Mastodons, Paleo storytellers, & the Cranberry Bogs of Ganges: 10,000 BC

The most interesting history has many layers, and these aren’t just overlays of dirt; but layers of meaning, layers of interpretation.  Some of our places, people, events and things have different significance to different people; and those various meanings all overlay one another to add depth—not just of dust—but of wonder.

This is a story about the cranberry bogs of Richland County; and there are layers to these bogs, and layers to the story.

Layer 1: Ice age

In order to have a bog in the Ohio landscape, the very lay of the land must be shaped in a particular manner that collects water and can maintain a specific environment of plant life.  Our landscape was given its shape by the great glaciers that came and went over this part of the continent; so the first layer of the story dates back to the melting glaciers: rivers of dirt and stone washing out of the ice, and piling up as Richland County.

The way our county looks today is all according to how the water drained away from the big thawing walls of ice.  Or, in this case, how the waters did not drain away.

Some of the runoff did not travel down the creeks and rivers: some of it stayed cupped in the land, where it brewed and steeped and stagnated and changed its chemistry to a rarified post-glacial tea.  There are specific kinds of plants that grow in places like that: special mosses, rare wildflowers.  One of the most precious of all is the cranberry.

Layer 2: Christmas dinner

There are boggy areas in Richland County where cranberries grew for thousands of years.  These bogs are in the general vicinity of Ganges, where generations of families in the area all knew where to go before Thanksgiving and Christmas to find a neighborhood harvest of cranberries.

It was a kind of family secret, in a way, a private stash for the greater family of the northern Black Fork community.  It wasn’t like they were hoarding the treasure though: there were plenty of cranberries to be found close at hand.  Just a dozen or so miles west, northern Crawford County was famous for cranberries.  There is a Cranberry Township there, and bog lands that once stretched for miles.

In the 1800s, before much of the land was drained and repurposed, there were so many cranberries around New Washington that they came out of there by the trainload.

All of this is old history for us, but it is only the most recent layer of the story.  Richland County has been delineated onto this landscape for only 200 years, but those bogs of Ganges go clear back 10,000 or 12,000 years.  Back then, in that layer of time, the ice was moving out and new neighbors were taking up residence in the rolling earth of Ganges.

The cranberries were only one of those life forms.  There were big critters as well, like giant elk and mastodons trundling around Ganges; and as soon as the ground stopped being slippery, there were people here too.

Detail of Cranberries by Andrew Wyeth.

Layer 3: The first people

What we know of the paleo folk who lived in Weller Township is largely speculative, and wholly based on the few artifacts they left behind that survived thousands of seasons in the dirt.  The evidence of their presence turns up every spring when the fields are plowed, and arrowheads and stone tools appear in the furrows.

Whatever those ancient people thought of their Ganges cranberry bogs was not left behind in any discernable glyph.

There is however, a source of lore relating to these bogs that is possibly just as ancient, just as fascinating.  It comes from the Lenni Lenape: known to early American historians as the Delaware tribe of American Indians.

The Lenape were living in Richland County in the early 1800s when the American settlers arrived here.  The Lenape may well be descended from the first people in Richland County, and they have a story about the cranberry bog that is, in some respects, the most intriguing layer of the story.

The Tribal storyteller. Painting by Jon Rae from American Indian Fairy Tales, 1921.

Layer 4: The tale

According to the old tribal storyteller, this story took place back in a primeval era when the Lenape were newly removed to this continent from across the great sea.

The tribe was still struggling to adjust to their new world, so the Great Spirit created for them a special beast of burden: a huge creature that could shoulder tremendous weight and pull terrific loads.  They called this critter a Yah Qua Whee; we call it a mastodon.

In time, unfortunately, these mastodons became “unruly,” and caused trouble, refused to work, and broke things.  When they started poking other creatures with their big tusks, the animals of North America had enough, and decided to poke back.

There was a bitter showdown in the animal kingdom.  The old legend made it quite clear that the arena for this epic battle was right here where we live, in the great valley west of the Allegheny Mountains; in fact, T’chi Manitou—the Great Spirit—came to witness the battle, and sat on the Alleghenies to watch the action in the Ohio Valley.

Unruly mastodon. Painting by Jon Rae from American Indian Fairy Tales, 1921.

Terrific armies amassed on both sides of the conflict: mastodons versus all the other smaller animals.  It was an unbelievable battle of such massive casualties that the very earth became completely soaked in animal blood; and the softened ground became such a mire that mastodons began to sink down into the ground because of their prodigious weight.

When the war ended the mastodons were gone.  Sadly, all the game animals, upon whom the Lenape depended for food, were also decimated, which left the tribe facing starvation.

It was then that the Great Spirit created a miraculous new food for the tribe’s sustenance: a fruit that could be dried in order to keep the People fed all seasons of the year.  It was the cranberry.

The cranberries grew on top of the soft ground above where the mastodons’ very bones were sunken; and in commemoration of that horrific sacrifice made by all the animals in battle, and in memory of the mastodons as well, the cranberries honored the fallen dead by wearing a coat that is colored blood red.

Americans who were native to our area during the Moundbuilder Era left behind sculpted stone pipes that give clear evidence of their familiarity with the mastodons of North American.

Layer 5: The bones

What is really fascinating about this story, in terms of the Richland cranberry bogs of Ganges, is that the bright blood red berries grow atop a deep thatch of moss that has accumulated through the centuries, layer upon layer.  This thatch can often serve to cover over and obscure deep kettle holes in the surface of the terrain.

This deep, layered ground creates what is called a “quaking bog,” because it is only marginally solid; and if you jump up and down on the bog in one place, it will shake the whole surface of the moss up to several yards away.

Even though the ground moves, it is solid enough to walk on—unless you weigh as much as a mastodon.  In ancient times these big beasts would wander onto the bog to taste the vegetables, and unexpectedly sink into the moist, mossy earth out of sight.

In fact, below the cranberries growing atop the bog, several yards below in the rich peat muck, construction crews and excavators in Ohio have often found the giant bones of mastodons: just exactly as the Lenape storytellers said they would.

Driving through the rolling farmland of Weller Township, it is not difficult to imagine the scene 12,000 years ago when the cranberry bogs attracted critters who left this landscape millennia ago.

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