Pioneer settlers of Columbus and Franklin County found the area to be attractive for many reasons.
The soil was dark, rich and fertile; the old-growth forests were a ready source of shelter and fuel; and the new land was home to large numbers of fish and game.
Some of the larger game animals had migrated from Ohio as early settlements began to rise in the central part of the state. By 1800, most of the herds of buffalo and elk were gone. Other larger animals – wolves, bears and cougars – remained but were fewer in number and were hunted constantly by settlers.
Then there were the birds.
Most memorable of the birds of Ohio were the passenger pigeons. There were immense numbers of them.
An early account reported that “the flights of these birds were sometimes marvelous to behold. In 1835 and 1836, their numbers on the wing were so great as to fairly darken the sky for half a day at a time.”
The large flights of these birds lasted well into the 1800s in central Ohio – but they were relentlessly hunted by local residents. By the early 20th century, the passenger pigeon was virtually extinct; the last one to die in Ohio was stuffed, mounted and presented for display to the Ohio Historical Society, now the Ohio History Connection.
But as the passenger pigeon died off, other types of birds thrived.
An early history recorded that “wild turkeys were at one time more numerous in Ohio than tame ones are now. They were partial to the central Ohio woods and to none more so than those around Columbus.”
“Attracted by neighboring cornfields they frequently ventured close to the borough ... One morning while the door was open at the Merion domicile, says Mrs. Stewart, ‘The dog chased a wild turkey into the house, and it took refuge on the bed, where it was caught. It weighed twenty pounds’ ... On another occasion, a flock alighted in a west side cornfield, just north of the present State Street bridge. They were fired upon by sportsmen whose attention they attracted, and scattered in a panic.
“Wild ducks made bold to swim in the ponds in and about the borough. (A local man named) Harrison Armstrong says he has seen them visit Hoskins Pond where the Fourth Street Markethouse (now the bus station) stands, and that he has shot them there from a neighboring log stable. Another citizen has informed the writer that he has shot wild ducks on a pond just east of Grant Avenue, on the grounds of the Institution for the Deaf and Dumb (now Deaf School Park).”
The bird that often captured people’s attention, however, was the simple swallow. The history noted:
“The species of house swallow commonly known as the martin was an inhabitant or rather a guest of the borough, invited and entertained by special arrangements for his comfort.
“During the eighteen twenties and early thirties, nearly every doorway in town had its martinbox nailed to a tree or erected on a pole. The unsightliness of these boxes, and the chatter and insolence of their legionary occupants impelled someone to write, as follows, September 22, 1831, to The Ohio State Journal:
‘I certainly do not know of any other way in which so much additional beauty may be given to Columbus at so little expense, as by merely taking down the martinboxes. The Martin is a savage bird beyond all question, and to retain him among us may justly be considered as a badge of barbarism, for we find that the Indians have always been fond of him ... ’
“The writer goes on to condemn the martin as unlovely, noisy and a vicious persecutor of other and better birds. Yet this winged villager, whatever enmities his pugnacity evoked, no doubt had qualities which made him both a welcome and useful visitant in those days, and which contributed to the animation of borough life.”
Another local report described the “evening scenes around the village haunts of the martins.”
“After the breeding season is over, these birds congregate towards night, in large flocks and having selected a suitable cornice on some high building, make preparations for spending the night. The retiring ceremony is very complicated and formal, judging from the times they alight and rise again all the while keeping up a noisy chatter ... ”
The same writer noted that later, “the birds have flown to unknown southern lands, where they find less crowded beds, and shorter, warmer nights.”
On July 25, 1859, the Ohio State Journal reported on a visit by one of the local martins:
“Just before City Council met, a large beautiful martin flew in through an open window, and after circling about the ceiling, a few moments rested upon the life-size and lifelike painting of Dr. Goodale, just above the President’s head. There sat the bird nodding approvingly to the action of the council and blinking with a suspicious eye.”
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.