The Big Woods

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A surviving portion of the Big Woods in Wayzata, Minnesota
Our September 2013 guest speaker was Larry Kortuem from Madison Lake, Minnesota. Larry’s stories took us back to the beginning of European settlement in Minnesota and his family’s 1867 log cabin, which he has restored. When I say he “took us back,” I mean he told us things one could only know by spending many nights, some awfully hot and some truly cold ones, in an authentic log cabin. Hint: you were not alone. There were critters.

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.

Questions followed Larry’s talk, "What were its boundaries? Was modern Burnsville part of the Big Woods? Were we in it? “Was it nearby?” For the answers we owe thanks to Wikipedia, the Minnesota DNR and the U of Minnesota.

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.

These are further subdivided into Sections and Subsections, and within the Eastern Broadleaf province is a subsection called The Big Woods. A big question arises – how do we know the extent of forests and grasslands hundreds of years ago? After all, states like Ohio were totally forested then, but you’d never know it from today’s view.

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 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.

Marschner map detail.png
Here’s where the “fun with vocabulary” comes in. On the map shown here, you see brown and orange patches with areas of lighter green too.The three-lobed orange blob (see arrow) is the heart of present-day Burnsville. It is donated as an “aspen-oak area.” The legend explains the brown as “Oak Openings,” meaning the oaks are not thick. The term “openings” had a specific meaning to our pioneer ancestors much as “marsh” and “slough” have for us. The definition is not a hard and fast rule, and varies from state to state. But usually, a forested area or woods described as “barrens” or “openings” is simply a matter of the amount of cover provided by the tree canopy. Less than 50% and you would say the area is an opening. Sunlight gets through.

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.

Marschner Map.jpg
Marschner update.png
Here the same conditions created areas dear to the early settlers, with some oak trees, but not so many that the task of removing them seemed impossible. In those times, progress meant removing trees, and fighting to remove stumps. The land was meant to be farmed.

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

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