A Natural History of the Farm

While anatomically modern humans have been around for some 200,000 years or more, it is only in the past 10,000 that we took up agriculture.  Somewhat amazingly, agriculture emerged independently in many sites all during a short period of time:  in the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys, “The Fertile Crescent”, with peas and wheat, in Asian with rice, in Africa with millet and sorghum, and in the America’s with maize and beans.  The question is why did it take us so long?  And how do we explain how agriculture emerged nearly simultaneously across continents?

One answer has to do with climate.  Over the past 1.8 million years, the Earth has cycled out of cold and warm periods known as “glacial” and “interglacial” periods, respectively.  In cold periods massive glaciers spread across much of the American, European, and Asian continents.  In warm periods they receded.  The cause of this is largely attributed to changes in the orbital pattern of the Earth–it’s tilt, the shape of it’s orbit around the sun, and the “wobble” of it’s turning.  (For a greater discussion on these read up on the Milankovitch Cycles named after Milutin Milanković, a Serbian geophysicist who was the first to discover these changes).



Some 20,000 years ago a great ice mass, known as the Laurentide Ice Sheet, over a mile thick sat on top of Knox County.  As the last major ice age entered into a warming period 15,000 years ago, the ice melted forming the freshwater Great Lakes and depositing thick bands of glacial till, ground moraines, and alluvial deposits (clay, silt, sand and gravel left by the winding streams produced by the melting glaciers).

The fresh, finely ground minerals rich in nutrients made for a superb parent material for soil formation–one of the reasons why the Midwest U.S. boasts such high quality soils good for agriculture.  In Knox county, soils such as Centerburg, Bennington, Pewamo, Wooster, and Wadsworth would all be formed by the receding glacier.  (See the 1986 Knox County Soil Survey for more information on the formation, distribution and characteristics of soils in Knox County).

Around 12,000 BCE, the Earth entered into a rather warm period known as the “Holocene“.  Although humans had already been on the planet for perhaps as many as 190,000 plus years, the warm steady climate of the Holocene would be the first time that humans would really start shifting from hunter and gather societies to ones based on permanent settlement and agriculture.  Also around this time, it is believed that small bands of people from Asia were able to cross the Bering Straight land bridge from Asia into would become the State of Alaska making their way east and south as the spread across not one but two continents.  The first Native American groups appeared in central Ohio around 11,000 BCE.


The various groups that lived during the Pre-Columbian period are generally lumped into a large category referred to the Mound Builders in reference to their construction of various types of earthen mounds which can still be found around Ohio and surrounding states today.  Examples of mounds include The Great Serpent Mound in Adams County, Alligator Mound in Licking County (the latter two both effigy mounds depicting animals), and Fort Ancient in Warren County.  An Adena burial mound was located in what is now the Mount Vernon Cemetery although has been substantial reduced in size and was excavated by the Ohio Historical Society.

The Adena are generally considered to be the first major agriculturalists although it was likely tribes before them practiced more limited agriculture and the Adena probably still relied on hunting and gathering for a substantial portion of their caloric intake.



Ground was cleared by girdling of trees and controlled burning-highly effective but elegant techniques to clear land.  The ash from burning provided key inputs of potassium (aka “pot-ash”), calcium, phosphates and other minerals that remain in the ash after burning. The high temperatures near the soil surface killed weed seeds and pasteurized the soil surface decreasing the likelihood of plants contracting bacterial and fungal infections.

Eventually, without the input of manure or fertilizers, the soil would become less and less fertile over time and eventually settlements would be abandoned and new sites would be found where the process would start anew.  Historians believe sites may have been used for 5-15 years until moving on.  Eventually, after 20-30 years, the tribes may have resettled previously settled sites as the trees and vegetation would have been much easier to clear than primary old-growth forests.  This practice, known as “slash-and-burn”, shifting cultivation, or “swidden” agriculture, is the oldest form of agricultural and was practiced all over the world at one point.


By Ephraim George Squier and Edwin Hamilton Davis – Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley at [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33578862

Crops such as maize (Zea mays), beans (Phaseolus), pumpkins (Cucurbita pepo), squash (Cucurbita moschata), gourds, and sunflowers (Helianthus)as well as lesser known crops such as goosefoot (Chenopodium), amaranth (Amaranthus palmeri), and hopniss (Apios americana) were widely cultivated.

Maize, beans and squash is commonly referred to as the “three sisters” as they tend to work symbiotically with each other.  (This term, “three sisters”, is thought to have originated from the Haudenosaunee [Iroquois] Indians but used widely by other tribes as far north as Canada through Central and South America.)

