On a mission on Independence Day

Independence Day, anniversary no. 241 is upon us, a holiday surely on the short list of important ones in the United States. There’s no end to the philosophical and political ideas that can be, and have been, expounded upon. But as for me, I’m thinking about connections inspired by the research and personal reading I’ve been doing lately. Bear with me grizzlies, while I attempt to connect genetic research on rare California plants to American history.

I started graduate school in genetics, not ecology, and that field has always been the most fascinating to me. I’m in fact currently working on a topic that bridges the two fields, referred to as genetic biocontrol, the aim of which is to use genetic methods to reduce fitness, and hence population sizes, of harmful or otherwise unwanted species. So, I was sad to learn in a recent special issue devoted to the work of Dr. Leslie Gottlieb of UC Davis, on polyploid genetics, that he had passed away five years ago. The major focal taxon of Gottlieb’s work was the genus Clarkia, and I had some good conversations with him when I was doing restoration and propagation work on a very rare Clarkia (C. lingulata) endemic to the Merced River canyon, the main river flowing into, and through, Yosemite Valley. This is a famous species in plant genetics, cited in textbooks as an example of instantaneous speciation (see here and here), derived from it’s progenitor, Clarkia biloba. Clarkia lingulata is found in only two populations near the junction of the South Fork Merced with its main stem, a few miles west of the western boundary of Yosemite National Park.

Said River of Mercy is not merciful this year though, or any time at high water, should you happen to be in it. It is uncontrolled, and at high water rages through a steep, boulder filled death sieve as it leaves Yosemite Valley and heads for the San Joaquin. I still remember well the day that a woman, with her three kids, fell asleep at the wheel after driving all night, and drove off the road and into the river at daybreak, just above this location, drowning them all. When I was kayaking, the Merced was the only river that ever scared me off the river, although part of that was due to being solo and exhausted, which is a full-on recipe for disaster. There is also some very interesting history regarding Clarkia lingulata‘s location, one involving the cause of the American discovery of Yosemite Valley in 1851, but I won’t go into that here.

In one of our discussions, Les discussed some aspects of another rare Clarkia species he was working with, Clarkia franciscana. The species is so named because it is found only in the immediate area of the San Francisco Presidio–and this makes for a segue from genetics to history, involving the SF Presidio, Spain, Mexico and the United States, Upper (or New) California, and July of 1776.

The history of what is now the state of California has, I think, to rank as one of the most interesting of any in the world, and especially so from 1846 to 1850. Just a week before the momentous event in Philadelphia, a small group of Spanish Franciscans, with a small military escort, arrived from the Carmel River area (just south of present Monterey, CA), to extend the Spanish Upper California dominion northward by establishing their third presidio (military base and/or fort, the first two being at San Diego and Monterey in 1769/1770), and with it another mission of course. These establishments were significant because both were to carry the name of the order’s founder, Saint Francis of Assisi.

On June 27 1776, this group came upon a small creek draining the peninsular hills east (toward San Francisco Bay), which they named Dolores, and decided that this would serve as the future mission site. On June 29 they established an altar and consecrated the site, and then began looking for a strategic location for the presidio and fort, which they located on a high bluff commanding the narrow entrance to the bay (the “Golden Gate”), just to the water side of what is now the southern anchorage of the Golden Gate Bridge.

A depiction of Mission Dolores circa 1893 by Edward Borein

At this point, books worth of material could be inserted discussing the Spanish (and after 1822, Mexican) discovery, settlement and management of Upper California, and with jaw fairly agape at both the process and the end result (circa 1848), for much of it. And we, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, wouldn’t be the first to do so either–the Russians, the British, and especially the Americans, of that time, did so also. It’s documented in various writings, which are for me at least, entirely fascinating. Some of it seems to defy logic. If anyone could write an authoritative book titled “Imperial expansion: how not to do it”, it would have to be the Spanish and/or Mexicans.

To say that things went downhill for the Spanish from 1776 to 1848 would be the understatement of the century. Twenty-one missions were established in Upper California during the “mission period” from 1769 to the American conquest in 1846, but for various reasons including Russian presence starting around 1805, only two north of Mission Dolores (Missions San Rafael and Solano), and both of those quite late in the game. The events in Philadelphia five days after consecration of the Mission San Francisco de Assis (= Dolores) site, caused the Spanish to pull back on several intended plans in northwestern New Spain, now the western United States, including expansion north of San Francisco Bay and another plan for a series of missions in the interior lands east and south of it.

Mission Dolores circa 1842 by Henry Miller

One argument has it that in so doing the Spanish were hoping to marshall their energies to re-claim parts of Spanish Florida lost initially to the French, and hence to the British after 1763, thinking that the Revolutionary War might offer their best chance to do so. But this plan, along with apparently about everything the Spanish and Mexicans did from 1800-1850, backfired. Not only did they not increase Spanish Florida, they quickly lost what they already had. This was followed later (1822) by the entire loss of New Spain, i.e. Mexican independence. The fracturing of the once vast Spanish empire then continued as the Mexicans in turn quickly lost Texas to independence, whose annexation by the United States about a decade later thus led to the Mexican-American war. In amazingly short order therein, they then managed to not only not reclaim Texan territory, but instead to astoundingly quickly lose both California and New Mexico. This was followed in less than a year by surrender, and with it the additional loss of what are now roughly the states of Utah, Nevada and Arizona. The total area is a large and very valuable chunk of real estate, by any standard.

I’m no historian, though I read my fair share, but compared to the serious difficulties and drain of two wars with the British spanning 40 years, and the even more extended and often ferocious wars with various Native American tribes, this sudden acquisition of a vast, important territory without much of a fight stands out. James Marshall discovered gold in the tail race of John Sutter’s sawmill east of what is now Sacramento just about two weeks before the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo officially ceded all this territory to the United States. That this should happen to a people who had historically been obsessed and sometimes deluded by various fantastic stories regarding that material, kind of says it all. Marshall and Sutter tried to keep the discovery secret for a couple of months but that was a lost cause, and they likely knew it–it was a virtual certainty that the gold veins and placer deposits that ran up and down half the Sierra Nevada, and elsewhere, would be found in almost no time by those about to pour unobstructed into what was now the United States. And so they poured. And the rest as they say…

The Shawnee

He [Tecumseh] came of one of the most energetic and warlike of the Indian tribes. The Shawnees have always been a restless people, more adventurous than any other Indians. They belong to that family of Indian nations known as the Algonquin…The history of the Shawnees, even after the settlement of America, is wrapped in obscurity. They moved about so incessantly, and were so often divided in their migrations, that we are unable to track the various divisions. Some are of the opinion that the Eries, who are said to have been destroyed by the Iroquois in very early times, were none other than the Shawnees before their wanderings began. Certain it is that when we first hear of them in early documents, they seem to be divided, wandering, and of uncertain habitation. We hear of a war which was being waged against them by the Iroquois at the time of Captain John Smith’s arrival in America in 1607. They were at that time located to the west of the Susquehanna, and on its banks. De Laet mentions them as on the Delaware in 1632. They are also said to have been located at the South, and to have come from near Lake Erie. We can only reconcile these conflicting accounts by supposing them to have already divided into several bands, some of which were in motion, for other authorities place their seat, in the latter part of the seventeenth century, in the basin of the Cumberland River in Kentucky. Later they are found on the Wabash, where Tecumseh long afterward made a new settlement, and in 1708 they are spoken of as removing from the Mississippi to South Carolina. The Swanee or Suwanee River, in Florida, derives its name from a party of Shawnees who had come from north of the Ohio.

