I left you in the swamp. What are you going to do?

This land, newly acquired by the Federal government, must be parceled out if it going to be of use. And that job must be completed before any improvements could be made.

The land was sold to enterprising pioneers for the tidy sum of $1 or $2 per acre with the provision that the land be developed and put to good use and maintained. Sluggards need not apply.

So, given the coordinates off you go. West, young man, Northwest. You will find your “prime parcel,” by looking for the “three trunk oak tree, ten rods off the second bend in the “crick” that flows into the White river just around the bend……… You get the picture …89′ 33” west and 40′ 17” north. Which directions would you like to follow? It would be awhile before permanent markers were placed and lines were drawn on the maps to help.

For now, it is swamp, marsh, and a creek that flows nearby. The lumberman saw log cabins, the sheep herder saw wool, the dairyman saw milk…. but none of them could function with all the water. The occasional high ground would allow for a place to build a cabin. You could even pasture a horse or cow and maybe plant a garden for the summer food.  The U.S. census records list the average farm in Boone county in 1840 as 46 acres. Land Grant purchases for many parcels at that time were a whopping 80 acres. But in the whole county only about half was considered tillable.

The fortunate purchaser was the one who purchased his 80 acres that were connected to a creek. The purchases were sight unseen, only stories of the great forests and the rich soil that ought to produce the many necessities of life. It still was under water.

Natural drainage took care of much of the annual rainfall but some of Boone county stayed under water to a depth of nearly two feet even during the dry spells.

Photo – Joe Bierce

Photo – Joe Bierce

Photo – Joe Bierce

But many were still left with the swamp and draining it became a part of the condition of sale.

Each pioneer became responsible for draining his property. The ditch names on the maps still carry the names of the person who dug them or who owned the property they originated on.

The job was to get the water into the creek through high ground which held it back. Ditches were dug to carry the water from the swampy, marshy land to the creeks. One that empties into Prairie Creek is the Sanitary Ditch, (a name, not necessarily what it implies) and it has its contributor in Shaw Ditch. They were progressively dug, deepened and broadened as necessary.

If the water surface at the creek was the water table level, the ditches were dug just short of that so that they could empty into the creek.

The creeks: Big Walnut, Prairie, Deer, Sugar and at least Wolf Creek were the drains for the interior of the county. “The History of Boone County” records the names of the creeks originating inside the county and where they empty into the Wabash or ultimately into the White rivers. The former north and west and the latter south and east.

If most of your acres were forested (swamp) you were going to have to harvest the timber for your own use or sell it before you could do anything else. Which came first, cut the timber or drain the swamp?

I will give you a hint. Many of the large ditches you see as you drive through the county today were dug by hand and with a team of horses or mules within the last 150 years.

Where I live, the water table is now at about 10 feet during the dry season…. The ditches are at about 9′ deep. That is moving a lot of dirt and it was all dug by hand. In other parts of the county—mainly east of Lebanon, some of the ditches are now almost 20’ deep partly due to erosion and partly due to the terrain they are draining.

Cut the trees, drain the water. We are not out of the swamp yet. But we can pasture a cow or two, or three and maybe a horse or two or three. Next time I will tell you about how the land was used as we begin the trek to out of the swamp to the present day.

You can switch to “muddin” boots now.

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