Madison County History and Genealogy

History and Genealogy

History of Madison County

Darby Township Topography with Pre-historic Deductions

From History of Madison County, W. H. Beers & Co, Chicago, 1883

There is one peculiar feature in the topography of these lands, which very much retarded the early development and drainage of the prairies. It has only been within the last few years that the fact was demonstrated and generally understood. The first opinions were, that, as these prairies were situated between the two Darbys, that the drainage would be of about equal distance to each. But, upon the contrary, the fact is now clearly demonstrated that all the prairies lying east of Little Darby, with but one or two exceptions, drains to Big Darby. The dip of the country here is east and southeast. Here, then, was a stubborn obstacle in the way of a complete and thorough drainage, for no one or two men could afford to cut the necessary long and deep artificial drains to secure such benefits to the upper lands as were required to make the agricultural pursuits a success. But right here the legislative enactments of the State came to their relief – that by petition of twelve interested freeholders to the Trustees of the proper township, an artificial drain could be located, and the cutting of the same awarded to the land-owners along the line thereof, according to the benefits derived therefrom. Allow me a little digression from my subject, for I shall be doing great injustice to the history of Canaan Township were I to omit the record of the fact that Eli Perkins, one of its pioneers, drafted the first ditch bill, and through the efforts of her worthy Representative from Madison County, H. W. Smith, of London, it became a law. Though rude and imperfect at first, the way was opened by which amendments were made that met all the obstacles in the way of a complete and thorough system of drainage. This law, with its amendments, has done more for the development of the hidden wealth that was buried in the soil of Darby Township than any or all other enactments combined. Under the present existing laws, some of the largest and longest artificial drains of the county have been located and completed under the supervision of skillful engineers. In the year 1881-82, under one petition, twelve miles of artificial drain were made, at a cost of nearly $7000. There are many others constructed under the same law, but this one is specially mentioned to show its practical workings. Were it not for this practical system of drainage, this portion of the State, as well as many others, would be almost worthless for agricultural purposes. When all the necessary main drains have been made, and a thorough system of under drainage instituted, then will these Darby plains be the Eden of the State.

But to return to my subject. The supposed worthlessness of these prairies by the early land speculators, who bought soldiers' claims and laid their warrants in the Virginia Military District, is clearly shown by leaving out of their surveys as much as possible all of the above lands. Another evidence in support of the same conclusion is evinced by the first settlers making their purchases near or adjacent to the streams. supposing these lands would ever remain wet, worthless and uninhabitable. But the scientific and demonstrated truth in regard to this part of the country is, that her altitude is nearly equal to that of any other part of the State: and yet, her reputation has been but little above sea level. There were two distinct decades in the origin of the burr-oak timber that was growing here when first discovered by the white man. The first of these are scattering, few in number, and are found growing upon the highest points of the prairie lands, the limbs of which came out almost at right angles with the trunk, an evidence of having stood alone, and dating back to the forming periods of all the forests of this country. The latter are of more recent origin, and date back from two to three hundred years There is considerable uniformity in the age of each of these decades. Why so many years should elapse between them is a question difficult of solution, but by a thorough knowledge of the topography of these prairie lands, a reasonable hypothesis might be adduced that would remove the obscurity in part at least.

Topographical science has demonstrated beyond all questions of doubt that the Darby plains are table-land. Such lands are always surrounded with one or more rims of a greater or less elevation, but of sufficient height to hold, as it were, like a basin, the rainfall or waters from any cause that may flow into it, and there to remain, unless otherwise dried up by evaporation. Many of the first settlers were greatly deceived as to the most natural and available points for the drainage of these lands and as a result some very unpleasant law-suits have been prosecuted to the detriment of all parties. The error consisted in mistaking the rim that formed the basin for the natural water-shed between the two Darbys. This latter elevation is quite distinctive, and is easily traced by the timbers that grow upon either side. Upon the one it is characterized by the kinds of timber that are found near all the streams, and upon the other by that which is peculiar to the prairie lands. This natural water-shed is generally found from one-half to one mile east of Little Darby, thus continuing for several miles, but gradually leaving the stream until it abruptly circles away, connecting itself with one or more of the rims of this table-land. That these elevations at some prehistoric age of the world has been much more elevated than at present, or that the prairie depressions have been greater, or both, is very evident from this standpoint. That there was a time, or pre-historic period, when these lands were covered with water. there can be no doubt. But these elevations have been slowly worn down by the overflow of water and tread of the buffalo, elk and other wild animals, until some of the more elevated points of the prairie (or lake) appeared as dry land. This process of reasoning would date the period when those few and scattering burr oaks first sprang into existence. Hence the conclusion that, as this wearing away, and filling up continued, much larger portions were brought to the surface upon which sprang the second decade, or growth, that was in existence when first discovered by the white man. As this wearing away and filling up still continued, the whole of these prairies was covered with a heavy coat of vegetation. Thus, year after year, or centuries it may be, this growth and decay has been going on until the depth of soil is unsurpassed by any other portion of the State. There is one more conclusive evidence in support of the theory that these prairies were for a long time submerged in water, for, when the lowest prairies were first broken by the plow, large quantities of snail and clam shells were turned up, which, however, soon crumbled on exposure to atmosphere.

Considerable time must have elapsed after the second decade or growth of burr-oak timber sprang into existence, before the North American Indians lead penetrated thus far into the interior of this continent, for their practice was to burn all over the prairie lands every returning autumn, for the purpose of driving the deer and other animals from their hiding-places; and it is certain that these fires would have destroyed all this growth, as it was afterward demonstrated that nothing more of a forest kind grew until after the cessation of these prairie fires. Another thought presents itself, that if the first timbers, almost without an exception, were burr oak, would we not reasonably expect that when the causes that prevented any young growth, were removed, that the same in kind would start into existence? But upon the contrary, the greater portion is so entirely different, not only in kind, but also in point of durability, that we are unable to assign any uncontrovertible or legitimate cause.

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