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The Native Ecosystem as Witnessed by the Early Europeans

When Europeans arrived, the landscape of the Southeast was a mosaic of open pine and hardwood woodlands, prairies, meadows, and oak or pine savannas in a variety of successional forest stages. In addition to American Indian influence on vegetation, natural events, such as hurricanes, thunderstorms, ice storms, insects, and diseases, constantly disturbed the vegetation of the Southeast (Conzen 1990, Myers and Van Lear 1998). Oaks, southern pines, and hickories were dominant tree species almost everywhere. Pine barrens or savannas with scattered oaks dominated large areas of the Coastal Plain. Oak, pine, and hickory forests were dominant in the upland areas across the middle and upper South. The Appalachian Summit was also dominated by oaks but had a mixture of other important hardwoods, such as American chestnut, hickories, maples, poplars, and residual boreal species (Delcourt and Delcourt 1984, 1985; Watts 1980, 1983).

This landscape supported a diversity and abundance of wildlife, such as deer, turkey, bear, elk, bison, wolves, mountain lions, and myriad smaller mammals. Nonmigratory and migratory birds were abundant throughout the region. Early writers talked about the abundance of passenger pigeons, where flocks in flight would literally block out the sun. Beaver impoundments and other wet areas supported mesic trees, shrubs, and a diversity of hydric plants, such as sedges, rushes, and cattails, while providing habitat for waterfowl, other birds, mammals, and reptiles. Wetlands in the Coastal Plain also supported stands of baldcypress, swamp tupelo, water tupelo, sweetgum, along with oaks and other hardwoods.

Early Spanish explorers remarked about the open nature of forests, prairies, and savannas, and the extensive cultivated fields and groves of fruit-bearing trees extending for miles over the landscape. The settlers were in consensus about the ease of travel through the forest even on horseback and were able to move large groups of men, horses, and livestock easily through the landscape (Doolittle 1992, Gremillion 1987).

English settlers and explorers confirmed the Spanish accounts with similar descriptions of the landscape. They also witnessed burning by the natives. As one English settler wrote in 1630, on approaching the Delaware coast, "the land was smelt before it was seen", referring to the smell of smoke (Cowdrey 1983). This settler would remark on the openness of the forests, and what this settler saw and "smelt" was the typical scene all over the Southeast (Barden 1997, Byrd 1928, Cumming 1958, Hartley 1977, Lefler 1967, Leyburn 1962, Logan 1859, Platt and Brantley 1997, Rostlund 1957).

Those unfamiliar with the rapid development of dense understories in unburned forests of the South would soon appreciate the motivation of the natives to manage their land with fire. This is true for every southern ecosystem from the coast to the mountains. In the absence of fire, any means of travel becomes impossible as small hardwoods combine with shrubs to create dense, impassable thickets.

Early writers ignored the eyewitness accounts and opted for a more romanticized description of this dynamic landscape, describing a pristine closed canopy forest where a squirrel could travel from the Atlantic Coast to the Mississippi River without touching the ground. This romantic description is a myth (Buckner 1983). An equally romanticized picture was also painted of the natives.

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content: Wayne D. Carroll
webmaster: John M. Pye

created: 4-OCT-2002
modified: 08-Dec-2013