Philip Juras - MLA Thesis 1997  
 Home  |   Artwork   |   Exhibitions  |   Publications  |   About the Artist  |   Contact
 
The Presettlement Piedmont Savanna - A Model For Landscape Design and Management - Philip Juras 1997 (pdf format)
Table of Contents - Chapters: One - Two - Three - Four - Five - Six - Seven - Eight - Works Cited - Appendices: A - B - C - D - E

Chapter IV - Piedmont Savanna History

Historical notions, whether accurate or not, often inform current perceptions and decisions. Understanding perceptions of ecological history helps explain why savannas are not generally thought of as a part of the historical Piedmont landscape. Laypersons' and professionals' views of Piedmont ecological history could be said to be a synthesis of their perception of the landscape which surrounds them and their academic knowledge of its history.
 

The Unbroken Forest Myth

Perhaps the most influential factor in forming the modern perception of the presettlement landscape is the widespread secondary forests that cover most of the modern Piedmont. These forests pose as a model for what "nature" would have done when left alone, by returning to the seemingly undisturbed state of a climax forest. This view of the landscape is incomplete, however, in not recognizing, or perhaps not being concerned, that modern human involvement, such as agricultural abandonment and fire suppression, have perpetuated a forest landscape different from that of 300 years ago. Much of forest study has neglected this history by focusing on vegetation dating from only 50 years ago. Such studies would necessarily reflect the post-Depression cycle of land abandonment and fire suppression, and the resulting old field successional forest composition (Skeen, Doerr and VanLear 27).

Another approach to understanding views of ecological history, especially those of the layperson, is to take a brief look at several middle and secondary grade school history textbooks, published in the last three decades, which refer to the Piedmont. They support the popular view of the unbroken presettlement forest. No mention of open lands or savannas in the Piedmont are to be found, though one text mentions the buffalo as a presettlement species. The nearest mention of grasslands is of native American grasses encountered west of the Appalachians (Garraty, Story 37). Four texts which mention the presettlement landscape describe it in terms of the settlers clearing the vast wilderness or forests to open them for farming ( De Vorsey 49; Garraty, American 68; London 63,140; Williams 41). This leaves it up to the student to create a visual image of the wilderness or forest. It is likely that image will spring from traditional descriptions, such as "howling wilderness" or "unbroken forest" that a squirrel could cross from the Atlantic to the Mississippi without touching the ground (Kaufhold 2), and reinforced by the scenes depicted by popular nineteenth century landscape painters. The rugged, wild, densely forested imagery of the Hudson River school may have done much to give a visual identity to the eastern wilderness. A reflection of this might be taken from Lawton B. Evans in his 1908 A History of Georgia for Use in Schools in which he writes "...as late as two hundred years ago it was almost unbroken forest, and the people who inhabited it were savages..." (2). There is some merit in these descriptions, since the land was predominantly forested, but to characterize native populations as "savages" ignores their highly developed cultures just as "unbroken forests" ignores the condition of a cumulatively vast area of eastern grassland communities or savannas. Because these communities are virtually extinct, even more recent academic works on the Piedmont environment do not always recognize their makeup or history. For example, in the beginning pages of Oaks of North America published in 1985, Miller speaks of vast endless eastern forest, unbroken except by wetlands and cliffs (v).
 

Piedmont Savanna Ecological History

A closer look at actual presettlement conditions reveals not an "unbroken forest" but a wooded and sometimes grassland landscape with a savanna-like character especially on uplands. While generally forested and sometimes densely so, the Piedmont could more often have been characterized as lightly or "pleasantly" wooded, being more airy and open, sometimes open to the extent of meriting the description of prairie. Because there are virtually no such "natural" landscapes left in the Piedmont an information gap exists which inhibits the process of restoring such landscapes. Filling this information gap and setting up a framework to understand the existence and disappearance of Piedmont savanna communities can be done in part by examining written history relevant to the subject. Following is a brief history, focused particularly on Piedmont savanna landscapes, taken from various historical perspectives, written both recently and as far back as 1846. Original information from accounts of early explorers will be used later to specifically define Piedmont savanna ecology and aesthetic properties.

