Monday, September 8, 2014


200 years ago today in Washington County, Indiana Territory, the natural abundance of the Indiana frontier was providing sustenance to our progenitors until they could establish their farms for the growing of crops and livestock.    Salt was available from the salt works at Royse’s Lick.  Meat was on the hoof in the form of the white tail deer and wild pigs.  Fish were teeming in the rivers and easily caught with weirs.  Sugar was made from maple sap and bee trees provided honey.  Berries were harvested in the summer. Game fowl such as quail and grouse were hard to shoot but turkeys provided an easier target and more meat.  However, on an occasional basis, the most prolific bird of the provender provided by nature was Ectopistes Migratorius--the Passenger Pigeon.

Passenger pigeons travelled, fed and roosted in flocks that numbered in the millions.  Some swarms took three days to fly by. The passenger pigeon was the most numerous bird in North American and may have numbered from 3 to 5 billion at the advent of European settlement of the continent.  They foraged for fruit and seeds borne by trees and grasses. They especially thrived off of the mast grown by beech, oak and chestnut trees.  As the quantity of mast varied each year, they migrated throughout the new nation to find the locations of that year’s best supply of mast. When a passenger pigeon horde was present, it could block out the midday sun.  In 1813 when the settlement of our locality was underway, the noted naturalist and artist John James Audubon was living in Henderson, Kentucky.  Audubon observed a migration of passenger pigeons on the way to Louisville and described it as follows:

           “In the autumn of 1813, I left my house at Henderson, on the banks of the Ohio, on my way to Louisville. In passing over the Barrens a few miles beyond Hardensburgh, I observed the pigeons flying from north-east to south-west, in greater numbers than I thought I had ever seen them before, and feeling an inclination to count the flocks that might pass within the reach of my eye in one hour, I dismounted, seated myself on an eminence, and began to mark with my pencil, making a dot for every flock that passed. In a short time finding the task which I had undertaken impracticable, as the birds poured in in countless multitudes, I rose, and counting the dots then put down, found that 163 had been made in twenty-one minutes. I travelled on, and still met more the farther I proceeded. The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose.”

When a swarm of passenger pigeons descended upon a forest to feed, nest and roost, their presence was devastating.  The weight of their mass roosting broke off limbs and felled some trees.  Their foraging on the forest floor for beech nuts, acorns and chestnuts was worse than the rooting of wild pigs.  The detritus of their excrement covered tree trunks and the forest floor.  Once the roosting had run its course and the passenger pigeons moved on, the forest appeared as if a tornado had blown through.  The natural scientist, Aldo Leopold, described the passenger pigeon as a “biological storm”.

The location in early Washington County most impacted by the passenger pigeon was centered in Township 2 North, Range 6 East and was called “Pigeon Roost”.  The location of Pigeon Roost is within this congressional township and is mostly in Scott County today.  This area was in Clark County, Indiana on September 3, 1812 when the Pigeon Roost Massacre occurred.  The settlement victimized by this Indian act of war was scattered to the northeast of the isolated knob that was the frequent location of the descending biological storm of pigeons.  Pigeon Roost became part of Washington County on January 17, 1814.  It remained part of Washington County until 1820 when Scott County was established.  A creek that runs northeast from this part of the Knobs to Stucker Fork is called Pigeon Roost Creek.

Pigeon Roost was a natural landmark and the trail out of the Scottsburg Till Plain through the Knobstone Escarpment into the Norman Upland went by it.  This was the Indian trail that went from the mid Wabash Valley to the Ohio River.  The early settlers of Washington County called this location the Old Trace Gap.  Two of the first roads established by the Washington Circuit Court went through this gap to get to Charlestown, Utica, Clarksville and Jeffersonville in Clark County. This was also the neighborhood of John Dunlap who hosted the Sharon Baptist Church in its first years.
Given modern standards of health, it is a matter of passing speculation as to how many of the families in the Pigeon Roost area unknowingly suffered from histoplasmosis,

When the passenger pigeons came to Pigeon Roost, settlers gathered in large numbers to net, shoot and club the birds out of their nests.  The adult pigeon provided good meat.  The squabs were a delicacy and were a source of animal fat that was used year round.  The pigeons and squabs that weren’t consumed immediately were salted and packed in barrels for consumption.  The surplus of the pigeon harvest was taken to Louisville and sold by the basket when fresh and by the barrel when salted.  Pigeon harvesting became a part of the sport and food economy of the United States of the 19th century.  With the advent of the railroad, pigeon harvesting proceeded to extirpate this bird region by region.  The last large nesting of the passenger pigeon is reported to have occurred at Pigeon Roost in 1853.  The last small flock observed there was after the conclusion of the Civil War.  The last passenger pigeon shot in the wild was taken in 1912 near Greensburg, Indiana.  The last passenger pigeon extant was housed at the Cincinnati Zoo.  Her name was Martha and she died on September 1, 1814.

The bird for which Pigeon Roost was named numbered in the billions at the time Washington County, Indiana Territory was established in 1814.  By the time Salem and Washington County, Indiana were celebrating their centennial in 1914, one of the most numerous birds on Earth was extinct.


                           PIGEON ROOST VIEW FROM NORTH @ GOOGLE EARTH

                              LAST PASSENGER PIGEON MARTHA @ SMITHSONIAN
                                                           (TAXIDERMY EXHIBIT)

                                                   PASSENGER PIGEON FLYOVER

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