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Threaded between tragedies

August 24…just as we were commencing the ascent of the mountain, several Indians made their appearance, about fifty yards from the trail. The leader and chief was an old man, with a deeply-furrowed face. I rode towards him, holding out my hand in token of friendship. He motioned me not to advance further, but to pass on and leave him, as he desired to have no communication with us. I insisted upon the reason of this unfriendly demonstration; assuring him, as well as I could by signs, that we desired to be at peace, and to do them no harm. His response was, if I understood it, that we, the whites, had slaughtered his men, taken his women and children into captivity, and driven him out of his country. I endeavored to assure him that we were not of those who had done him and his tribe these wrongs, and held out my hand a second time, and moved to approach him. With great energy of gesticulation, and the strongest signs of excited aversion and dread, he again motioned us not to come nearer to him, but to pass on and leave him. The other Indians, some six or eight in number, took no part in the dialogue, but were standing in a line, several yards from their chief, with their bows and arrows in their hands. Finding that it would be useless, perhaps dangerous, to press our friendship further, we continued our march. I have but little doubt, that these Indians are the remnant of some tribe that has been wantonly destroyed in some of the bloody Indian slaughters which have occurred in California.

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Rough and Ready

In the fall of 1849, the “Rough and Ready Company” of emigrants, under Captain Townsend, composed of some dozen men, from Shellsburg, Wisconsin, arrived by the Truckee route at a point on Deer Creek near the mouth of Slate Creek; they mined successfully there, a few weeks in the bed of the creek; one of their number went out to kill some game, deer and grizzly being plentiful, and in quenching his thirst at the clear stream of the ravine below Randolph Flat, discovered a piece of gold on the naked bed-rock. Consequent prospecting by the company satisfied them that the new found diggings were rich, and removing their camp, they prepared winter quarters by building two log cabins on the point of the hill east from and overlooking the present town of Rough and Ready. Two of their number struck out through the woods “on a bee line” for Sacramento, to procure provisions, and thus made the first wagon tracks on what afterward became the Telegraph road. From the name of this company, the settlement and town afterward derived its designation…

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“Why the Americans Are More Addicted to Practical Than to Theoretical Science”

Those who cultivate the sciences among a democratic people are always afraid of losing their way in visionary speculation. They mistrust systems; they adhere closely to facts and the study of facts with their own senses. As they do not easily defer to the mere name of any fellow-man, they are never inclined to rest upon any man’s authority; but, on the contrary, they are unremitting in their efforts to point out the weaker points of their neighbor’s opinions. Scientific precedents have very little weight with them; they are never long detained by the subtlety of the schools, nor ready to accept big words for sterling coin; they penetrate, as far as they can, into the principal parts of the subject which engages them, and they expound them in the vernacular tongue. Scientific pursuits then follow a freer and a safer course, but a less lofty one.

Tocqueville Vol 2 frontis

The mind may, as it appears to me, divide science into three parts. The first comprises the most theoretical principles, and those more abstract notions, whose application is either unknown or very remote. The second is composed of those general truths, which still belong to pure theory, but lead nevertheless by a straight and short road to practical results. Methods of application and means of execution make up the third. Each of these different portions of science may be separately cultivated, although reason and experience show that none of them can prosper long, if it be absolutely cut off from the two others.

In America the purely practical part of science is admirably understood, and careful attention is paid to the theoretical portion which is immediately requisite to application. On this head the Americans always display a clear, free, original, and inventive power of mind. But hardly any one in the United States devotes himself to the essentially theoretical and abstract portion of human knowledge. In this respect the Americans carry to excess a tendency which is, I think, discernible, though in a less degree, among all democratic nations.

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Warner, 1833

Just one reason why I will never tire of reading history and exploration, extracted from:
Anonymous (1891). A Memorial and Biographical History of Northern California. Lewis Publishing Co., Chicago IL.

Colonel J. J. Warner, now of Los Angeles, a member of the Ewing trapping expedition, which passed north through these valleys in 1832, and back again in 1833, says:

“In the fall of 1832, there were a number of Indian villages on King’s River, between its mouth and the mountains; also on the San Joaquin River, from the base of the mountains down to and some distance below the great slough. On the Merced River, from the mountains to its junction with the San Joaquin, there were no Indian villages; but from about this point on the San Joaquin, as well as on its principal tributaries, the Indian villages were numerous, many of them containing some fifty to one hundred dwellings, built with poles and thatched with rushes. With some few exceptions, the Indians were peaceably disposed. On the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Calaveras rivers there were no Indian villages above the mouths, as also at or near their junction with the San Joaquin. The most hostile were on the Calaveras River. The banks of the Sacramento River, in its whole course through the valley, was studded with Indian villages, the houses of which, in the spring, during the day-time, were red with the salmon the aborigines were curing.

At this time there were not, on the San Joaquin or Sacramento river, or any of their tributaries, nor within the valleys of the two rivers, any inhabitants but Indians. On no part of the continent over which I had then, or have since, traveled, was so numerous an Indian population, subsisting on the natural products of the soil and waters, as in the valleys of the San Joaquin and Sacramento. There was no cultivation of the soil by them; game, fish, nuts of the forest and seeds of the field constituted their entire food. They were experts in catching fish in many ways, and in snaring game in diverse modes.

On our return, late in the summer of 1833,we found the valleys depopulated. From the head of the Sacramento to the great bend and slough of the San Joaquin we did not see more than six or eight live Indians, while large numbers of their bodies and skulls were to be seen under almost every shade-tree near water, where the uninhabited and deserted villages had been converted into grave-yards; and on the San Joaquin River, in the immediate neighborhood of the larger class of villages, which the preceding year were the abodes of large numbers of these Indians, we found not only many graves, but the vestiges of a funeral pyre. At the mouth of King’s River we encountered the first and only village of the stricken race that we had seen after entering the great valley; this village contained a large number of Indians temporarily stopping at that place.