Change has been a constant in the southeastern landscape just as in all other landscapes. At the end of the Pleistocene or the last ice age, around ten thousand years ago, megafauna such as the mastodon could be found in the Southeast (Cowdrey 12). Fossils of the mastodon and mammoth have been found near Little Keg Creek in Wilkes County, Georgia (Kaufhold 1). Megafauna migrated into the Southeast during the end of the Pleistocene possibly due to drying conditions on the continent. Trailing them were the nomadic human hunters who, from the time of their crossing the Bering Strait tens of thousands of years earlier, had subsisted on hunting the great elephants, camels, horses, sloths and bison of the continent. This marked the beginning of human influence in the Piedmont landscape. As the megafauna became extinct due to a one-two punch of climate change and over-hunting, the humans who subsisted on them looked to different means of existence. This led to the development in the Southeast of the more stationary Archaic cultures which subsisted on gathering and hunting a diverse mix of wild plants and small game. After 1,000 BC, as their cultures matured and their populations grew, Indians of the Woodland period added the growing of some food producing plants and mound building to a base of hunter-gatherer activities. The highest cultural period, the Mississippian from AD 700-1500, was marked by a more agricultural base, particularly the growing of corn, beans, and squash in riverine locations, and by a stratified society in large fortified towns with palisades and temples atop mounds. Before European contact Indian populations were quite large, perhaps 1.5 - 2 million in the Southeast (Cowdrey 20). The growing of corn, the most efficient of plants in converting nutrients and energy to food, made such large, well developed societies possible and restricted their location to lowland sites with richer soils. Because of the intensive settlements and agriculture, lowlands may have appeared more often as farmland than bottom-land forests. The extensively open lands seen by Bartram along the major streams of the still-populated Creek nation might have been a reflection of this, even though populations were already diminished by European- introduced diseases. Uplands were also undoubtedly affected by such large populations. The effects Native Americans had on lowland and upland landscapes were disproportionate to their numbers, mainly because of their use of fire (Skeen, Doerr and VanLear 6). Indians intentionally burned for many reasons related to agriculture, hunting, and safety, as well as accidentally when fire escaped. Though it is now recognized that Indians were well aware of the effects of fire and used it as a management tool, an earlier perspective is represented by Hu Maxwell who wrote for the USFS in 1910 of the Indians as "wasteful and destructive savages," who were "by nature incendiary" and "squandered the regions resources like pirates plundering a treasure." (Silver 49-59) Whether a result of good or bad Indian management or natural fires, the resulting landscape of hardwood and pine woodland had an open appearance due to frequent burning. In it a herbaceous understory was encouraged while oaks were favored over competing hardwoods (Skeen, Doerr and VanLear 6-7). Grassy openings in these woodlands played an important role not only for the Indians and the resident species but also for the new arrivals from outside the region. Grassland areas in the Piedmont acted as routes for migrating buffalo whose well-worn trails became paths for Indians and subsequently traders and settlers (Keever 41). As Landrum writes, "Long after their departure, their moss-covered bones and deep-worn trails, leading to favorite ranges and licks, were seen marking the country in every direction."(5) Clashes between whites and Indians in such a low density wilderness were a result of everyone using those same trails. In the Appalachian valley in Pennsylvania and Maryland, meadows maintained by Indian burning were a draw for European settlement and migration. As westward settlement encroached on these areas, it was drawn toward the south, bringing the main stream of settlement movement down the Appalachian valley to Virginia through the Roanoke Gap, onto the inner Piedmont, then south and westward across the whole region (Prunty 164,165). European settlers were as averse to the Indians as they were to the dense forests; thus the areas kept open and abandoned by the extirpated Indians were greatly favored. Areas in North and South Carolina were particularly well known for their large areas of open land. Historian William Henry Foote wrote of the Piedmont in his 1846 Sketches of North Carolina:

Emigration was encouraged and directed very much in its earliest periods, by the vast prairies, with the pea-vine grass and cane-brakes, which stretched across the States of Virginia and Carolina. There are large forests now in these two States, where, a hundred years ago, not a tree, and scarce a shrub could be seen. These prairies abounded with game, and supplied abundant pasturage, both winter and summer, for the various kinds of stock that accompanied the emigrants, and formed for years no small part of their wealth. (79)

Describing the area north of Charlotte:

Previous to the year 1750, the emigration to this beautiful but distant frontier was slow, and the solitary cabins were found upon the borders of prairies, and in the vicinity of canebrakes, the immense ranges abounding with wild game, and affording sustenance the whole year, for herds of tame cattle. Extensive tracts of county between the Yadkin and the Catawba, now waving with thrifty forests, then were covered with tall grass, with scarce a bush or shrub, looking at first view as if immense grazing farms had been at once abandoned, the houses disappearing, and the abundant grass luxuriating in its native wildness and beauty, the wild herds wandering at pleasure, and nature rejoicing in undisturbed quietness. (189)

In his 1897 Colonial and Revolutionary History of Upper South Carolina, J. B. Landrum speaks of the Piedmont in that state:

Up to the breaking out of the revolutionary war, the woodlands in the upper portion of South Carolina were carpeted with grass, and the wild pea vine grew, it is said, as high as a horse's back, while flowers of every description were seen growing all around. The forests were imposing, the trees were large and stood so wide apart that a deer or buffalo could be seen at a long distance; the grasses and the pea vines occupied the place of the young, scrubby growth of the present day." ..."It is a fact well authenticated, that in the early history of the upper country there were numerous prairies covered only with the grasses and the pea vine, but which have since been covered with pine, oak, and other growth. (2)

As settlement progressed, introduced diseases and epidemics obliterated Indian populations to such an extent that changing patterns of fire intensity and frequency allowed widespread forest succession, as was observed throughout the early settlement period. Such observations caused the Black Belt Prairie of Alabama to be regarded as myth in spite of documentation (Deselm and Murdock 93). Descriptions of the still open savanna-like Piedmont landscape from explorers such as Bartram, Lawson, Hawkins, Lederer, Fries, and Byrd are still available for interpretation and will be used in the following chapter to understand the form and function of specific Piedmont savanna characteristics.

