The Big Darby Watershed has a rich and diverse history. Explore its cultural history, its geology, and its biology. Travel with your imagination through the history of this “Last Great Place” and envision a sea of prairie grass, herds of elk, pioneer farms, and the Wyandot Indian Chief Darby who lived and hunted along the stream.
Just as the water of the Darbys sustains life, it also sustains a way of life. Prior to European settlement around 1800, the region was inhabited for
centuries by Native Americans and crisscrossed with important Indian trails.
Tools and other artifacts unearthed in the plains reveal that sophisticated ancient cultures once lived along the creeks. There are a number of Adena
mounds hugging the creek banks and uplands throughout the watershed. Excellent firsthand accounts of Native American life in the Darby landscape during the 1700’s were recorded by James Smith and Jonathan Alder. Both were white settlers living at the edge of the “wilderness” when kidnapped as young boys by the Indians.
The Darby Plains were reported to have been the best hunting grounds for both the Wyandot and Shawnee Indians. One of the largest Indian Villages was on the banks of Big Darby, just northwest of Plain City. However, with the signing of the Treaty of Greenville in 1795, all of the Indians in Ohio were forced to leave their homes and live in Northwestern Ohio.
However, bands of Wyandots, Shawnees and Delawares routinely left their permanent villages on hunting expeditions south into the Darby Plains. Eventually, under pressure of more settlers, summer and fall hunting expeditions ceased, and the Indians were forced from the area by 1820.
Remnants of these times are still evident today and provide a tangible link to Ohio’s former “wilderness” condition. Farmers and homeowners
continue to unearth arrowheads and other artifacts in fields and gardens. Many of the region’s roads, fields and fence rows were laid out during initial European settlement as shown by historical land records, while other reflect ancient Indian trails.
The pioneers of the 1800’s found the Darby plains beautiful, but, for them, very challenging for agriculture. Settlers worked to control the wilderness,
and it was only after drainage tiles were installed and the land was tilled that the rich, wet prairie was converted into farmland.
The weathered gravestones of Bigelow Cemetery and Smith Cemetery, (some dating back to 1814) serve as reminders of pioneer life on the Darby
plains. Hundred-year-old covered bridges link us with this past. Families still farm the land of their great-grandparents. Water still comes from wells and children still fish and swim in the creeks that wind past their barns, houses and schools.
Today, the people of the watershed are working to ensure the long-term survival of the Darbys and their
hidden treasures. In 1991, The Nature Conservancy declared the Darbys one of the “Last Great Places” in the Western Hemisphere and offered to help facilitate a partnership of federal, state and local agencies, private organizations and watershed citizens. The Darby partners meet quarterly, share information and resources to address stresses to the streams, and serve as a “think tank” for conservation efforts. The goal of the partnership is to be a resource for the citizens of the watershed who want to protect the Darbys.
The Darbys arose approximately 16,800 years ago as an outflow for melt-water from the retreating Wisconsinian Age glaciers. These waters cut an initial channel through the glacial till deposits to the underlying limestone bedrock. Since that time, erosion and alluvial processes have continued to shape the landscape’s topography, and together with the local climate and vegetation, created its fertile soils. Evidence of this geologic history is visible today in the glacial erratics scattered throughout the watershed, the limestone outcrops uncovered by the river corridor and highway cuts, and the intensive agricultural production made possible by the rich, glacial soils.
When the first European settlers entered the Darby Watershed in the 1800s, they encountered a tremendous
variety of plant and animal life that included over one hundred species of fish and forty species of mollusks. Such diversity was rare in the United States outside of this region and resulted from a combination of factors, including: the area’s temperate climate; the tree-lined river banks; the gentle gradient of the riverbed with its resulting sequence of “pool,” “riffle” and “run” habitats; the mineral and nutrient-rich till soil and bedrock; and the ability of the indigenous aquatic life to repopulate the region following glaciation. Today, scientists place the number of fish species in the Darby Creek system at 94 and the number of mollusk species at 38.
The Darby Creek system is intensely monitored by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, which classified it as an “exceptional warm water habitat.” This water use designation means the waters are capable of supporting and maintaining an exceptional or unusual community of warm water aquatic organisms having a species composition, diversity, and functional organization comparable to the 75th percentile of the identified reference sites on a statewide basis.
Federally listed endangered species of the system include: Scioto Madtom (Noturus trautmani), Northern Riffle
Shell (Epiblasma rangiana), and the Northern Club Shell (Pleurobema clava). In addition to the federally listed endangered species, the stream is home to four state listed endangered fish species: Lake Chubsucker (Erimyzon sucetta), Northern Brook Lamprey (Ichthyomyzon fossor), Spotted Darter (Etheostoma maculatum), and the Northern Madtom (Noturus stigmosus).
The stream is also home to an additional five state-listed endangered mollusk species: Elephant Ear (Elliptio crassidens crassidens), Ridged Pocketbook (Lampsillis ovata), Washboard (Megalonaias nervosa), Cob Shell (Quadrula cylindrica), and the Bean Shell (Villosa fablis).
In addition to the rivers’ aquatic diversity the Darby watershed at one time contained a tremendous diversity of terrestrial flora and fauna. Human activity over the last 200 years has had a devastating effect on these populations. The clearing of the watershed’s mature forests and the installation of drainage tiles in the tallgrass prairies greatly contributed to the elimination of many of these terrestrial plant and animal species.
Raymond A. Dobbins did the most detailed mapping of the original prairies in the Darby Plains and adjacent areas in 1937. Dobbins reported that prairie remnants, which contained characteristic plants, were scarce and fragmentary. Mature burr oaks and post oaks, common prairie associates, still survive in the Darby Plains, some from presettlement times. Unfortunately their numbers are constantly decreasing, and there is very little regeneration of these species on this intensely managed landscape.