Drainage District Formation and the Loss of Midwestern Wetlands, 1860-1930

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Agricultural History

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America's natural wetlands have been drained for agricultural purposes since the mid-nineteenth century and in a few instances, such as South Carolina rice plantations, the mid-eighteenth century. Although the exact number of acres drained is unknown, a minimum of 124 million acres have been drained as compared to the 215 million acres of wetlands in the conterminous United States thought to have been in existence at the time of European and African settlement. Of the 124 million acres drained, 80-87 percent have been drained for agricultural purposes. All of the major agricultural regions of the country have experienced substantial wetland drainage, including the Lower Mississippi Valley and Gulf Coast, the Central Valley of California, and the Delmarva and Florida peninsulas (Fig.1). However, it is the Midwest (IL, IN, IA, MI, MN, OH, and WI), and within it the Cornbelt (IL, IN, IA, OH), where the most extensive wetland drainage occured (Fig. 2a-g) (Table 1). Focusing on the time period 1850-1930, this paper examines the role of legislation, technology, and institutions, particularly drainage districts, through which the most important agricultural region in North America, the Cornbelt, was built from the wet prairies, marshes, and bottomland forests of the midwestern plains.

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