While most Hoosiers know something about the vast forests that once covered much of Indiana, our original prairies are a mystery to many residents of our state. The most extensive region of pre-settlement prairie in Indiana was in the northwestern Indiana counties of Benton, Newton, White, Vermillion, Warren and southern Lake County. Smaller prairies occurred across several northern Hoosier counties and extreme western Indiana counties such as Knox, Daviess, Sullivan and Vigo.
I have a large collection of old maps and other historical material. Checking on this valuable source of information I found that 26 Indiana counties list at least some prairie lands being in the county at some point in their history.
The Native Americans knew that open areas near the edge of the forests were of great value in providing sites where the deer, bison, elk and other animals that provided them with much of their food lived. The understory in the original forest was quite sparse due to lack of sunlight reaching the forest floor. This was caused by the trees being so tall and rather close together and forming a canopy that precluded the rays of the sun from reaching the floor of the forest.
We too often have not given our Native Americans enough credit for the ingenuity they had in utilizing the resources that were available to them. They soon found out that using fire could help keep these open areas free of most trees and shrubs and allow the plants the animals utilized for food to propagate and flourish.
The usage of fire to keep these prairies sites somewhat free from unwanted vegetation was a key in the prairies of Knox, Daviess and other fringe counties. This use of fire continues today as a tool in restoring Hoosier prairies.
As I related in a past column, the early settlers had the mistaken belief that if an area did not have trees it was unfertile and not suitable for growing crops. This was one reason the Grand Prairie region of northwestern Indiana was the last section of the state to be settled.
Another reason was the sod was so hard to turn over that many believed it was not worth the effort. To use the plows that most farmers had proved to be almost a waste of time. Many an iron plow was broken while attempting to bread the sod of the prairie lands that often extended for miles.
It was not until John Deere came up with the idea of a steel plow in the 1840s that the prairies were put into production and all but wipe out, not only in Indiana, but also Illinois and other midwestern states.
The prairies of Indiana had not always been as they were when the first settlers ventured into northwest and western Indiana. They had become established over a period of many thousands of years after the glaciers that once covered much of our state finally retreated back to the northlands.
This allowed not only our forests but also the prairie lands to become established as they were in the early settlement days.
As the most extensive prairie lands in northwestern Indiana does not usually receive as much rainfall as does southern Indiana, many of the plants that grow in a prairie do not need as much moisture to grow as do many of our forest trees. This and fire, both natural and that set by the Native Americans, had a major impact on the creation of our Hoosier prairies. It has been said that prairies follow fires. That apparently is very true.
True nature is a very complex example of how a series of events by themselves cannot usually change our environment, but added to a number of other factors can have a huge impact. Nature on its own can usually come up with the correct way to make a great world in more or less harmony with itself.
Add men to the equation and sad to say it often comes apart. We have yet to learn this fact.
More on Indiana prairies in future columns.
Harold Allison is an outdoor enthusiast. He is a retired postal worker who makes his home in Cumback.