We were encamped near the village one night only, and during that time the death angel, passing over the camping-ground of the plague stricken fugitives, waved his wand, summoning from a little remnant of a once numerous people a score of victims to muster in the land of the Manitou; and the cries of the dying, mingling with the wails of the bereaved, made the night hideous in that veritable valley of death.

History N CA cover

“Cincinnati, March 22nd, 1814.”

I am by no means whatsoever an expert on American government policies regarding Native Americans. So just where the following extract fits in to the bigger picture thereof I don’t really know, but based on considerations such as date, location, and people involved, it seems to describe an important set of decisions, possibly precedent setting. It is taken from a letter from General William Henry Harrison, to the Secretary of War, during the War of 1812. Harrison had been Territorial Governor of Indiana before the war, and had served in Anthony Wayne’s army back in the 1794 campaign through western Ohio that led to the Treaty of Greenville in 1795, two very important events in establishing policies between the United States and Native Americans, generally.

Harrison may well have had a better understanding of the recent geographic history of Native American tribes–and certainly regarding their various warfare methods–in the large midwestern area centered on what is now Indiana, and it’s principal river (the Wabash), than any other person of the time. He was also the main actor in dealing with Tecumseh, arguably the greatest Native American strategist ever, in what must have been a fascinating real-life drama. The focus of the letter is on just which tribes had legitimate, long-standing land tenure claims, and thus, the right to negotiate and sell their lands, thereby countering the grand unification strategy of Tecumseh. The full letter is reproduced here: McAfee (1816). History of the Late War in the Western Country, pp 53-58; the [] and bolds being my edits.

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“Fearfully wild, with a blaze of quick electric light in his dark eye”

Never in several lifetimes of dreams and visions will I ever tire of reading the works of this man.

Visalia is the name of a small town embowered in oaks upon the Tulare Plain in Middle California, where we made our camp one May evening of 1864. Professor Whitney, our chief, the State Geologist, had sent us out for a summer’s campaign in the High Sierras, under the lead of Professor William H. Brewer, who was more sceptical than I as to the result of the mission.

Several times during the previous winter Mr. Hoffman and I, while on duty at the Mariposa gold-mines, had climbed to the top of Mount Bullion, and gained, in those clear January days, a distinct view of the High Sierra, ranging from the Mount Lyell group many miles south to a vast pile of white peaks, which, from our estimate, should lie near the heads of the King’s and Kaweah rivers. Of their great height I was fully persuaded; and Professor Whitney, on the strength of these few observations, commissioned us to explore and survey the new Alps.

We numbered five in camp:—Professor Brewer; Mr. Charles F. Hoffman, chief topographer; Mr. James T. Gardiner, assistant surveyor; myself, assistant geologist; and our man-of-all-work, to whom science already owes its debts.

When we got together our outfit of mules and equipments of all kinds, Brewer was going to reengage, as general aid, a certain Dane, Jan Hoesch, who, besides being a faultless mule-packer, was a rapid and successful financier, having twice, when the field-purse was low and remittances delayed, enriched us by what he called “dealing bottom stock” in his little evening games with the honest miners. Not ungrateful for that, I, however, detested the fellow with great cordiality. “If I don’t take him, will you be responsible for packing mules and for daily bread?” said Brewer to me, the morning of our departure from Oakland. “I will.” “Then we’ll take your man Cotter; only, when the pack-saddles roll under the mules’ bellies, I shall light my pipe and go botanizing. Sabe?”

So my friend, Richard Cotter, came into the service, and the accomplished but filthy Jan opened a poker and rum shop on one of the San Francisco wharves, where he still mixes drinks and puts up jobs of “bottom stock.” Secretly I longed for him as we came down the Pacheco Pass, the packs having loosened with provoking frequency.

The animals of our small exploring party were upon a footing of easy social equality with us. All were excellent except mine. The choice of Hobson (whom I take to have been the youngest member of some company) falling naturally to me, I came to be possessed of the only hopeless animal in the band. Old Slum, a dignified roan mustang of a certain age, with the decorum of years and a conspicuous economy of force retained not a few of the affectations of youth, such as snorting theatrically and shying, though with absolute safety to the rider, Professor Brewer. Hoffman’s mount was a young half-breed, full of fire and gentleness. The mare Bess, my friend Gardiner’s pet, was a light-bay creature, as full of spring and perception as her sex and species may be. A rare mule, Cate, carried Cotter. Nell and Jim, two old geological mules, branded with Mexican hieroglyphics from head to tail, were bearers of the loads.

My Buckskin was incorrigibly bad. To begin with, his anatomy was desultory and incoherent, the maximum of physical effort bringing about a slow, shambling gait quite unendurable. He was further cursed with a brain wanting the elements of logic, as evinced by such non sequiturs as shying insanely at wisps of hay, and stampeding beyond control when I tried to tie him to a load of grain. My sole amusement with Buckskin grew out of a psychological peculiarity of his, namely, the unusual slowness with which waves of sensation were propelled inward toward the brain from remote parts of his periphery. A dig of the spurs administered in the flank passed unnoticed for a period of time varying from twelve to thirteen seconds, till the protoplasm of the brain received the percussive wave; then, with a suddenness which I never wholly got over, he would dash into a trot, nearly tripping himself up with his own astonishment.

A stroke of good fortune completed our outfit and my happiness by bringing to Visalia a Spaniard who was under some manner of financial cloud. His horse was offered for sale, and quickly bought for me by Professor Brewer. We named him Kaweah, after the river and its Indian tribe. He was young, strong, fleet, elegant, a pattern of fine modelling in every part of his bay body and fine black legs; every way good, only fearfully wild, with a blaze of quick electric light in his dark eye.

Shortly after sunrise one fresh morning we made a point of putting the packs on very securely, and, getting into our saddles, rode out toward the Sierras. The group of farms surrounding Visalia is gathered within a belt through which several natural, and many more artificial, channels of the Kaweah flow. Groves of large, dark-foliaged oaks follow this irrigated zone; the roads, nearly always in shadow, are flanked by small ranch-houses, fenced in with rank jungles of weeds and rows of decrepit pickets.

Our backs were now turned to this farm-belt, the road leading us out upon the open plain in our first full sight of the Sierras. Grand and cool swelled up the forest; sharp and rugged rose the wave of white peaks, their vast fields of snow rolling over the summit in broad, shining masses. Sunshine, exuberant vegetation, brilliant plant life, occupied our attention hour after hour until the middle of the second day. At last, after climbing a long, weary ascent, we rode out of the dazzling light of the foot-hills into a region of dense woodland, the road winding through avenues of pines so tall that the late evening light only came down to us in scattered rays. Under the deep shade of these trees we found an air pure and gratefully cool.

