Seeing the Chicago area’s “pre-European settlement vegetation”

Here is a website that offers a look at the vegetation in the Chicago area before settlers really transformed the land. According to this article, the maps were created by looking at surveyor’s notes:

Nearly 200 years ago, long before global positioning systems, the land was surveyed with little more than a compass, a 66-foot-long metal chain and an ax to mark trees, said McBride. Luckily, surveyors also brought notebooks.

Surveyors’ notes slowly outlined gorgeous, ecologically diverse landscapes now largely lost. “As they divided each township into 36-square-mile sections, surveyors marked up to four ‘bearing’ trees near each section corner. They jotted down the trees’ species and other notes describing the landscape,” said McBride.

From these records, McBride painstakingly reconstructed the landscape: 65 percent prairie, 30 percent wooded, and at least 2.8 percent wetland. Trees flourished in northern townships; prairie dominated southern ones.

Things I think of when looking at this map:

1. Some of the first settlers in the Naperville area settled around the “Big Woods” area which I would guess is the big forested section on the map between Batavia and Aurora and east of the Fox River.

2. In the days before trains (with the first train line running out of Chicago through what is now Wheaton and West Chicago in 1849), the prairie land between southwestern DuPage County and Chicago could turn quite soggy. Hence, there was quite a network of plank roads in the Chicago region so that people could traverse the prairie.

3. There was quite a bit of prairie. How long did it take for most of that prairie land to disappear and be converted into farm land?

4. There was a lot of trees north of Chicago along Lake Michigan. I don’t know how much of that timber was cut down and ended up in Chicago but there were a number of timber/logging communities around Lake Michigan including in western Michigan and in Wisconsin. Perhaps the most famous of these communities is Peshtigo, Wisconsin, which suffered a tragic fire on the same day as the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

5. In the area I am most familiar with, western DuPage County, it seems like the DuPage County Forest Preserve has grabbed some of the original timber areas. I wonder if these areas were harvested and then grew again.

6. It would be an added bonus if there was an overlay to this map of current development and vegetation. This would provide insights into how much has changed.

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