Though the megafauna of the Pleistocene were long gone, native grazing animals such as buffalo, elk, and deer were found in the Piedmont and probably had an effect on the structure of grasslands. Elk, never a large population, were soon extirpated from the Piedmont and by the time Bartram passed through in the 1770s he found them only in the Appalachian mountains (Silver 100). Deer were extremely abundant prior to periods of intense trading of skins by Indians and settlers to European markets. Georgia in the third quarter of the eighteenth century, for instance, exported about 200,000 pounds of deer skins annually (Cowdrey 15). Deer were hunted almost to extinction in the Southeast early in this century, but have been very successfully restored to most areas (Skeen, Doerr and VanLear16). Buffalo, and their effect on the landscape, may have been relative newcomers to the Piedmont. In the interior of the Southeast no buffalo were observed by the De Soto expedition in the sixteenth century, only a few buffalo were recorded in the seventeenth century, and hundreds of buffalo at a time were observed in the eighteenth century (Rostlund 401). In 1755 Governor James Glenn traveled though the upcountry of South Carolina to the Cherokee Nation and gave an account of the Piedmont, describing it as having large and extensive plains and savannas full of deer and buffalo. At the earliest period of immigration into the upper country a hundred buffalo grazing on a single acre of ground in the present territory of Abbeville and Edgefield, South Carolina were reported, and it would be reasonable to assume this occurred in other parts of the upcountry as well (Landrum 1,5). Prior to cultivation, buffalo wallows were found in Hart county and there are at least four Buffalo licks in the area of Wilkes, Oglethorpe, and Greene counties (Kaufhold 3). A search of DeLorme's Street Atlas USA for place names in the southern Piedmont (not including those of waterways) revealed the name "buffalo" appearing 12 times in different locations; while other terms referring to grassland or savanna environments such as "plain," "meadow," "cowpen," and "grove" were found throughout. The buffalo and any effects they had were extinguished from the Piedmont by the third quarter of the eighteenth century, while at the same time deer populations also suffered greatly. There were soon, however, plenty of domestic livestock to replace the native grazers and browsers (Silver 100). New changes in grassland vegetation composition and structure occurred as horses, cattle, and swine, first introduced by the Spanish in the 1500s and later by the English, entered the open lands of the Piedmont (Deselm and Murdock 93). After De Soto, some of the first Europeans to bring livestock to the South Carolina Piedmont were "stock or cowpens men" (Landrum 19) with free- ranging herds numbering in the tens of thousands in the upcountry of South Carolina in the late 1700s. Cattle may have made a substantial contribution to maintaining the openness of the landscape during the brief period of cowpen culture, especially since the open landscapes were chosen for their pasturing (Westmacott 5,6). As exotics often are, the introduced animals were very successful at reproducing on the open range in spite of predators, to the extent that wild cattle, hogs, and horses were hunted and eaten by settlers (Cowdrey 50).

European colonists viewed the land and its features solely as commodities. The effect they had on the presettlement landscape was a reflection of this. The more "sustainable" farming practices of the land-poor, labor-rich old world, such as crop rotation and manuring, were abandoned. In the new world, settlers had to learn a system that could provide not only food, but also, in the beginning, profit for the investors in the trading companies that sent them there. The system they found most effective was a result of scarce labor and cheap and plentiful land. Newly cleared land provided the cheapest source of nutrients needed for producing profits from soil-exhausting crops (Cowdrey 31-35). Once the soil was exhausted, the land would be abandoned. Essentially, the resulting patterns of old field succession on poor, eroded soils which seem to define the ecology of the Piedmont today are the result of this system.

By the 1850s most of the Piedmont was settled and soon afterward began waves of farmland abandonment. Over the last 130 years, progressively larger percentages of land were abandoned following the Civil War, the agricultural depression of the 1880s, and the boll weevil attacks of the 1920s, as well as additional land after World War II. Old field succession to forests, some now as old as the Civil War, followed the cycles of land clearing, farming it for a decade, then retiring it (Skeen, Doerr and VanLear 7-8). In the Southeast, complete successional transformation from grassland to forest (usually pine) can occur in a couple of decades without disturbance (Deselm and Murdock114), so it is understandable that after all of these changes the landscapes of the modern Piedmont probably bear little resemblance to those of presettlement times. In some ways, however, the large scale patchy openness of the presettlement savanna is still suggested by the quilt-like patterns of farm land stitched across the matrix of successional forests.

back to top


The Presettlement Piedmont Savanna - A Model For Landscape Design and Management - Philip Juras 1997
Table of Contents - Chapters: One - Two - Three - Four - Five - Six - Seven - Eight - Works Cited - Appendices: A - B - C - D - E