary and have applications to various fields such as: hydrology, geography, environmental history, and anthropology. Through these records we can recognize and appreciate the drastic land changes that have taken place since the time of the survey, such as the now absent wetlands of Northwest Indiana. In this process, we can also analyze changes in the value of land as capitalists claimed territories once occupied by Native Americans.

Our daily work within the HLL includes the transcribing of field notes written in cursive, extracting images of these field notes to add to the GIS map, and data analysis. Along the way, we have found unique environmental, social, and historical features, including coal and iron stratums, cornfields, a wolf den, Indian  trails, houses and other dwellings, and even a mound of broken human bones. The notes surveyors wrote were written over 200 years ago, meaning that the language used to describe the land can appear odd to how we might describe them today. When the surveyors completed documenting  each section and township, they described the land they covered, often using colorful language that reflected their personal attitudes towards the environment they just traversed. For example, surveyors used  phrases such as, “pretty eminence in view of the lake”, “endless sameness of swamp,” and “small, worthless marshes”. Oftentimes, surveyors remarked on the difficulty of traversing the landscape. One surveyor dramatically conveyed the experience of crossing a swamp as such, “We have water and a marshy substance to wade through and the whole place upon a yielding elastic sod: all of which combined makes the labor of traversing them almost worthy to be laid alongside and considered a parallel with the labor of the retreat of Xenophon with his 10,000 Greeks.” 

Many of the surveyor’s descriptions focused on the potential extractable value of the land, commenting on which lands were suitable for grazing, whether there was sufficient timber for a settlement, and which rivers could power a mill. In fact, the system of settler-colonialism sought to establish the emergence of a capitalist order, where individuals could own and sell property. This emerging capitalist system is evident in the field notes as land is classified due to its potential for farming and settlements, such as categorizing land as either 1st, 2nd, or 3rd rate. Other mentions of capitalism even appeared, such as one surveyor’s characterization of a township as “rather uninviting to the capitalist and land speculator; but to the poor man and him who wishes to act the squatter, it holds out some inducements (see Figure 6).” In this way, we are also beginning to study the GLO surveys from a socioeconomic lens.  

Figure 6: Example of a land description within the Kankakee Swamp

The data we are gathering from our field note transcription represents the most comprehensive source of information regarding Indiana’s past environment, both in regards to being complete and well-preserved as well as having such a wide use of data. The land was surveyed before extensive European colonization that led to deforestation, wetland drainage, and water diversion for irrigation. In fact the surveys mark the very beginning of the process through which white colonizers ecologically and geographically transformed Indiana. Thus, these field notes preserve a record of how the land and environment appeared before this transformation completely reshaped Indiana’s cultural and biophyscial landscape. For instance, Indiana once possessed one of the most extensive systems of swamps, marshes, and wetlands in the United States, and the information from these field notes can help us understand where, when, why, and how these wetlands were drained. In addition, the data from GLO field notes can be used for many different projects due to their interdisciplinary nature. Possible projects include using tree species data to restore forest lands to their 1800s baseline, using grass species data to replant native grasslands, or using wetland location data to restore native wetland areas that have since the 1800s been replaced with development and farmland. In addition, these field notes can be used to study linguistics, Native American history, and agricultural history.

Figure 7: Many of the field notes are either illegible or contain names for things we are not familiar with, such as whortleberry.To address this, HLL researchers are using Social Media apps, such as GroupMe, to decipher some of the harder to transcribe notes.

Finally, a project of this capacity also demonstrates the potential for teamwork and collaboration in undertaking large historical projects. The collaboration for this project has taken many forms such as: in-person (pre-COVID) meetings, emails, Zoom-a-thons, and GroupMe messages (see Figure 7 below). Also, several researchers attempted to replicate a survey within the Hoosier National Forest (located within the Southern Hills), hiking across ridges and identifying plant species located at the section corners to see how the current landscape compares with what was recorded in the early 1800s, and to also experience what it would have been like to survey Indiana 200 hundred years ago, albeit with GPS enabled cell phones, filtered water, and bagged lunches!

Figure 8: Researchers with the HLL attempting to locate a section corner within the Hoosier National Forest
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The Historical Landscapes Laboratory

The Historical Landscapes Laboratory (HLL) is an interdisciplinary geospatial research hub housed within the Geography Department at Indiana University. Directed by John Baeten and Rebecca Lave, the HLL employs and trains student researchers in projects related to examining the historical drivers of environmental change within the Midwest.

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