Little Cemetery on the Prairie

Update: The Royal Catchfly is blooming!


From 100 Miles from Home

  • Place: Smith Cemetery Nature Preserve
  • Location: On the west side of IN 63, about 1.9 miles south of the Perrysville, IN exit (Map) 
  • Distance from Home: 38.6 Miles
  • More Information 

Then as to scenery (giving my own thought and feeling,) while I know the standard claim is that Yosemite, Niagara falls, the upper Yellowstone and the like, afford the greatest natural shows, I am not so sure but the Prairies and Plains, while less stunning at first sight, last longer, fill the esthetic sense fuller, precede all the rest, and make North America’s characteristic landscape.

–Whitman, Walt. Prose Works. Philadelphia: David McKay, 1892;, 2000. [November 28, 2016].

Imagine the space you live in—your home, your yard. In the Midwest, the average house has about 2500 square feet, while the average lot has about 22,000 (approximately half an acre). Imagine yourself in that space, walking from room to room, standing in the driveway, surveying your domain.

Now imagine that your space begins to shrink, until 99.9 percent of it has disappeared.

What you have left is about the size of a small garden shed.  Or a coffin, depending on how you look at it.

This is what happened to the prairie. Illinois once was home to about 22 million acres of tall grass prairie, meaning that nearly 60% of the state was covered in grass. Today, only  about 2300 acres (.1 percent!) of the original prairie remain. [1]

The land didn’t disappear, of course: It was devoured and re-purposed, and now instead of tall grass prairie, there are farms.

Like ours.

Prairies came into existence about 9,000 years ago after a series of climate changes that, simplified, worked like this: The glaciers melted. The spruce forests and then the hardwood forests that replaced them died out as the temperature continued to rise.  Prairies thrive where there is less moisture and more sunlight. And their grasses’ deep roots help them resist drought and fire far better than trees can.

Since the prairie had no trees, the first Europeans to travel to this part of the world assumed it was not fertile enough to farm. In fact, the soil was rich, thanks to the fires and the long-term decomposition of the deep-rooted prairie grasses. Pioneer settlers figured this out soon enough, of course, and by about 1900, the 169 million acres of tall grass prairie that formed a roughly triangular area extending west, north and south from Illinois were almost eradicated. (See this map showing the original extent of the prairies.)

Fortunately, patches of native prairie still exist. One of them, Smith Cemetery Nature Preserve, is just up the road from The Perry Farm.

smith-signLess than a third of Indiana once was covered with tall grass prairie. But of those original seven millions acres, only 1000 remain. By virtue of its being a graveyard, Smith Cemetery was never plowed, and thus it still is home to native grasses and forbs.  The search for one special member of the latter category, royal catchfly, led to the cemetery’s “discovery” in 1979 and to the local township agreeing to begin managing the cemetery as a prairie.  Twenty years later, Smith Cemetery was officially designated a state nature preserve.

According to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, native plants growing in the cemetery include prairie dock,  Culver’s root,  yellow coneflower,  leadplant,  pale purple coneflower,  white prairie clover,  prairie alumroot,  hoary puccoon,  New Jersey tea, wild quinine,   showy tick-trefoil , Indian grass  and big  and little bluestem.

Keith and I visited the cemetery in the fall.  Its oldest human inhabitants were born in the 1760s (Martha Isenhood, 1761; David Smith, 1764). The oldest burials are from 1822—Susannah Fultz, Andy Rudy.  Few of the prairie plants still were in bloom, but we saw asters, big blue stem grass and goldenrod.  We saw the carcasses of bergamotbush clover, lead plants and quinine.  And we can vouch for the unexpected splendor of this small prairie nestled between the highway and the farmland. We’ll be back when the royal catchfly blooms next July.

In the meantime, we will ponder the implications of another discovery we made while learning about Smith Cemetery. According to “Vermillion County, Indiana, History and Family,” Highland Township (where Smith Prairie is located) was surveyed in 1820 by a man named William Polke.

A historical digression:  The U.S. Land Ordinance of 1785 was developed as a means of selling “western” lands to farmers (and helping to finance the new government).  It resulted in our township system (i.e., each township consists of 36, one-square-mile sections).  The law also required that the land be surveyed and platted.  darwin-prairieTo give you an idea of what these plats looked like, here’s a portion of one in the vicinity of our Clark County Farm, whose exterior lines were surveyed in 1815 [2]. Note the blue Wabash River and the green lines that mark the boundaries of the prairie.

Records show that William Polke was the deputy surveyor of Indiana in 1819.  His personal story is much more colorful than his meager description of the area around Smith Cemetery (“rich prairie, level and first rate,” according to “Vermillion County, Indiana, History and Family”). Polke was born in 1775. He and his mother and younger sisters were kidnapped by Native Americans in 1782 and held captive until the end of the Revolutionary War. The family moved north of Vincennes in 1808, country Polke’s nephew would describe as:

grown up with high grass, and on the prairies and barrens the fires in the fall of the year were terrific.  There were no roads, no farms, and little or no stock to graze it down. The fires would run all over the lands from the Wabash River to the White River, leaving prairies black and bleak.[3]

Polke was an Indian interpreter who served with William Henry Harrison and was wounded during the Battle of Tippecanoe.  He was a Knox County, Indiana, judge.  He was a member of Indiana’s 1816 Constitutional Convention. He was a commissioner of Wabash River navigation and of the Michigan Road. He was a missionary who tried to “save” the Indians by teaching them to read and write and become good Baptists.  Eventually he was the “conductor” of a group of Potawatomi Indians who in 1838 were “relocated” from Indiana to Kansas, a 660-mile trek known as the “Trail of Death.”

Father Petit, the priest who accompanied him on this journey, viewed the prairie much less romantically than his contemporary, Walt Whitman. This is what he wrote about the prairie near Danville, Illinois, just north of Smith Cemetery:


Smith Cemetery

“We soon found ourselves on the grand prairies of Illinois, under a burning sun and without shade from one camp to another. They are as vast as the ocean, and the eye seeks in vain for a tree. Not a drop of water can by found there— it was a veritable torture for our poor sick, some of whom died each day from weakness and fatigue.”

[1] I adapted these data from Samson and Knopf’s Prairie Conservation in North America. I also learned a great deal about prairies from Ken Robertson’s  Formation of Prairies.
[2] If you own/owned land in Illinois, you will be fascinated by this website, which offers facsimiles of the original land plats.
[3] From Some Memoirs of the Polke, Piety, McCoy, McQuaid, and Mathes Families.

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