VEGETATION, CIRCA 1800.   When MOSES CLEAVELAND arrived in northeast Ohio in 1796, the land that would become Cuyahoga County was almost completely forested.  We know this, and much more information about the area’s vegetation, from land surveys conducted between 1796 and 1807 (by surveyors including James Arbuckle, AMZI ATWATER, JOHN MILTON HOLLEY, SETH PAINE, SETH PEASE, and AMOS SPAFFORD).  Besides laying out townships and lots, these surveyors evaluated the land’s economic value and agricultural potential.  On each half-mile line, they recorded a list of the tree species they encountered, in descending order of abundance, and other notes on topography, soils, drainage, disturbance, and Indian activity. 

These line descriptions show that forests covered 94% of the land.  In total, surveyors observed 26 genera of trees.  Beech-dominated forests covered 47% of the lines, followed by oak-dominated forests (28%) and sugar maple-dominated forests (11%).  The remainder of the area comprised forested wetlands (5%), open wetlands (0.7%), and open oak woods (0.5%).  Wetlands included sites described as swamps—some dominated by black ash, red maple, elm, alder, and tamarack—wet woods, bogs, and cranberry marshes.  The surveyors never used terms such as “prairie” or “grassland,” although surveyors did use these terms in contemporaneous surveys elsewhere, if they applied.  They also never described land as subject to recent fire.  The surveyors mentioned numerous Indian paths and one “Indian sugar camp,” but no clearings or settlements.

In addition to the data they collected, the surveyors’ field notes paint a vivid picture of the landscape they encountered.  Surveyor James Arbuckle, working near the Cuyahoga River in 1806, saw so many beech trees that he began to record “Beach Beach Beach,” “Sweet Beach Forever,” and “Beach Everlasting Amen.”  The timber could be impressive; he mentioned one white oak “14 1/2 feet round the stump and I believe 50 feet without a limb and as straight as an arrow,” and another white oak “22 1/2 feet round the trunk.”  In other places, trees were small and “as thick set as the hare on a dog’s back.”  One day when the surveying party had “Campt without water, No bread baked, Went to bed without our supper, Started without our breakfast, Hard times,” Arbuckle reported “Beach land not fit to be inhabited by savages or wild beasts.  I am dry and hungry both.”  He also grumbled about crossing thick underbrush, briars, windfalls, and “wicked” swamps—not to mention the gnats.  But when he felt content or had “Eat[en] a hearty mess of huckelberrys,” he reported many “Beautifull” miles: “This mile the land is too good to talk about.  Timber Beach Shugertree Basswood Walnut Popular and everything that is good.”   

Another way to know what northeast Ohio’s forests looked like prior to development is to study old-growth forests, which would have been present at that time and are still standing.  The only example of old-growth forest in Cuyahoga County, and among the best in Ohio, is A.B. Williams Woods in NORTH CHAGRIN RESERVATION, a beech-maple-hemlock forest.  ARTHUR BALDWIN WILLIAMS surveyed the forest extensively in 1932, and my students and I replicated his methods in 2018 to see how it had changed.  From 1932 to 2018, beech remained the most abundant tree species, and species richness remained high.  Hemlock declined 30% in frequency while sugar maple and red maple increased by over 50%.  The structure of the stand also shifted from fewer, larger trees to more numerous, smaller, and denser trees.  Nevertheless, A.B. Williams Woods remains an excellent place to visit to appreciate the impressive, diverse, beech forests that greeted the surveyors.

As of 2018, forests covered 20% of Cuyahoga County, and wetlands 2.2%.  No tree species present in the circa-1800 surveys had been lost.  Eleven tree species had been gained.  However, using CLEVELAND METROPARKS as a sample of 2014 forests, we found that the relative abundance of species had changed drastically.  Maple trees dominated 64% of forests, followed by beech (8%), elm (7%), and ash (5%).  Tree species with adaptations to frequent disturbance, including short lifespan, rapid growth, early and heavy seed production, and effective seed dispersal, tended to have increased in frequency (such as red maple, black cherry, and elm), while those without such adaptations had declined (beech, oak, hickory).  In addition, circa-1800 plant communities were more distinct from one another, whereas by 2014, regional vegetation had become more homogenous.

Why is it important to understand past vegetation?  As we continue to transform ecosystems, we need to understand the consequences of our actions.  We may also choose to assist the recovery of ecosystems we have damaged or destroyed, and knowing their historical trajectory gives us specific and defensible targets for restoration.

Kathryn M. Flinn

Associate Professor of Biology

Baldwin Wallace University

Black, white and red text reading Western Reserve Historical Society

Finding aid for manuscript at Western Reserve Historical Society containing surveyor James Arbuckle’s 1806 field notes


Flinn, K.M., T. Mahany, and C.E. Hausman. 2018. "From forest to city:  Plant community change in northeast Ohio from 1800 to 2014."  Journal of Vegetation Science 29: 297-306.

Flinn, K.M., E.R. Bly, and C.S. Dickinson. 2019. "Major changes in tree community composition and structure over 86 years in an old-growth forest". Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society 146: 87-95.


Article Categories