Friday, March 14, 2008

An Old Settler's Story: Part Two

When they arrived in America in 1849, the Muir family moved west, drawn by the prospect of rich farmland on the Wisconsin prairie. The Watsons, who arrived in 1837, journeyed as far west as Cleveland, Ohio, to an area known as the Western Reserve. In the eighteenth century, Connecticut had claimed ownership of the Western Reserve, and most of the early settlers in the Western Reserve were native New Englanders. The towns these settlers created in the Western Reserve looked very much like New England towns, with their neat white houses and tree-lined streets. There was also a large population of Scottish immigrants in northern Ohio who had been drawn there by the promise of abundant farmland.

Northeastern Ohio, in those days, was still covered in thick forests, although the settlers had quickly begun to clear the land for farming. According to one writer, “it took less than a century for the 7,000-year-old forest of northern Ohio to be converted to open land by New England settlers. In 1853, more than 40 percent of the forest was gone, and by 1940 about 93 percent.” The Ohio forest was a “beech-maple forest,” a type of forest that extends from Ohio to Indiana and southern Michigan. As the name suggests, the most common trees found in a beech-maple forest are the American beech and the sugar maple. Beech-maple forest covers the southern range of the Wisconsin glacier, which spread as far as northern Ohio during the last Ice Age, over ten thousand years ago.

The Watson brothers, Robert and William, loved to explore the woods around their Ohio home. They spent their time “botanizing,” learning the names of the plants that grew in the woods. They must have learned how to identify the trees in the northern Ohio forest—the beech, maple, American elm, Ohio buckeye and sycamore, the tuliptree and flowering dogwood. As it was to be for John Muir, nature became their teacher. Muir later wrote: “This sudden plash into pure wildness—baptism in Nature’s warm heart—how utterly happy it made us! Nature streaming into us, wooingly teaching her wonderful glowing lessons… Here without knowing it we were still at school...”

In 1839, when Robert was fourteen, his father died. The elder Watson was survived by his wife and his three sons: Robert, William and John. Several years later, Robert enrolled in the academy in Brooklyn Center, Ohio. His favorite teacher was a young man named Henry Churchill, who taught everything from Latin and Greek to drawing and land surveying. As one of his friends said, “the range of his information made him at once the ideal and the despair of the younger men who knew him.” Henry Churchill was “a born teacher,” who inspired Robert Watson with a love of learning and with a desire to use his knowledge to improve the world around him.

In 1849, gold was discovered in California—an event that John Muir heard and dreamed about in faraway Scotland. In that same year, Robert Watson, now twenty-three years old, began to think about heading west to make a new start at farming on the prairies of the new Minnesota Territory. A year later, in the spring of 1850, Robert and William set out from their home in Parma, Ohio, bound for Galena, Illinois, on the Mississippi River.

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