Passing from the glare of the open country into the dusky forest, one seems to enter a door and ride into a vast covered hall. The whole sensation is of being roofed and enclosed. You are never tired of gazing down long vistas, where, in stately groups, stand tall shafts of pine. Columns they are, each with its own characteristic tinting and finish, yet all standing together with the air of relationship and harmony. Feathery branches, trimmed with living green, wave through the upper air, opening broken glimpses of the far blue, and catching on their polished surfaces reflections of the sun. Broad streams of light pour in, gilding purple trunks and falling in bright pathways along an undulating floor. Here and there are wide, open spaces, around which the trees group themselves in majestic ranks.

Our eyes often ranged upward, the long shafts leading the vision up to green, lighted spires, and on to the clouds. All that is dark and cool and grave in color, the beauty of blue umbrageous distance, all the sudden brilliance of strong local lights tinted upon green boughs or red and fluted shafts, surround us in ever-changing combination as we ride along these winding roadways of the Sierra.

We had marched a few hours over high, rolling, wooded ridges, when in the late afternoon we reached the brow of an eminence and began to descend. Looking over the tops of the trees beneath us, we saw a mountain basin fifteen hundred feet deep surrounded by a rim of pine-covered hills. An even, unbroken wood covered these sweeping slopes down to the very bottom, and in the midst, open to the sun, lay a circular green meadow, about a mile in diameter.

As we descended, side wood-tracks, marked by the deep ruts of timber wagons, joined our road on either side, and in the course of an hour we reached the basin and saw the distant roofs of Thomas’s Saw-Mill Ranch. We crossed the level disc of meadow, fording a clear, cold mountain stream, flowing, as the best brooks do, over clean, white granite sand, and near the northern margin of the valley, upon a slight eminence, in the edge of a magnificent forest, pitched our camp.

The hills to the westward already cast down a sombre shadow, which fell over the eastern hills and across the meadow, dividing the basin half in golden and half in azure green. The tall young grass was living with purple and white flowers. This exquisite carpet sweeps up over the bases of the hills in green undulations, and strays far into the forest in irregular fields. A little brooklet passed close by our camp and flowed down the smooth green glacis which led from our little eminence to the meadow. Above us towered pines two hundred and fifty feet high, their straight, fluted trunks smooth and without a branch for a hundred feet. Above that, and on to the very tops, the green branches stretched out and interwove, until they spread a broad, leafy canopy from column to column.

Professor Brewer determined to make this camp a home for the week during which we were to explore and study all about the neighborhood. We were on a great granite spur, sixty miles from east to west by twenty miles wide, which lies between the Kaweah and King’s River cañons. Rising in bold sweeps from the plain, this ridge joins the Sierra summit in the midst of a high group. Experience had taught us that the cañons are impassable by animals for any great distance; so the plan of campaign was to find a way up over the rocky crest of the spur as far as mules could go.

In the little excursions from this camp, which were made usually on horseback, we became acquainted with the forest, and got a good knowledge of the topography of a considerable region. On the heights above King’s Cañon are some singularly fine assemblies of trees. Cotter and I had ridden all one morning northeast from camp under the shadowy roof of forest, catching but occasional glimpses out over the plateau, until at last we emerged upon the bare surface of a ridge of granite, and came to the brink of a sharp precipice. Rocky crags lifted just east of us. The hour devoted to climbing them proved well spent.

A single little family of alpine firs growing in a niche in the granite surface, and partly sheltered by a rock, made the only shadow, and just shielded us from the intense light as we lay down by their roots. North and south, as far as the eye could reach, heaved the broad, green waves of plateau, swelling and merging through endless modulation of slope and form.

Conspicuous upon the horizon, about due east of us, was a tall, pyramidal mass of granite, trimmed with buttresses which radiated down from its crest, each one ornamented with fantastic spires of rock. Between the buttresses lay stripes of snow, banding the pale granite peak from crown to base. Upon the north side it fell off, grandly precipitous, into the deep upper cañon of King’s River. This gorge, after uniting a number of immense rocky amphitheatres, is carved deeply into the granite two and three thousand feet. In a slightly curved line from the summit it cuts westward through the plateau, its walls, for the most part, descending in sharp, bare slopes, or lines of ragged débris, the resting-place of processions of pines. We ourselves were upon the brink of the south wall; three thousand feet below us lay the valley, a narrow, winding ribbon of green, in which, here and there, gleamed still reaches of the river. Wherever the bottom widened to a quarter or half a mile, green meadows and extensive groves occupied the level region. Upon every niche and crevice of the walls, up and down sweeping curves of easier descent, were grouped black companies of trees.

The behavior of the forest is observed most interestingly from these elevated points above the general face of the table-land. All over the gentle undulations of the more level country sweeps an unbroken covering of trees. Reaching the edge of the cañon precipices, they stand out in bold groups upon the brink, and climb all over the more ragged and broken surfaces of granite. Only the most smooth and abrupt precipices are bare. Here and there a little shelf of a foot or two in width, cracked into the face of the bluff, gives foothold to a family of pines, who twist their roots into its crevices and thrive. With no soil from which the roots may drink up moisture and absorb the slowly dissolved mineral particles, they live by breathing alone, moist vapors from the river below and the elements of the atmosphere affording them the substance of life.

Farmers studying their fields travel at a walk

The following is an essay by Wendell Berry, titled Farmland Without Farmers published recently in The Atlantic. The piece is extracted from the book Our Only World: Ten Essays, published by Counterpoint Press. I reproduce the text of the essay here in full, because, well, because it’s so damn good and important.

The landscapes of our country are now virtually deserted. In the vast, relatively flat acreage of the Midwest now given over exclusively to the production of corn and soybeans, the number of farmers is lower than it has ever been. I don’t know what the average number of acres per farmer now is, but I do know that you often can drive for hours through those corn-and-bean deserts without seeing a human being beyond the road ditches, or any green plant other than corn and soybeans. Any people you may see at work, if you see any at work anywhere, almost certainly will be inside the temperature-controlled cabs of large tractors, the connection between the human organism and the soil organism perfectly interrupted by the machine. Thus we have transposed our culture, our cultural goal, of sedentary, indoor work to the fields. Some of the “field work,” unsurprisingly, is now done by airplanes.

This contact, such as it is, between land and people is now brief and infrequent, occurring mainly at the times of planting and harvest. The speed and scale of this work have increased until it is impossible to give close attention to anything beyond the performance of the equipment. The condition of the crop of course is of concern and is observed, but not the condition of the land. And so the technological focus of industrial agriculture by which species diversity has been reduced to one or two crops is reducing human participation ever nearer to zero. Under the preponderant rule of “labor-saving,” the worker’s attention to the work place has been effectively nullified even when the worker is present. The “farming” of corn-and-bean farmers—and of others as fully industrialized—has been brought down from the complex arts of tending or husbanding the land to the application of purchased inputs according to the instructions conveyed by labels and operators’ manuals.

