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Charles Deam Charles C. Deam

Hoosier Connection: Charles Deam was born in Wells County, Indiana, two miles from Bluffton. He grew up on a farm there and later went to DePauw University. He lived in Indiana all of his life, and did the majority of his scientific research on plants and the environment there. He later wrote about his scientific research in papers published by the Indiana state government.

Works Discussed: The Forests of Indiana, Past, Present, and Future, The Trees of Indiana, The Shrubs of Indiana, The Grasses of Indiana, The Flora of Indiana.

Charles Deam, the first child of John and Martha Deam, grew up on his father’s farm along the Wabash River, near Bluffton. His early life consisted of farm work, even though he was not built for such work. Thankfully for Charles, his father encouraged his study of botany in the early years of his life. He taught Charles all he could about the farm produce, as well as the herbal remedies, garden plants, and seeds that the family sold.

Deam decided to attend college after high school and went to DePauw University in 1885 for two years, before it proved too much of a cost. After leaving his higher education behind, he did a number of odd jobs and eventually ended up as a pharmacy worker. He worked up to owning a number of stores, which funded later botanical work.

Through his work as a pharmacy clerk, Deam became even more interested in flowers and nature. The fourteen-hour workdays wore down his health, however, so his doctor suggested walking in the country to relieve his stress. While out on walks he started to collect flowers and blooms that he found interesting. A self-taught scientist, he soon started to research plant collecting and botany. This is when he started his herbarium, or collection of botanical specimens. Now housed at Indiana University, his herbarium is one of the largest private collections of plants in Indiana and was the largest herbarium of its time.

Deam’s interest in the sciences led him to become a member of the Academy of Sciences of Indiana. In 1909, when the governor of Indiana decided to set up a State Board of Forestry, other members of the Academy of Sciences nominated him for the position. Deam took the job, which entailed taking care of the newly established Clark State Forest, near the Ohio River. The new preserve contained fields that had been abandoned for some years when it was first purchased. Deam began experiments in forest reclamation, and he lobbied to increase the acreage of Clark State Forest, from 2,000 acres to double that size.

He also did research into the environmental needs of forests, which he published through the Division of Forestry. In one of these reports he went into depth about Indiana’s woodlands in the past, the present, and what lay in store for them in the future. Written in 1920, “The Forests of Indiana, Past, Present, and Future” outlines many of Deam’s thoughts about the environment. Of the mass destruction of the forests of Indiana by the early settlers, Deam writes,

The extreme fertility of the soil attracted the relatives and friends of the first settlers which displaced the Indians until 1832…. [S]ettlement rapidly followed and magnificent forest areas were cut and burned to obtain more arable land…. People soon learned that they could enter or buy a tract of land, sell off enough timber to erect a house and barn and to pay for the land. Saw mills were soon built every few miles along the railroads. It was soon learned that Indiana white oak, black walnut, yellow poplar, etc., were among the best of their kind in the world (25-26).

This passage shows the rate of destruction and deforestation that was occurring in early Indiana. The forests were disappearing rapidly due to the rate of incoming settlers and the demand for Indiana lumber. The description of the sawmills every few miles along the railroads shows the amount of lumber being shipped out of the state. Deam was trying to educate the public as to what Indiana had once looked like in the time of the settlers, and what had happened to change it.

Elsewhere in the report, Deam comments on the then-present state of the Indiana forests. Since the report was written in 1920, it provides a good view of how the forests have changed in the time that has passed since then:

Out of an acreage of over twenty-two million acres there are now over two millions of reasonably good woodland remaining. The cut of this area would not equal the cut of 50,000 acres of virgin forest land. The woodland area is distributed throughout the state and consists of small tracts. The forest of the rich agricultural parts of the state seemed to be doomed to extinction on account of the great demand for arable land…. Broadly speaking, every effort is being made to clear the remaining forests and every condition is favorable to their extinction ("Forests" 26-27).

Mr. and Mrs. Charles DeamDeam was thinking about the protection of what forestland was left in the state at that time, and was worried about the outcome of the demand for both land and timber. He ended his report with the following thought:

Every citizen in Indiana is under moral obligations to support a policy looking forward to a future timber supply…. Ignorance is no longer an excuse for inactivity. Our financial ability is certain. Inaction or delay is criminal. If we act now and wisely, posterity will praise us instead of curse us (28).

