Judge the Quality of the Soil by the Type of Tree (Monograph 11)

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Estimated reading time: 6 minutes


By Dr. William “Bill” Ambrose

In the Geological Survey of the State of Missouri (1855-1871) in the chapter about Maries County, written by G.C.Broadhead, and in the other chapters of the book by different authors, the discussion of the evaluation of fertility of soils always starts with where in the landscape the soil is. For example, the alluvial soil in the river bottoms is discussed first, but no discussion is made about that soil’s constituents or origins. Broadhead writes, “The richest soils are those of the bottom lands….The Missouri, Osage, Gasconade, and Maries Rivers…..on which are grown luxuriant crops of corn, vegetables, and melons.” And then immediately, without any further facts about the soil, the discussion turns to the tree species found there. “The principal trees are, on Missouri bottoms, Ash, Box Elder, Black and White Walnut, Sycamore, Hackberry, Cottonwood, Shell-bark and Pig-nut Hickory…..and Grape-vines. The trees sometimes grow to a very large size, Cottonwoods often seven feet in diameter, and very tall and straight….” So clearly the understanding at that time was that tree species and the size are the determinant of soil fertility.

In the Geological Survey of the State of Missouri (1855-1871) in the chapter about Maries County, written by G.C.Broadhead, and in the other chapters of the book by different authors, the discussion of the evaluation of fertility of soils always starts with where in the landscape the soil is. For example, the alluvial soil in the river bottoms is discussed first, but no discussion is made about that soil’s constituents or origins. Broadhead writes, “The richest soils are those of the bottom lands….The Missouri, Osage, Gasconade, and Maries Rivers…..on which are grown luxuriant crops of corn, vegetables, and melons.” And then immediately, without any further facts about the soil, the discussion turns to the tree species found there. “The principal trees are, on Missouri bottoms, Ash, Box Elder, Black and White Walnut, Sycamore, Hackberry, Cottonwood, Shell-bark and Pig-nut Hickory…..and Grape-vines. The trees sometimes grow to a very large size, Cottonwoods often seven feet in diameter, and very tall and straight….” So clearly the understanding at that time was that tree species and the size are the determinant of soil fertility.

Further proof of that fact follows with the following: “Nearly the same kinds of timber were observed on the Osage, but Cottonwood and Pin Oak are rather scarce. White Oak and Swamp White Oak abound on second bottoms of the Osage. Cottonwood was not found on the Gasconade bottoms.” We have now been informed about the tree species found on productive second-bottom soil. Still no comment on soil contents, but now this quantitative note: “…..corn on the first or lowest bottom would yield an average of twenty barrels per acre, and the second bottoms thirteen barrels.” And then to finish off the discussion about soil productivity, this sentence: “These soils are very deep, and based on a deep alluvium.” Nothing more is written. Clearly tree species and size are the key to finding fertile, productive soil.

In The geography of the Ozark highland of Missouri, by Carl Sauer, the following is written: “Here, as in other sections, land has been judged largely by kind and size of trees growing up on it, and is still described commonly in terms of its prevailing tree growth. Any of the characteristic mesophytic species, such as tulip, hackberry, bur oak, or walnut, are the farmer’s guaranty of first-class soil.” More proof of the thought at the time. So then why not scale soil fertility by tree species? He does just that by writing the following: “Hickory lands are preferred to oak; black oak land is preferred to that on which post oak grows; and black jack or pine are considered proof of the agricultural unfitness of the soil.” Logically then, soil on which no trees are growing is worthless!

Justus von Liebig, a German chemist, developed the initial concepts of soil science in the 1870’s. Vasily Dokuchaev established the scientific basis of soil science as a natural science and began teaching soil science in 1870 in Russia. The point is that there was no quantifiable method of evaluating the fertility of a soil (much less being able to use that method) to select a farm site for its fertile soil before the 1880’s. The science didn’t exist! Frontier settlers were using the tree species method to judge soil fertility until soil science became well enough established and proven to work.

Dr. Wm. I.I. Morrow, the physician accompanying the Taylor Detachment of more than one thousand Cherokees on the Trail of Tears, wrote the following in his diary, expressing his sense of the land he crossed on March 1, 1839, in the Ozarks: “The detachment travelled 12 miles to Wilson’s – The whole country over which we passed a complete desert – saw some fine gangs of Deer…..a poor broken country except on the river – Narrow rich bottoms, a sickly mean country.”

He was using the soil quality judging method of “tree species.” The “Narrow rich bottoms” likely had trees on it that he knew were associated with fertile soil. Dr. Morrow thought the rest of the “sickly mean country” that he “passed a complete desert” because it was treeless. Today we know that “some fine gangs of Deer” are not associated with poor soils. In fact, deer quality is directly associated with the soil quality in their habitat. For there to have been “some fine gangs of Deer,” the soils would have had to grow many nutritious plants year-round across the deer range. The soil was highly fertile. Dr Morrow was a physician– not a soil scientist!

More proof of the soil quality and fertility at that time and location can be found from the General Land Office surveyor’s notes. The following quotes represent generally the surveyor’s notes of his perception of the cultivation potential for the land in this area:

“level prairie, soil of first rate, fit for cultivation”

“Land East 25 chains level prairie, soil of first rate fit for cultivation; the balance rolling soil of third rate fit for cultivation”

“Land rolling and some barrens, soil of second rate, fit for cultivation.”

The difference of opinions of this area’s soil quality is simple to rectify. Dr Morrow thought the level, treeless prairie was a desert and not fertile. The land surveyor could recognize by the plant community and diversity that the prairies were fertile and “fit for cultivation.”

Within this same region is now located the town of St. James. The town was renamed in deference to the James family, who owned Massey Iron Works and supported the town. The city is located on what was called “Big Prairie” in the 1800’s. It was one of the larger continuous prairies in this upland region. Big Prairie at the time of very early settlement would have appeared as luxuriant swaths and waves of nutritious native, colorful wild flowers and slow-dancing, tall bunch grasses across the two-mile nearly treeless prairie. The town was laid out in 1857 by Mr. John Wood, initially naming the town “Scioto.” “Scioto” is the Native American word for “deer.” Of course!


3D Diorama Along the Trail of Tears

By William Ambrose

On the western side of the state of Missouri, the Trail of Tears is generally the Springfield to St. Louis Road.  The General Land Office (GLO) surveyors, those earliest government surveyors who surveyed the unsettled frontier lands ahead of any land sales, were required to draw the existing roads on the township plats beginning at about the time they surveyed the western half of Missouri.  The Springfield to St. Louis Road was pre-historic – it was a trace on the ground from Springfield to St. Louis used by Native Americans for travel for trade and hunting long before Americans arrived in the state.  The GLOs were the building blocks of President Jefferson’s rectilinear survey system, known as the Public Land Survey System, created by the Land Ordinance of 1785, a federal law. The system was laid out in 6-mile-by-6-mile squares, each square being known by its north-south “Township” number and its east-west “Range” number. 


Scott‘s

By William Ambrose

From 1837 to 1839, the Federal Government forcibly removed 17,000 Cherokees from their centuries-old homelands in Georgia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, and Alabama.  The Cherokee families were rounded up at gunpoint by Federal troops, held prisoner in detention camps, divided up into detachments of about 1000 people, and then forced to walk the 1000 miles to “Indian Territory,” now Oklahoma. Approximately 4000 died during that process. 


If you have any suggestions, comments, or critiques please email Chris.Dunn@GeoVelo.com

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