To make as much sense as I can of our predicament, I turn to Wes Jackson, founder of the Land Institute, in Salina, Kansas, and his perception that for any parcel of land in human use there is an “eyes-to-acres ratio” that is right and is necessary to save it from destruction. By “eyes” Wes means a competent watchfulness, aware of the nature and the history of the place, constantly present, always alert for signs of harm and signs of health. The necessary ratio of eyes to acres is not constant from one place to another, nor is it scientifically predictable or computable for any place, because from place to place there are too many natural and human variables. The need for the right eyes-to-acres ratio appears nonetheless to have the force of law.

We can suppose that the eyes-to-acres ratio is approximately correct when a place is thriving in human use and care. The sign of its thriving would be the evident good health and diversity, not just of its crops and livestock but also of its population of native and noncommercial creatures, including the community of creatures living in the soil. Equally indicative and necessary would be the signs of a thriving local and locally adapted human economy.

The great and characteristic problem of industrial agriculture is that it does not distinguish one place from another. In effect, it blinds its practitioners to where they are. It cannot, by definition, be adapted to local ecosystems, topographies, soils, economies, problems, and needs.

The sightlessness and thoughtlessness of the imposition of the corn-and-bean industry upon the sloping or rolling countryside hereabouts is made vividly objectionable to me by my memory of the remarkably careful farming that was commonly practiced in these central Kentucky counties in the 1940s and 50s—though, even then, amid much regardlessness and damage. The best farming here was highly diversified in both plants and animals. Its basis was understood to be grass and grazing animals; cattle, sheep, hogs, and, during the 40s, the workstock, all were pastured. Grain crops typically were raised to be fed; the farmers would say, “The grain raised here must walk off.” And so in any year only a small fraction of the land would be plowed. The commercial economy of the farms was augmented and supported by the elaborate subsistence economies of the households. “I may be sold out or run out,” the farmers would say, “but I’ll not be starved out.”

My brother recently reminded me how carefully our father thought about the nature of our home countryside. He had witnessed the ultimate futility—the high costs to both farmer and farm—of raising corn for cash during the hard times of the 1920s and 30s. He concluded, rightly, that the crop that could be raised most profitably in the long run was grass. That was because we did not have large acreages that could safely be used for growing grain, but our land was aboundingly productive of grass, which moreover it produced more cheaply than any other crop. And the grass sod, which was perennial, covered and preserved the soil the year round.

A further indication of the quality of the farming here in the 40s and 50s is that the Soil Conservation Service was more successful during those years than it would or could be again in the promotion of plowing and terracing on the contour to control soil erosion. Those measures at that time were permitted by the right scale of the farming and of the equipment then in use. Anybody familiar with topographic maps will know that contour lines remain strictly horizontal over the irregularities of the land’s surfaces; crop rows cannot be regularly spaced. This variability presents no significant problem to a farmer using one- or two-row equipment in relatively small lands or fields. And so for a while contour farming became an established practice on many farms, and to good effect. It was defeated primarily by the enlargement of fields and the introduction of larger equipment. Eventually, many farmers simply ignored their terraces, plowing over them, the planted rows sometimes running straight downhill. Earlier, a good many farmers had taken readily to the idea of soil conservation. A farmer in a neighboring county said, “I want the water to walk off my land, not run.” But beyond a certain scale, the farming begins to conform to the demands of the machines, not to the nature of the land.

Within three paragraphs I have twice quoted farmers who used “walk” as an approving figure of speech: Grain leaving a farm hereabouts should walk off; and the rainwater fallen upon a farm should walk, not run. This is not merely a coincidence. The gait most congenial to agrarian thought and sensibility is walking. It is the gait best suited to paying attention, most conservative of land and equipment, and most permissive of stopping to look or think. Machines, companies, and politicians “run.” Farmers studying their fields travel at a walk.

Farms that are highly diversified and rightly scaled tend, by their character and structure, toward conservation of the land, the human community, and the local economy. Such farms are both work places and homes to the families who inhabit them and who are intimately involved in the daily life of land and household. Without such involvement, farmers cease to be country people and become in effect city people, industrial workers and consumers, living in the country.

* * *

I have spoken so far of the decline of country work, but the decline of country pleasures is at least equally significant. If the people who live and work in the country don’t also enjoy the country, a valuable and necessary part of life is missing. And for families on farms of a size permitting them to be intimately lived on and from, the economic life of the place is itself the primary country pleasure. As one would expect, not every day or every job can be a pleasure, but for farmers who love their livestock there is pleasure in watching the animals graze and in winter feeding. There is pleasure in the work of maintenance, the redemption of things worn or broken, that must go on almost continuously. There is pleasure in the growing, preserving, cooking, and eating of the good food that the family’s own land provides. But around this core of the life and work of the farm are clustered other pleasures, in their way also life-sustaining, and most of which are cheap or free.

I live in a country that would be accurately described as small-featured. There are no monumental land forms, no peaks or cliffs or high waterfalls, no wide or distant vistas. Though it is by nature a land of considerable beauty, there is little here that would attract vacationing wilderness lovers. It is blessed by a shortage of picturesque scenery and mineable minerals. The topography, except in the valley bottoms, is rolling or sloping. Along the sides of the valleys, the slopes are steep. It is divided by many hollows and streams, and it has always been at least partially wooded.

Because of the brokenness and diversity of the landscape, there was never until lately a clean separation here between the pursuits of farming and those of hunting and gathering. On many farms the agricultural income, including the homegrown and homemade subsistence of the households, would be supplemented by hunting or fishing or trapping or gathering provender from the woods and berry patches—perhaps by all of these. And beyond their economic contribution, these activities were forms of pleasure. Many farmers kept hounds or bird dogs. The gear and skills of hunting and fishing belonged to ordinary daily and seasonal life. More ordinary was the walking (or riding or driving) and looking that kept people aware of the condition of the ground, the crops, the pastures, and the livestock, of the state of things in the house yard and the garden, in the woods, and along the sides of the streams.

My own community, centered upon the small village of Port Royal, is along the Kentucky River and in the watersheds of local tributaries. Its old life, before the industrialization of much of the farmland and the urbanization of the people, was under the influence of the river, as other country communities of that time were under the influence of the railroads. In the neighborhood of Port Royal practically every man and boy, some girls and women too, fished from time to time in the Kentucky River. Some of the men fished “all the time” or “way too much.” Until about a generation ago, there was some commercial fishing. And I can remember when hardly a summer day would pass when from the house where eventually I would live you could not hear the shouts of boys swimming in the river, often flying out into the water from the end of a swinging rope. I remember when I was one of them. My mother, whose native place this was, loved her girlhood memories of swimming parties and picnics at the river. In hot weather she and her friends would walk the mile from Port Royal down to the river for a cooling swim, and then would make the hot walk back up the hill to town.