Deam's passion for the environment was not only for its protection, however, but for the future of the lumber industry as well. He had a lot of foresight into the health of Indiana’s environment, and what needs people would have in the future.

Deam also describes in his report the amount of soil erosion occurring in the state of Indiana during the first half of the twentieth century:

The greatest amount of forestland is in the hilly countries or on the roughest ground--areas that are too hilly, steep or rocky to be profitably farmed. It is a well known fact when a steep slope is cleared and farmed that the soil gradually washes off, and in time becomes unproductive, and is abandoned. This fact is exemplified by the possibly a half million acres in southern Indiana that have helped to enrich the delta of the Mississippi River by millions of tons of fertile soil, made so by centuries of forest cover ("Forests" 26).

Soil erosion was not something that was studied heavily in the early twentieth century. In his attempt to get the population of Indiana to understand the counterproductive farming methods that had been used in the past, however, Deam demonstrated an understanding of the ecological situation that was years ahead of other scientists' knowledge.

He also commented on the nature of other type of destruction that were affecting the woodlands and agriculture of Indiana. The rise in the demand for beef and dairy products in the early years of the twentieth century resulted in many farmers converting forestland into pasture. Those who could not remove the forests used them as a grazing ground for their cattle. Deam writes of this:

Today landowners are clearing their hills as fast as they can to get more grazing land, and those who cannot clear them are fencing their woodland for grazing purposes, which kills all reproduction, and it is only a question of a few years until the whole area will be laid bare for erosion ("Forests" 27).

Soon after these words were published Deam began writing a piece of legislation that would aid in stopping the practice of using woodland as pasture. This piece of legislation was called the Forest Classification Act of 1921, in which Deam made a step forward for conservation efforts.

Since the total land that a farmer owned was subject to taxation, not using a part of the land for agriculture would be a financial mistake. Deam realized this and wrote an act that would allow for the creation of non-taxable woods on private property. This meant that farmers would no longer be taxed for not using their woodlands and would be encouraged to set some land aside for this purpose. In the twenty-five years after the Forest Classification Act was signed into law, more than 2,000 tracts of privately owned forest were established. Deam’s law also set the standard for many other states that later followed suit with other similar laws.

In the later years of his life, Deam regularly corresponded with a fellow botanist, Floyd A. Swink. These communications were recently published in the book, A Congenial Fellowship. One letter contained Deam’s comments about Robert Mann, who was attempting to save some of Indiana’s native plant life:

His plan is to procure as many as possible of the still remaining undisturbed prairie areas for the forest preserve district. Those areas that are on the verge of destruction he plans on transplanting materials from. Such species as… Prairie Parsley…Scurly Pea… and purple coneflower are nearly extinct in the Chicago area due to agriculture, industry, and subdivisions... (154).

This letter shows his continuing interest in the welfare of Indiana’s environment, and the survival of its native botanical specimens. In a later letter, Deam mentions the delight of finding a new species in nature: “To find a new plant in nature is a thrill and experience you will probably never forget” (166). In the later years of his life he would not give up his enthusiasm for researching the environment, but even when his health was "fast waning," he had plans to travel to southern Indiana to gather more botanical specimens.

Deam was a relentless conservationist whose many articles and other writings helped provide information to the population about the state of the environment in Indiana and showed his enthusiasm for nature and its protection. His research on the native plants of Indiana is collected in four books: The Shrubs of Indiana (1924), The Grasses of Indiana (1929), Trees of Indiana (1932), and The Flora of Indiana (1940). A man ahead of his time, Charles C. Deam has made a lasting mark on the state's environment.



Deam, Charles. “The Forests of Indiana, Past, Present, and Future.” Indiana Dept. of Conservation. One Hundred Years of Indiana’s Resources. Fort Wayne, IN: Fort Wayne Printing Co., 1920.

Kriebel, Robert. Plain Ol’ Charlie Deam--Pioneer Hoosier Botanist. West Lafayette: Purdue UP, 1987.

Mohar, Peg, ed. A Congenial Fellowship: A Botanical Correspondence Between Charles C. Deam and Floyd A. Swink, 1946-1951. Michigan City, IN: Shirley Heinze Environmental Fund, 2000.


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Indiana University Archives Charles C. Deam collection