It has been more than two centuries since beaver shaped the rivers and creeks of Richland County, but at long last they are quietly reclaiming little pools of their ancestral wetlands.
When the first settlers came to the forested hills of Richland County in the early 1800s, they encountered many wild animals we seldom or never find here today. Their letters and diaries and later reminiscences document the abundance of wolves and bears, otters and panthers.
But there is one common native of the American wilderness that was never listed in their memoirs because, by the time the pioneers arrived in the early 1800s, this critter had already been hunted out of these lands.
That was the beaver.
The last people who saw beaver in Richland County were Wyandot and Huron hunters, or French fur trappers.
The Richland beaver clan gradually departed here through the decades of the 1700s: carried out bundle at a time as furry pelts.
The fur was toted to a frontier trading post; then made its way to the coast where it was loaded on a ship and sailed across the ocean. Somewhere in Europe the fur was processed into waterproof felt material, and then manufactured into hats.
When you see images of the Dutch Masters it could well be Richland beaver they have on their heads.
There were a lot of people in Europe in those days and they all wore hats.
The best hats were made from beaver fur because these warm blooded animals evolved in chilly ponds so their skins are naturally designed to keep water out and heat in. If a hat was to shed rain, it was well to be manufactured from the soft, dense under-fur of a beaver.
These hats were so indispensable in Old World countries that the continent of Europe used up all its beaver supplies. Fortunately for them, this depletion of raw materials occurred during the era when merchant sailors were exploring new ways to exploit resources of the New World.
The most exciting discovery on the North American continent was a fresh supply of beaver fur.
Businessmen in England, Holland, France, and every other European country where it rained, found that the native tribes of North America were happy to procure for them beaver pelts in exchange for weapons, kitchenware, blankets, various decorative trinkets, and all forms of whiskey.
So they told the North American natives they would take all the beaver they could get.
This new market set in motion a competition among the tribes that began simply as a race to the trading post, and escalated to a tragic end known as the Beaver Wars.
The Beaver Wars of North America are not often thought of in terms of Richland County history: they took place many miles away and decades before the first page of local lore.
Yet the distant American Indian conflict of 1650-1760 had a tremendous impact on our local biosphere and cultural heritage.
For one, there were no tribal villages in Richland County before the Beaver Wars.
This area of the Ohio country had been considered a common hunting ground for many generations of tribes. Hunters simply passed through, and the only camps in the Forks of the Mohican were seasonal.
When permanent residential villages were established along the Clear Fork and the Black Fork in the 1700s, they were peopled mostly with clans of diverse tribes who had been displaced from their homelands by Beaver War conflicts.
The other major impact that the Beaver Wars had on Richland County was the complete extermination of Mohican watershed beavers.
Because they have been absent for so long, it is difficult to imagine what kind of difference it made to the local ecology to have an abundance of beavers in the woods here.
Beavers rule any landscape they occupy, and they are masters at terraforming the earth so as to control water.
Richland County happens to be placed on the continent at a particularly generous confluence of influences—bedrock stratum and weather pattern—that produces a wealth of water resources. We have a ‘Spring field’ township precisely because water is so plentiful it cannot be contained under the ground.
So imagine what happened when these two dynamic natural elements—water and beaver—were free to interact in wild genius.
Back then every Richland stream, creek, and tributary was undoubtedly repurposed by beaver, and shaped by their dams.
The image we have today, of meandering streams flowing through the bottom of carved creek beds, did not exist in the era of beaver. These same waterways 300 years ago would have been seen as a series of small beaver ponds.
Since the beaver disappeared 200 years ago Richland County has transformed: dried out, plowed and planted, and paved so dramatically the animals could hardly be expected to recognize the place. Yet, interestingly enough, when they made their way back here 20-30 years ago, one of the places they gravitated toward is a wetland that they may well have created themselves hundreds of years ago.
Almost like a homing instinct they have set up camp once again at the headwaters of the Clear Fork River.
It is marshland today, and seemingly created through construction of the Clear Fork Reservoir. Yet documents from engineers in the 1940s show that the area was already waterlogged before they built the dam.
In fact records from 200 years ago, when surveyors first paced off the wilderness of Richland County, indicate there was a backlogged stream in the place even then.
This marsh is situated within a stretch of landscape that is otherwise well drained. By the surface and subsurface evidence, a local geologist and forensic landscaper suggests that this bit of wetland may well have been first terraformed by beaver engineers hundreds or thousands of years ago in order to create a comfy neighborhood for their community.
Perhaps the beavers who navigate the marsh today are direct descendants of the ones who started the swamp long ago when they backed up the waters of the Clear Fork.