Now the last of the habituated fishermen of the local waters are now dead. They have been replaced by fishermen using expensive “bassboats,” almost as fast as automobiles, whose sport is less describable as fishing than as using equipment. In the last year only one man, comparatively a newcomer, has come to the old landing where I live to fish with trotlines—and, because of the lack of competition, he has caught several outsize catfish. Some local people, and a good many outsiders, hunt turkeys and deer. There is still a fair amount of squirrel hunting. The bobwhite, the legendary gamebird of this region, is almost extinct here, and the bird hunters with them. A rare few still hunt with hounds.

Most remarkable is the disappearance of nearly all children and teenagers, from the countryside, and in general from the out-of-doors. The technologies of large-scale industrial agriculture are too complicated and too dangerous to allow the participation of children. For most families around here, the time is long gone when children learned to do farmwork by playing at it, and then taking part in it, in the company of their parents. It seems that most children now don’t play much in their house yards, let alone in the woods and along the creeks. Many now descend from their school buses at the ends of lanes and driveways to be carried the rest of the way to their houses in parental automobiles. Most teenagers apparently divide their out-of-school time between indoor entertainment and travel in motor vehicles. The big boys no longer fish or swim or hunt or camp out. Or work. The town boys, who used to hire themselves out for seasonal or part-time work on the farms, no longer find such work available, or they don’t wish to do the work that is available.

Local people who regularly hunted or fished or foraged or walked or played in the local countryside served the local economy and stewardship as inspectors, rememberers, and storytellers. They gave their own kind of service to the eyes-to-acres ratio. Now most of those people are gone or absent, along with most of the farming people who used to be at work here.

With them have gone the local stories and songs. When people begin to replace stories from local memory with stories from television screens, another vital part of life is lost. I have my own memories of the survival in a small rural community of its own stories. By telling and retelling those stories, people told themselves who they were, where they were, and what they had done. They thus maintained in ordinary conversation their own living history. And I have from my neighbor, John Harrod, a thorough student of Kentucky’s traditional fiddle music, his testimony that every rural community once heard, sang, and danced to at least a few tunes that were uniquely its own. What is the economic value of stories and songs? What is the economic value of the lived and living life of a community? My argument here is directed by my belief that the art and the life of settled rural communities are critical to our life-supporting economy. But their value is incalculable. It can only be acknowledged and respected, and our present economy is incapable, and cannot on its own terms be made capable, of such acknowledgement and respect.

Meanwhile, the farmlands and woodlands of this neighborhood are being hurt worse and faster by bad farming and bad logging than at any other time in my memory. The signs of this abuse are often visible even from the roads, but nobody is looking. Or to people who are looking, but seeing from no perspective of memory or knowledge, the country simply looks “normal.” Outsiders who come visiting almost always speak of it as “beautiful.” But along this river, the Kentucky, which I have known all my life, and have lived beside for half a century, there is a large and regrettable recent change, clearly apparent to me, and to me indicative of changes in water quality, but perfectly invisible to nearly everybody else.

* * *

I don’t remember what year it was when I first noticed the disappearance of the native black willows from the low-water line of this river. Their absence was sufficiently noticeable, for the willows were both visually prominent and vital to the good health of the river. Wherever the banks were broken by “slips” or the uprooting of large trees, and so exposed to sunlight, the willows would come in quickly to stabilize the banks. Their bushy growth and pretty foliage gave the shores of the river a distinctive grace, now gone and much missed by the few who remember. Like most people, I don’t welcome bad news, and so I said to myself that perhaps the willows were absent only from the stretch of the river that I see from my house and work places. But in 2002 for the first time in many years I had the use of a motor boat, and I examined carefully the shores of the twenty-seven-mile pool between locks one and two. I saw a few old willows at the tops of the high banks, but none at or near the low-water line, and no young ones anywhere.

The willows still live as usual along other streams in the area, and they thrive along the shore of the Ohio River just above the mouth of the Kentucky at Carrollton. The necessary conclusion is that their absence from the Kentucky River must be attributable to something seriously wrong with the water. And so, since 2002, I have asked everybody I met who might be supposed to know: “Why have the black willows disappeared from the Kentucky River?” I have put this question to conservationists, to conservation organizations specifically concerned with the Kentucky River, to water-quality officials and to university biologists. And I have found nobody who could tell me why. Except for a few old fishermen, I have found nobody who knew they were gone.

This may seem astonishing. At least, for a while, it astonished me. I thought that in a state in which water pollution is a permanent issue, people interested in water quality surely would be alert to the disappearance of a prominent member of the riparian community of a major river. But finally I saw that such ignorance is more understandable than I had thought. A generation or so ago, when fishing and the condition of the river were primary topics of conversation in Port Royal, the disappearance of the willows certainly would have been noticed. Fishermen used to tie their trotlines to the willows.

That time is past, and I was seeking local knowledge from conservationists and experts and expert conservationists. But most conservationists, like most people now, are city people. They “escape” their urban circumstances and preoccupations by going on vacations. They thus go into the countryside only occasionally, and their vacations are unlikely to take them into the economic landscapes. They want to go to parks, wilderness areas, or other famous “destinations.” Government and university scientists often have economic concerns or responsibilities, and some of them do venture into farmland or working forests or onto streams and rivers that are not “wild.” But it seems they are not likely to have a particular or personal or long-term interest in such places, or to go back to them repeatedly and often over a long time, or to maintain an economic or recreational connection to them. Such scientists affect the eyes-to-acres ratio probably less than the industrial farmers.

Among the many conservationists I have encountered in my home state, the most competent witness by far is Barth Johnson, a retired game warden who is a dedicated trapper, hunter, and fisherman, as he has been all his life. Barth has devoted much of his life to conservation. Like most conservationists, he is informed about issues and problems. Unlike most, he is exceptionally alert to what is happening in the actual countryside that needs to be conserved. This is because he is connected to the fields and woods and waters he knows by bonds of economy and pleasure, both at once. Moreover, he has lived for thirty years in the same place at the lower end of the Licking River. This greatly increases the value of his knowledge, for he can speak of changes over time. People who stay put and remain attentive know that the countryside changes, as it must, and for better or worse.

