The first Europeans found woods mainly along streams and rivers. Something of the scale of these woods can be gleaned from accounts of travelers and pioneer settlers. A 17th-century Frenchman enthused that the trees of "prodigious height and girth" were the very finest for shipbuilding, apart from being inconveniently distant from an ocean. Rebecca Burlend, an English immigrant who settled on an 80-acre Pike County farm in the 1830s, later wrote of the woods on her land, "Everything here bears the mark of ancient undisturbed repose." A few years later, Englishman William Oliver described the "lofty dark forest" that was home to the "monarchs of the ages," whose coolness he likened to that of a sepulcher.
A glimpse of the old oak-hickory forest can be seen today in such relicts as Allerton Park in Champaign County, Carpenter Park outside Springfield, and Funks Grove south of Bloomington-Normal. Mature hardwoods can grow so tall that naturalists have to use binoculars to see their leaves. The French moved up and down rivers aboard dugout canoes made from single logs of cottonwood or sycamore up to 40 feet long. A Shumard red oak in Beall Woods is the biggest such tree in the United States, and Illinois hosts hickories that are 400 years old. Some cypress tress in the southern Illinois bottomland forests have been likened to sequoias, being as many as one thousand years old.
During most of the human occupation of Illinois, the forests constituted an essential part of the domestic economy. The diversity and quality of forest food is high, although supplies vary more than in other ecosystems. (Trees don't fruit every year, for example.) Wild plums--one of more than a dozen edible fruits found in Illinois woods--grew so profusely that early farmers left most of them for their hogs. Nuts are ubiquitous at Illinois archeological sites (hickory nuts, including pecans, were most prized by native peoples) and the flocks of passenger pigeons that used to fill Illinois woods fed on beechnuts. As late as the 1920s, groves of pecans along Thompson Lake on the Illinois River provided nuts by the wagonload to local families in the fall.
Native American agriculture in most eras was a forest agriculture, but as populations tended to be small, the girdling of trees for plots did not threaten forests. Illinois' first European settlers imitated this early style of forest economy, and French settlers learned from Native Americans how to tap maple trees for sugar-making. Sugar became a staple of the pioneer economy as well as its diet, since the sweet was often used as a medium of exchange.
Sugar-making was not the only early industry in Illinois to exploit trees. Salt also was crucial as a commodity and as currency barter. The center of production was the mineral springs in Saline County. The native population had long evaporated salt from spring water in pans, but the Europeans took a more industrial approach, burning wood in salt "furnaces" to boil off the water.
The dependence of early European immigrants on trees for both energy and building materials led to repeated--if local and temporary--exhaustion of the resource. Profitable mines often were abandoned not because their ores were dug out but because cheap local sources of wood for fires and timbers were exhausted. Lead mining at Galena in the 1830s led to massive deforestation of the surrounding hills; the consequent soil erosion rendered impassable the river that connected the town to the vital shipping traffic on the nearby Mississippi.
Some Native American settlements exploited trees for fires and defensive palisades; archeological evidence suggests that the harvesting of trees in adjacent upland stream courses led to occasionally calamitous soil erosion from suddenly denuded slopes. The result was siltation of downstream reaches so severe that streamside camps were flooded.
Excerpted from The Changing Illinois Environment: Critical Trends. Summary Report. Illinois Department of Energy and Natural Resources and the Nature of Illinois Foundation. 1994.
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