Surveys of Natural Features

As a part of the surveying process, in addition to delineating parcels for easier identification for selling and purchasing, surveyors typically

  • provided a description of the land

  • listed trees in order of prevalence

  • noted the quality of the soil

  • listed and/or described lakes, ponds, rivers and smaller streams

  • made notes of settlements and roads.

Joseph Wampler and Bela Hubbard, early surveyors of Oakland County, noted Rose Township’s rolling, undulating, hilly land and its many oak trees. Early settlers described Rose Township as “park-like”.

Joseph Wampler’s Survey - Rose Township (1823)

Joseph Wampler found a prevalence of white and black oaks as he and his crew traversed Rose Township. He described the township as “rolling land with white and black oak”. Other habitats he encountered and made note of were: poor barrens, poor stoney and barren land, prairie, swamp, and good white oak land. The presence of certain habitats is indicative of soil type. The quality of the soil was important for settlers to know the quality of the land for farming.

Wampler’s Survey of Rose Township 1823 (back page) (source), accessed 12/18/20

Bela Hubbard’s Natural Features Survey - Rose Township (1838-1840)

Bela Hubbard was a surveyor, naturalist and was considered a pioneer geologist of Michigan. He surveyed the natural features and made note of the contours of the land in each of the townships in Oakland County. In Rose Township, Hubbard noted the rolling undulating timbered oak openings, the plains, and the Shiawassee River and its tributaries, one of which is named the Little Shiawassee. He makes note of numerous boulders, sand and gravel, and a little bit of maple and beech tree timber. Though there were a number of early settlers in the township by this time, Squire Wendell was one of only two people listed on his survey.

Bela Hubbard (source), accessed 12/22/20

1838 - 1840 Map of Oakland County - Bela Hubbard, Surveyor (Rose Township) (source), accessed 12/18/20

Oak Openings and Oak Barrens

Joseph Wampler and Bela Hubbard noted Rose Township’s undulating (lightly) timbered oak openings and rolling barren land with oaks. These terms, oak openings and oak barrens were often used interchangeably by early surveyors and settlers to describe these similar looking mixed woodland, savanna-like, wooded prairie ecosystems. These habitats are characterized by widely spaced mature oak trees with savanna-like understory species found in both prairie and forest communities. The oak trees are sufficiently spaced so that the canopy does not close. An open canopy allows for light to reach the ground to support a grassy understory. Oak openings and oak barrens occur primarily on level to rolling topography of glacial outwash plains and coarse-textured end moraines. Historically Oakland County has had both oak openings and oak barrens.

Oak opening and oak barrens are a fire-dependent ecosystem. This means fire is essential for maintaining these habitats as the species that live there have adapted to fire. Historically, prior to the age of fire suppression, fires were common in Michigan and would freely burn large tracts of land, especially on land with droughty soils. Oak barrens and oak openings were adapted to, and maintained by, these frequent fires which were most likely started from lightning strikes. Intense fires reduced the density of the oaks making them more sparsely populated. Later Native Americans played an integral role in maintaining these habitats by setting fires (intentionally and/or accidently). They did this to utilize the ecological processes of fire to maintain openings in the forest and to encourage the growth of early successional plants for food and for attracting wildlife for easier hunting.

Though oak openings and oak barrens share the same range and other similarities they have a few distinctions that differentiate them.

Oak Barrens

  • Dominated by sparsely populated black and white oaks with or without a shrub layer

  • Associated tree species include red maple, black cherry, pin oak, aspen and hickory species

  • Understory grassy groundlayer is dominated by plants such as little and big bluestem and Pennsylvania sedge and dogwood

  • Infertile soils, coarse-textured, droughty and well-drained sand or loamy sand

  • Found in the driest landscape areas as ridge tops, steep slopes, and south- to west-facing slopes

Oak Barrens (source), photo by Joshua G. Cohen

Oak Openings

  • Dominated by sparsely populated white oak along with bur and chinquapin oak

  • Associated trees species include hickory species and red and black oak

  • With or without a shrub layer

  • Ground layer is composed of species associated with both prairie and forest communities

  • Moderately fertile soils with low to moderate water-retaining capacity, well-drained, sandy loams, or dry-mesic loams

Oak Openings (source), photo by Michael A. Kost

Scattered throughout both of these habitats are ant mounds, some of which can be very large. Mound-building ants play an important role in soil development. As they build tunnels they are mixing and aerating the soil and bringing nutrients from the topsoil into the ground.

Impact of Settlement

Settlement by early settlers in Michigan in the early 1800's brought dramatic changes to these natural communities. Logging, the conversion of land to agriculture, the pasturing of animals, ditches to improve drainage, fire suppression, and the removal of indigenous populations and their burning practices resulted in oak barrens and oak openings communities converting to a more closed canopy oak-hickory forest from the process of succession. Succession is a process whereby habitats if not disturbed (from fire, mowing, grazing, etc.) evolve and change over time.

Oak openings have been nearly extirpated (wiped out) from Michigan and are primarily known from historical literature such as the 1848 novel “Oak Opening; or The Bee-Hunter” by James Fenimore Cooper. The novel is set in Kalamazoo, Michigan, home of the last remaining oak opening remnant.

There are remnants of oak barrens in Rose Township though many have changed into closed canopy oak-hickory forests or remain in agriculture. Statewide oak barrens are considered critically imperiled by the Michigan State University Extension - Michigan Natural Features Inventory.

Sources, accessed 12/20/20, accessed 12/20/20, accessed, 12/19/20

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