Michigan Transportation History

Black Swamp

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The Black Swamp was a region in northwestern Ohio in the river valley of the Maumee. It was once covered by the glacial Lake Maumee. Because the area was bounded by glacial moraine, it had poor drainage. The swamp had long proved a barrier to westward and northwestward migration and is probably the greatest impediment to the settlement of Michigan prior to 1830. Lewis Cass explained the barrier to Secretary of War John C. Calhoun this way: 1

It is well known that along the southern margin of this part of Lake Erie is a tract of wet land which always presents serious difficulties to the traveller [sic], and frequently insurmountable obstacles. From Fort Meigs, for many miles towards Urbana, and nearly the whole distance to Lower Sandusky, it becomes a morass known by the name of the Black Swamp. To reach the Territory of Michigan from any part of the settlements of the State of Ohio, by land, this Swamp must be crossed.

No description can convey to a person who is unacquainted with it an adequate idea of the difficulties to be surmounted before a tolerable road can be formed through this country. Little is hazarded in saying that individual enterprise, or the operation of ordinary causes, will not accomplish it ....

With increased immigration during the 1850s, some enterprising Germans began draining the swamp. The result provided some of the richest farmland in Ohio and started a new settlement boom.

The Black Swamp also was the name (generally) for Michigan during the 1820s. The following is related in a promotional text written for the Columbian Exposition in 1893 (see the preface) and under the authority of John W. Jochim, Secretary of State in 1893:2 The section quoted is from an anonymous section but other sections have by-lines.

[The surveyors'] visit occurred at a time when the State, almost a wilderness, was very wet and it is supposed they became disgusted They reported that the State was a vast swamp. It was called the Great Black Swamp, the principal products being frogs and ague and what timber there was on the land was entirely inaccessible.

The writer remembers an incident showing the impression of Michigan in Ohio. When the Illinois and Iowa fever struck Ohio thousands were going to the west to invest. A gentleman from Michigan visited my father's house in Ohio, and hearing that the western fever had struck my father, asked him why not go to Michigan. "Michigan? Go to Michigan to shake with ague and starve to death, the frogs piping a requiem at my funeral? Why there is hardly an acre of farming land in the State. This we know, for we have it straight from the public statements. What do [sic] not starve or die with malarious diseases, will freeze to death." Such was believed of Michigan. School children were told of the "Great Desert of the west, and the Great Black Swamp of Michigan." Early geographers were at fault and the more pious wondered why the Creator had made such places as the Great Desert and Michigan.


1. Cass and McArthur, letter to Calhoun, November 29, 1817.

2. John W. Jochim, comp., Michigan and its Resources (Lansing: Robert Smith & Co., 1893).


Jones, Robert Leslie. History of Agriculture in Ohio to 1880. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1983.

Roseboom, Eugene H. "Black Swamp." Gale Encyclopedia of US History. 2006.

Extract of a letter from Territorial Governor Lewis Cass and General Duncan McArthur to the Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, November 29, 1817. Exhibit No. 3 attached to William Woodbridge, H.R. Doc No. 491, "Roads Contemplated by the Treaty of Brownstown," 16th Cong., 1st Sess., May 12, 1820. Reprinted in American State Papers, Miscellaneous, 2: 593-597.

Jochim, John W., comp., Michigan and its Resources (Lansing: Robert Smith & Co., 1893).

Citation: When referencing this page please use the following citation:

R. D. Jones, "Black Swamp," Michigan Transportation History (Ypsilanti, MI: 2020), www.michtranshist.info/.

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Page last modified on January 03, 2020, at 06:54 PM EST

Page last modified on January 03, 2020, at 06:54 PM EST