Metroparks Meetup: History of the Great Black Swamp

History of the Great Black Swamp
Published: Nov. 8, 2021 at 10:39 AM EST
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TOLEDO, Ohio (WTVG) - Before the vast expanses of farmland, much of northwest Ohio was covered by the Great Black Swamp.

Stretching from Fort Wayne, Indiana, to eastern Ottawa County, it was one of the largest wetlands in North America, covering an estimated 1,500 square miles in the early 1800s. The first settlers described the swamp as an impenetrable wilderness with deep, thick mud, roaring, black clouds of mosquitoes, and huge trees that dimmed the daylight.

Shannon Hughes, the Director of Programming and Education for Toledo Metroparks, said, “Soldiers who were here for the War of 1812 were trying to traverse this area and they said the mud was so deep it was actually up to their saddle skirts, making it almost impossible for them to traverse through that.”

So difficult to navigate, the Great Black Swamp impeded the Ohio and Michigan militias from engaging in battle during the brief “Toledo War” of the mid-1830s. But as time went on, those moving into the region sought to drain the land.

“The first goal really before you could drain it was you had to clear cut, you had to open it up for farming,” said Hughes. “They had some very interesting techniques like girding, clear-cutting, and they actually used dynamite to blast the stumps out of the way. Then, in about the 1840s they started to use tiles to drain the Great Black Swamp.”

As the swamp dried up, it transformed into some of the most fertile farmland in the world, establishing the importance of agriculture in our area. However, the lack of wetlands filtering run-off from all those fields has led to the toxic algal blooms we see in Lake Erie. Experts like Tim Schetter, the Chief of Natural Resources for Toledo Metroparks, say the solution lies in wetland restoration projects.

“There’s really just no way that we could ever bring back the Great Black Swamp,” Schetter said. “But being strategic about where we restore wetlands is really important. Adjacent to ditches and streams, near the lake, anywhere that we can capture the nutrients coming from the farmland.”

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