He tells a story about Harris Creek, a small stream along which he had trapped for many years. It was richly productive, and Barth was careful never to ask too much of it. But in 2007, confident that it would be as it always had been, he went there with his traps and discovered that the stream was dead. He could not find a live minnow or crawfish. There were no animal tracks. So far as he could tell, there could be only one reason for this: In the spring of that year, the bottomland along the creek had been herbicided to kill the grass in preparation for a seeding of alfalfa. In 2008, the stream was still dead. In 2009, there was “a little coon activity.” Finally, in 2013, the stream was “close to normal.”

I have also learned from Barth that upstream as far as he has looked, to a point two and a half miles above the small town of Boston, the black willows are gone from the Licking River. And in October 2013, he wrote me that the river had turned a brownish “brine” color that he had never seen before.

What happened to the willows? Two young biologists at Northern Kentucky University are now at work on the question, and perhaps they will find the answer. But other scientists have led me to consider the possibility that such questions will not be answered. It may be extremely difficult or impossible to attach a specific effect to a specific cause in a large volume of flowing water.

What killed Harris Creek? Barth’s evidence is “anecdotal,” without scientifically respectable proof. I have read scientific papers establishing that the herbicide glyphosate and its “degradation products” are present in high concentrations in some Mississippi River tributaries, but the papers say nothing about the effects. I have called up scientists working on water quality, including one of the authors of one of the papers on glyphosate. What about the effects? Good question. Nobody knows the answer. It seems that the research projects and the researchers are widely scattered, making such work somewhat incoherent. And besides, there is always the difficulty of pinning a specific cause to a specific effect. To two of these completely friendly and obliging people I told Barth’s story of Harris Creek: Does that surprise you? One said it did not surprise him. The other said it was possible but unlikely that the stream was killed by an herbicide. Was an insecticide also involved?

What caused the strange discoloration of the Licking River? Since the discoloration was visible until obscured by mud in the water when the river rose, I suppose that, if it happens again, the odd color could be traced upstream to a source. Will somebody do that? I don’t know. Is any scientist from any official body monitoring the chemical runoff from croplands and other likely sources? I have been asking that question too, and so far I have asked nobody who could answer.

In my search for answers, it may be that I have been making a characteristic modern mistake of relying on experts, which has revealed a characteristic modern failure: Experts often don’t know and sometimes can never know. Beneficiaries of higher education, of whom I am one, often give too much credit to credentials.

Confronting industrial agriculture, we are requiring ourselves to substitute science for citizenship, community membership, and land stewardship. But science fails at all of these. Science as it now predominantly is, by definition and on its own terms, does not make itself accountable for unintended effects. The intended effect of chemical nitrogen fertilizer, for example, is to grow corn, whereas its known effect on the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico is a catastrophic accident. Moreover, science of this kind is invariably limited and controlled by the corporations that pay for it.

We have an ancient and long-enduring cultural imperative of neighborly love and work. This becomes ever more important as hardly imaginable suffering is imposed upon all creatures by industrial tools and industrial weapons. If we are to continue, in our only world, with any hope of thriving in it, we will have to expect neighborly behavior of sciences, of industries, and of governments, just as we expect it of our citizens in their neighborhoods.

Wounded Knee, 1890

Yesterday I found myself discussing the Fancher emigrant party massacre, by Mormons at Mountain Meadows Utah, truly one of the worst events in American history. This got me thinking about massacres, for better or worse. Well, 125 years ago (yesterday) there was a famous, and even worse, one. It’s astounding to me that such a thing could occur in this country, and by the military no less, at such a late date.
Bury My Heart cover

Various historical writings on the incident, besides Dee Brown’s account in his classic book, are here, here and here. More recent commentaries here and here

That must be tough

Memories of Marshall

From Memories of Marshall by Bro. J.R. Smith
The Grizzly Bear (1908) Vol. 4, no. 2, p. 4

While as Native Sons and Daughters we are very proud to respect and revere and ever keep in memory the good deeds of General John A. Sutter, I sometimes feel that we forget one who performed a most prominent part in the history of this great California — and that one was James W. Marshall — when on the 24th day of January, 1848, he picked up a nugget of gold in the millrace at Coloma, El Dorado County, California. This act is one that can never be repeated, for it opened to the world the greatest gold fields ever known … I sometimes think we as Native Sons and Daughters fail to return our gratefulness to him who first discovered gold in California…

Marshall was an eccentric sort of a man and he often drank to excess, and when under the influence of liquor was considerable of a bore, but when sober was a man of few words and one that read a great deal. He was continually chewing tobacco and when he would get a stranger in the corner, he began to so spray him with tobacco juice the fellow would have paid almost any price for an umbrella. He was a great believer in spiritualism and when he got the spirits out of the bottle mixed with the other ones he was a source of amusement for us boys, who all were his friends.

Marshall was never married and usually did his own cooking. I never knew of him preparing a banquet, but some of the dishes he cooked would have puzzled a chemist. He usually had an old butcher knife which he preferred to use at home or abroad and which he carried in a scabbard in his belt. I have known him to boil a salted codfish and take about the same amount of cheese and put into a crock, mix in some onions and cover the whole mess with wine, and after it got to thoroughly working it would make a tannery blush with shame. I have seen him, when drinking, dip his hands into this crock and put a handful of the mixture on some bread, and he seemed to enjoy it as he would a week-cooked meal…

Although Marshall was the first person to pick up gold, he never did but very little, if any mining. At his death he owned some mining property which he claimed the spirits said was very rich, and after his death the parties that purchased it took from it quite an amount of gold. He was a wheelwright by trade and often in his latter years did odd jobs at carpenter work. At his death he was penniless, having a little property, but no money. On one or two occasions the boys gave a benefit dance to keep the old fellow from suffering. The last two or three years of his life he drank very little and I often think that sometimes he suffered for the necessities of life, for he was a man of very proud nature — rather give than receive. He was kind hearted to a fault and believed that right never wronged any one. His word was as good as gold and if any one failed to keep a promise with him that would put an end to his friendship forever.

For a couple of years the State gave him $200 per month; then the next Legislature cut it to $100, and the next discontinued it entirely, the report going abroad that he squandered it all for liquor, which was not true, for he loaned considerable money, some he spent in writing a book of his life, that proved a failure, and some he spent in hiring men to prospect for him. In his later years he applied to the Legislature by petition for a smalt amount, but a representative from his own county fought the measure and it was defeated. When Marshall was told that such was the case, he said: “I have asked for bread and they gave me stone.” After his death the State erected a monument at Coloma costing several thousand dollars, and ever since they have kept a man at a cost of $50 per month to care for it.

