The Big Woods
The huge logs in his cabin were cut right there and dressed by hand. No power tools in those days. Having an adze was a necessity.Those trees were part of “The Big Woods.” You can’t read Minnesota History without seeing references to “The Big Woods.” Yet, aside from the connection to Laura Ingalls Wilder, I couldn’t have told you much about this legendary forest.
Wiki tells us Big Woods refers to a type of temperate hardwood forest ecoregion found in western Wisconsin and south-central Minnesota. "Big Woods" is a direct translation of the name given to the region by French explorers: “Grand Bois.” The dominant trees are American elm, basswood, sugar maple, and red oak. The understory is composed of ironwood, green ash, and aspen. The Big Woods would have once covered 5,000 square miles (13,000 km2) in a diagonal strip 100 miles (160 km) long and 40 miles (64 km) wide. The DNR shows us a map! Shown at left, it divides the state into ecological “provinces” including, (clockwise starting from the southwest) Prairie Parkland, Tallgrass Aspen, Laurentian Mixed Forest, and Eastern Broadleaf Forest.
The Marschner Map
The answer to that wonderful question leads the wonderful work done by Frances J. Marschner. A cartographer, born in Austria, who never set foot in Minnesota, Marschner worked in 1929 and 1930, producing the a map Titled “The Original Vegetation of Minnesota.” Based on the notes of the Public Land Survey, 1847—1907, the Marschner map outlines just how much of the state once included wet prairie, oak openings, Big Woods, mixed hardwood, or any of a dozen other vegetative types that have been utterly changed by 19th- and 20th-century human habitation. It’s been found to be uncannily accurate.
It’s worth your time to read the DNR's web article by Tim Brady of St Paul "The Mystery of a Map and a Man" at http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/volunteer/janfeb03/ mystery.html
Finally, back to the Burnsville question. If you had stood at the location of Nicollet Commons Park in say, 1848, could you have claimed to be in the Big Woods?
Scrupulous attention to the Marschner Map suggests this answer: “No, but you could see it from there." Actually, very close attention to the map shows that the “borders” between zones were not sharply drawn.
Your travels may have taken you through the “Atlantic Pine Barrens” or the “Pine Barrens of New Jersey.” There poor soils and frequency of fires produced large expanses of grasses, low shrubs and small to medium pines trees.
Just how thick and extensive could the forest be? Here’s a reading recommendation for you for these chilly nights. Conrad Richter wrote some of our country's most powerful fiction in his Awakening Land trilogy, The Trees, The Fields, the Town (1940-1950). His tale portrays how intent the pioneers were to “conquer” the forest. One review puts it this way.
“Toward the close of the eighteenth century the land west of the Alleghenies and north of the Ohio river was an unbroken sea of trees. Beneath them the forest trails were dark, silent, and lonely, brightened only by a few lost beams of sunlight.”
Minnesota’s forests were not so gloomy, and the openings promised fertile soil for crops, with some shade and shelter from the elements.
To end this look at The Big Woods, here are two maps. First the original Marschner Map, followed by a great update by our own DNR.
You can read more at this DNR site http://files.dnr.state.mn.us/eco/mcbs/natural_vegetation_of_mn.pdf
Did you know?
Burnsville has a forester. Burnsville’s Forestry / Community Landscape Department is responsible for maintaining the city's trees. You can learn more and connect with them at http://www.ci.burnsville.mn.us/index.aspx?nid=570