Maize (“corn” in the US), a heavy feeder that requires substantial soil nutrients for good yields, is also a high yielding staple crop that stores well.  Beans are protein rich crop and, being among the Fabaceae family, are nitrogen-fixers meaning–possessing a uniquely important ability to extract triple bonded nitorgen gas from the atmosphere and “fix” it into their tissues and the surrounding soil.  The beans benefited from the natural trellis that the corn provided while the corn benefited from the extra nitrogen from the beans.  Members of the squash family (Cucurbits) such as pumpkin and butternut squash with their low-to-the ground or “pronate” growing habit meanwhile help shade out weeds with their dense canopy and conserved soil moisture by preventing direct sunlight and evaporation.


Tools comprised of wood, bone, turtle shells were used to plant, cultivate and harvest. Food caches were often dug into the soil-much like modern day root cellars-to preserve their harvest throughout the winter period.


The first “discovery” of North America by white settlers was made by the Norse leader Leif Ericson around 1000 A.D. but was largely unknown by most Europeans despite having created a settlement in Newfoundland in modern day British Columbia.  In 1492, Chistopher Columbus voyaged to the “Americas”.  Mistaking the continent for India, he referred to the local natives as “Indians”.

Perhaps as many as 90 to 112 million Native Americans lived in North and South America–more than all of Europe when Columbus set sail.  Guns, germs, and steel decimated the local populations with disease being perhaps the most important contributor to their die-back.  Mainly through the raising of livestock, Europeans had been exposed to and built up immunity to the many zoonotic diseases that infected their populations over millenia.  Native Americans, by contrast, had few domestictable animals and had not developed natural immune defenses.  Diseases from viruses that caused smallpox, influenza, hepatitis, measles, encephalitis, and viral pneumonia, and bacterial infections that caused tuberculosis, diphtheria, cholera, typhus, scarlet fever, and bacterial meningitis wiped out huge swathes of the population.   In some villages, as many as 70 to 90 percent of the population were wiped out by European diseases.


Early European American colonialists rapidly deforested the rich lands previously occupied by the Eastern Woodland and Mississippian cultures converting the land to treeless landscapes.  In the South, much of the land was placed under monocultures of tobacco and cotton due to its high economic importance.  As geomorphologist David Montgomery, put it in his book “Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations“,  Virginia had become a “factory for turning topsoil into tobacco”.

Combined with intensive tillage, such farming practices led to widespread degradation and erosion of soils in the Eastern colonies.  British lawyer and geologist Charles Lyell, toured the South during this period, commenting that the colonialist had “assaulted the twin evils of soil erosion and exhaustion.” Both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington warned of the degradation of soil during this period.  Patrick Henry , the American Revolutionary, seeing erosion as a major threat to the democratic experiment, stated that “Since the achievement of our independence, he is the greatest patriot who stops the most gullies”, beguiling farmers to stop erosion by filling in gullies that had formed from water erosion.

More than the commonly taught notion of “manifest destiny”, it was increasing pressure for good agricultural land spurred the movement of settlers from Eastern states such as Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia to immigrate westward to Knox county.

In 1806, John “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman traveled through Mount Vernon casting the a vote in the town’s first election.  Knox county, named after General Henry Knox, was established in 1808.  By 1825, many of the Indians had died from disease, been killed, or forcibly removed from Knox County.  By 1842 they were almost entirely pushed out of the area.


By H. S. Knapp – A History of the Pioneer and Modern Times of Ashland County. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co. (1862), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16368208

In 1824 Kenyon College was founded by Philander Chase named after James Gambier.  Chase had decided that the college needed to be farm from the “vice and dissipation of urban life”.


By http://divinity.lib.vanderbilt.edu/ARIL/individ.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=897528

To quote Kenyon College historian Tom Stamp ’73, “According to several sources, Chase first investigated the wooded hill on Sunday, July 24, 1825, in the company of Henry Curtis (whose wife’s uncle owned the property) after Chase had preached to Curtis and his fellow parishioners at Mount Vernon’s newly formed Episcopal church, the one we now know as St. Paul’s. Chase and Curtis tied their horses at the bottom of the hill – contrary to the content of the otherwise worthy mural by Kenyon professor Norris Rahming in the Gambier Post Office. They made their way through thick undergrowth to the summit.  There, Chase was able to stand on the trunk of a fallen tree, one of many that had been knocked down sometime earlier by a windstorm, and see the long, relatively flat plain at the top of the hill. After barely a moment’s hesitation, he made the famous declaration, “This will do.”


After purchasing the land from Elizabeth Hogg Curtis’s uncle, William Hogg, Chase and his students began clearing the land of both fallen and standing trees. The song “Philander Chase,” a ditty with words by College historian George Franklin Smythe that’s known to every Kenyon man and woman, informs us that, among other labors, the founder “dug up stones, he chopped down trees” and then repeats “chopped down trees” for emphasis.

“Furthermore, the grounds were in a state of disarray, with piles of discarded building materials scattered about, untidy woodpiles adjacent to College buildings and faculty members’ homes, and livestock ranging freely throughout the area. The last of these was especially problematic, because every effort at beautifying the campus by planting bushes or trees had been thwarted by what historian Smythe colorfully labeled “the investigating snouts of roving swine.”

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