If we are to believe…

…the contents of a manuscript found in 1879 in a tree on the Middle Fork of the Feather River, the first persons of Caucasian blood to penetrate the Butte County area were two soldiers who had wandered from the army of Cortez while the latter was in Mexico, in 1519. The story of the finding of this manuscript is a most interesting one. In the month of April, in the year 1879, a tree was cut down by two miners on the Middle Fork of the Feather. The outside appearance of the tree indicated that it was solid throughout. The tree however, proved to be hollow inside, and in this hollow a roll of manuscript was found, written in Spanish and wrapped in such a manner that the writing was preserved. The hole in the tree had grown over with the lapse of years. The manuscript purported to give an account of two men who had strayed from the army of Cortez and who had made their way north as far as the place where the manuscript was deposited. The date of the deposit was not given, the two soldiers apparently having lost track of time. The manuscript was written in old Spanish, and was finally sent to Madrid for interpretation.

Mansfield, G.C. 1918. History of Butte County, California, p.36. Historic Record Company, Los Angeles CA.

“A systematic record of great biological value”

Paul Sears was an early plant ecologist who did a lot of good work at the University of Nebraska and previously at Ohio State, Nebraska being the nexus of American plant ecology in the early 20th century. He was I believe, the first president of the Ecological Society of America. He was also one of the very first ecologists–of what is now a legion–to estimate landscape scale forest taxonomic composition at pre-settlement time, using the bearing/witness tree record contained within the early federal land survey. Here he takes a humorous swipe at the geometric wisdom inherent in the survey design. Ya can’t put a rectangular grid on a round planet fer cryin’ out loud, but hey, thanks for recording all those trees! 🙂

Surveying of Ohio was begun in July, 1786, under The Geographer of the United States, Thomas Hutchins, employing for the first time his device of sections one mile square. This empirical device was hailed as a great American invention, although the State of Ohio has since been found to possess a curved surface in common with the rest of the earth. All corners which lay within the forest were located with reference to nearby trees, the species of which were noted. These corners becoming permanent, the net result of Hutchins’ plan has been the preservation of a systematic record of such great biological value as to redeem its geometrical shortcomings.

A little background might be useful. Ohio was the first state surveyed under the federal land survey, all previous states being surveyed in all manner of ways by various entities under various authorities and quality control procedures, i.e. without a comprehensive and systematic plan. By law enacted in 1785–the very first congress–a hugely important law affecting how the public domain would be disposed of, all states added to the country from that point forward were to be surveyed under a systematic, regular survey design with very specific instructions regarding how to proceed (Thomas Jefferson being a driving force behind this). Ohio, being the first such state added, in 1803, also served as the test state, where various survey designs were tried out before deciding on the one that, with minor modifications, has been followed the last 200 years in the 30 federal land survey states.

To my knowledge no other branch of ecology has the quality of historic data sets dating to +/- pre-settlement times, i.e. before all the heavy impacts occurred, and most certainly not over such an enormous geographic extent. In fact, I don’t think it’s even close. We’re very lucky in that regard, and we have people like Thomas Jefferson, with his sense of mathematical order and intense interest in all things natural and landscape, for it.

Sears, Paul B. 1925. The Natural Vegetation of Ohio: I, A Map of the Virgin Forest

‘Twas the Witch of November, come stealin’

It was forty years ago, November 10, 1975.

Captain McSorley lived right over on Bancroft Street just a few miles from us, near the university, but we had no idea until the newspaper told us. He was apparently intending to retire at the end of the season, just one month away, and was thus on one of his last trips. It turned out to be his very last.

I hadn’t even heard about the incident until I opened the paper the following day: there was the full story on the front page, with photographs of the seven guys from the area, about 25% of the crew of 29, including the Captain, who were now all missing and presumed dead. You can’t last long in 50 degree (F) water, that much less with hurricane strength winds raging around you in the middle of a black night in November, far from the shore.

The whole thing struck me as rather unbelievable. I mean, I can remember going out the few miles to one of the Lake Erie Islands as a Boy Scout when a kid. Somehow the trip had been scheduled at night, on a ferry with big open sides, and sure enough, there was a fierce wind that night. The boat was constantly plunging up and down with the waves that have made the lake a bit notorious and sent many a boat to the bottom, back in the day. Big washes of water and spray would come in through the holes, some kids were getting seasick and throwing up, and it was pitch dark. We were probably in no real danger but as a kid you don’t know that, and it may have been the first time I was actually scared for my life.

But this was a 700 foot ship, and it was 1975, not 1875.

The Edmund Fitzgerald unloading iron ore in Toledo Ohio.  Image courtesy http://www.mhsd.org/fleet/O/ON-columbia/fitz/default.htm

The Edmund Fitzgerald unloading iron ore in Toledo Ohio. Image courtesy http://www.mhsd.org/fleet/O/ON-columbia/fitz/default.htm

Nine years ago, Hultquist et al published an interesting study in which they ran a weather and wave model over the general area, driven by recorded observations during the event, for the 36 hours leading up to it. What they basically found was that the ship could not possibly have chosen a worse path across the lake than they did that day. They made a 90 degree right turn that put the ship partially broadside to maximum sustained winds from the west to northwest, of 65 knots (~ 75 mph, the lower edge of hurricane force, and gusting higher), and to significant waves of 7.5 m (~25 ft), potentially reaching as high as 14 m (46 ft). Another wave height model indicates such heights and directions were likely extremely rare historically.

Significantly, the weather/wave model indicated that the worst 1-hr conditions occurred exactly when the ship when down–between 7:00 and 8:00 PM, EST. At about 7:15 PM, the Fitzgerald simply disappeared from the radar screen of the Arthur M. Anderson, which had been trailing it by 10 miles, and guiding it by radio ever since the Fitzgerald’s radar went down. [The interesting back and forth between the Anderson‘s Captain and the Coast Guard, requesting him to go back out to search the area during the height of the storm, which he did, is here.]
Exactly what caused the Fitzgerald to go down so quickly is still a matter of some contention. It had to be immediate, since the ship had just been in radio contact with the Anderson but no SOS or distress call was ever issued. The leading theory seems to be that a particularly extreme wave lifted the stern, forcing down the bow. The ship was already listing and had lost buoyancy via large volumes of water taken into its cargo holds, full of iron ore, very possibly from ripping a hole in the hull by bottoming out on a shoal a few hours previously. This would have rocketed the ship to the bottom of the lake, which, being shallower than the ship was long, would have snapped it in two (as it was found), with the stern above the water.

Captain Cooper of the Anderson, describes his radio interactions with McSorley before the incident and his views of what happened. He says that as much as 12 feet of water were on their deck at times:

Tribute video based on Gordon Lightfoot’s famous ballad is here
NTSB official report of the incident is here
And another very interesting interview here

And all that remain, are the faces and the names
Of the wives, and the sons, and the daughters

Gordon Lightfoot, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald