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Three Worlds, Three Views: Culture and Environmental Change in the Colonial South

Timothy Silver
Appalachian State University
©National Humanities Center

For nearly three hundred years before the American Revolution, the colonial South was a kaleidoscope of different people and cultures. Yet all residents of the region shared two important traits. First, they lived and worked in a natural environment unlike any other in the American colonies. Second, like humans everywhere, their presence on the landscape had profound implications for the natural world. Exploring the ecological transformation of the colonial South offers an opportunity to examine the ways in which three distinct cultures—Native American, European, and African—influenced and shaped the environment in a fascinating part of North America.

The Native American World

Like natives elsewhere in North America, those in the South practiced shifting seasonal subsistence, altering their diets and food gathering techniques to conform to the changing seasons. In spring, a season which brought massive runs of shad, alewives, herring, and mullet from the ocean into the rivers, Indians in Florida and elsewhere along the Atlantic coastal plain relied on fish taken with nets, spears, or hooks and lines. In autumn and winter—especially in the piedmont and uplands—the natives turned more to deer, bear, and other game animals for sustenance. Because they required game animals in quantity, Indians often set light ground fires to create brushy edge habitats and open areas in southern forests that attracted deer and other animals to well-defined hunting grounds. The natives also used fire to drive deer and other game into areas where the animals might be easily dispatched.

Because the region’s climate offered a long growing season and generally plentiful rainfall, southern Indians developed a complex system of agriculture based primarily on three crops: corn, beans, and squash. To clear farmland, the natives used fire and stone axes to remove smaller brush and timber. They then stripped the bark (a process known as girdling) from larger trees so that they sprouted no leaves and eventually died. Native farmers (primarily women) then planted corn, beans, and squash together in hills beneath the dead and dying trees. By all accounts, the three crops, known in some cultures as “the three sisters,” usually did well under such conditions. Beans helped replace nitrogen taken from the soil by corn; cornstalks provided “poles” for the beans to climb; and broad-leaved squash plants helped cut down on weed growth and erosion. Farming seems to have allowed native populations to increase in the millennium before European contact. Some of the larger native cultures probably numbered in the tens of thousands.

Preparing new fields was hard work and rather than continually clearing new tracts in a “slash and burn” pattern, Indians probably used each plot as long as possible, even as yields declined. Old fields then had to lie fallow until they recovered some fertility and could be planted again. Hurricanes, thunderstorms, summer droughts, or prolonged spring rains could quickly lay waste to a season’s work in the fields. In addition, the natives had to store seeds, manage harvests, and distribute surplus crops, all of which required complex social and political organization. And, as several southeastern cultures seem to have discovered, a diet too rich in corn led to nutritional deficiencies and poor health. Thus, agriculture had to be blended proper proportion with hunting, fishing, and gathering wild foods in order to ensure survival. Lean times were inevitable. While at Jamestown, John Smith marveled at the “strange” way in which the Indians’ bodies alter[ed] with their diet.” Like deer and other animals, the natives, at various times, appeared “fat and leane, strong and weak.”

The South’s native people had well-defined hunting territories, fishing grounds, and agricultural plots which they vigorously defended against encroachment. However, they did not regard land as property that could be transferred in perpetuity to another individual or group. Native culture also did not encourage the unrestricted accumulation of land or other material goods. For most southern Indians, an ideal chieftain or leader was one who regularly distributed great stores of food, animal skins, or other valuable items within the community. Generosity—not individual wealth—conferred status, fostered allegiances, and helped maintain the communal good.

Long before the arrival of Europeans, native people traded items between themselves and with more distant cultures. Trade, however, was more than simply an economic enterprise. Before any items changed hands, traders often ate together, smoked tobacco, or practiced other rituals designed to indicate friendship. In such an atmosphere of hospitality the exchange of goods became a means for expressing good will, a vehicle for negotiation, and a way to engage in diplomacy.

Native people believed that everything in nature—plants and animals as well as inanimate objects such as rocks and shells—possessed spiritual power. Consequently, those who hunted animals, farmed, or gathered wild foods had to observe certain guidelines and practice particular rituals designed to demonstrate respect for the spiritual world. In the Georgia and Carolina uplands, for example, Cherokee hunters who took deer asked for the animals’ forgiveness. In many cultures, Indian men never ate the first game animal they killed because they believed that the animal’s kin might become angry and never allow themselves to be taken. One of the most prominent rituals was the Green Corn Ceremony, which coincided with the ripening of maize. To celebrate, southern Indians danced, fasted, cleaned their houses, built new fires, and even forgave neighbors’ transgressions—all to acknowledge the providers of grain and begin a new year with a clean body and spirit.

Modern Americans sometimes regard such rituals as evidence that Indians practiced conservation or had an innate understanding of ecology. Though such practices might indeed promote sound environmental practices, they could also have the opposite effect. For example, the Cherokees’ belief in the reincarnation of deer might have inclined the natives to worry less about killing the animals in quantity since the dead would quickly be replaced. In all likelihood, their native belief system served a more subtle and practical function. In the South—as elsewhere in North America—Indians had to rely on (and therefore destroy) plants and animals that they regarded as spiritual kin. The various rituals allowed them to do so without violating a sacred relationship between people and the natural world.

The native world was not a place of ecological perfection. When bad weather led to poor crops, natives had to rely more on game and wild plants. In regions of intensive agriculture, such as along the river floodplains of the piedmont and mountains, Indian farmers sometimes depleted soils and had to move their villages to more suitable lands. By the time Europeans arrived in the South, old fields, open forests subjected to periodic burns, and local fluctuations in game animal populations all attested to the native presence. Within the context of their culture and belief system, southern Indians simply did what was necessary to subsist and survive.

The European World

Europeans came from an acquisitive capitalist culture that valued individual wealth and accomplishment. In keeping with their Christian beliefs, most Europeans took literally the biblical admonition to subdue the earth and exert dominion over it. From their perspective, any land that had not been thoroughly settled and cultivated was useless. Indeed, the term “wilderness,” used liberally by English settlers across North America to describe the continent’s forests, was synonymous with “wasteland” or “desert. Colonists failed to understand that southern Indians used some lands—especially hunting and fishing grounds—without cultivating them. Most Europeans believed they had the right to buy such property (even if Indians did not fully understand the terms of sale) or simply take the land to use as God commanded. In short, they transformed the land and its resources into valuable commodities that could be sold in the world market.

Explorers from Spain brought about the first critical changes in the southern environment. In 1540, Hernando de Soto, a Spanish conquistador, led a three-year expedition from Florida into the southern interior in search of the most valuable commodity: gold. While in the South Carolina piedmont, de Soto saw several deserted Indian towns, large communities whose populations had apparently been devastated by infectious diseases introduced from Europe. De Soto and Juan Pardo, another Spanish explorer who retraced part of de Soto’s route in the early 1560s, might have spread more infectious ailments such as measles, influenza, and various respiratory infections among the Indians of the interior. De Soto also had some 300 hogs, brought along as a mobile meat supply, which had the potential to spread diseases such as anthrax (which affects both animals and people) among native wildlife. Though the exact effects of these early Spanish incursions remain to be discovered, one thing seems certain. Years of living in isolation from the diseases of Europe left the South’s native people highly vulnerable to infection and wherever explorers and settlers went, Indians died. Old World diseases might have reduced some southern Indian populations by as much as 90 percent by the mid-1700s.

Spain remained a strong presence in Florida and parts of the southeastern interior, but farther north English settlers began to reshape the landscape in their image. French colonists also established an outpost at Mobile on the Gulf Coast in 1701. As it became clear that southern soils would yield few precious minerals, all three nations turned their attention to other products from southern forests. Animal hides, especially deerskins (which could be fashioned into leather breeches, gloves, and bookbindings), found ready markets in the Old World. Because native people were already well versed in the rudiments of commerce, European traders initially encountered Indians eager to swap deerskins for metal knives, pots, utensils, jewelry, guns, and ammunition.

Trade between Europeans and Indians, however, was not of equal benefit to both cultures. European traders encouraged native warriors to trade captives taken in battle with other Indians as slaves. As a result, thousands of southern natives were sold to masters in New England and the Caribbean. Europeans also supplied Indians with alcohol, an intoxicant with which the natives had no previous experience and one on which many became dependent. Worse, the trading paths from the coast to the interior continued to be conduits for pestilence. Serious smallpox epidemics struck the southern interior in 1697, 1738, 1760, and 1780, killing thousands of Indians during every outbreak.

As Indian numbers declined and demand for trade goods soared, native people became enmeshed in the European economy. Instead of killing animals primarily for food, Indians hunted to obtain deerskins for the overseas market. Native people often insisted that European traders engage in traditional practices (such as preliminary gift-giving and smoking tobacco), but native rituals associated with hunting probably became less important as Indians engaged in market hunting. Shipping records from the South’s port towns tell the story: a million deerskins shipped out of Virginia and South Carolina between 1698 and 1715; another two million from South Carolina alone by 1740; a million from Savannah between 1764 and 1773, and more than 300,000 from French Louisiana in the late 1750s. Only when Indians went to war—either against each other or against one of the European powers—did deer and other get a prolonged respite from native hunters. Because deer reproduced quickly during such interludes, the animals never became extinct, but by 1800, the once-plentiful animals were noticeably scarce throughout the region.

Though the French and Spanish were powerful players in the Indian trade, the transformation of southern agriculture was largely an English enterprise. In addition to corn and other foodstuffs, English colonists planted cash crops—tobacco in the region surrounding Chesapeake Bay, rice and indigo in the Carolina low country—for the European market. Whereas native people had hunted deer and other animals for meat, colonists relied on cattle and hogs raised on the open range in southern forests.

For the most part, planters who raised cash crops engaged in monoculture, the practice of planting only a single crop per field. Tobacco, rice, and indigo—all of which are extremely demanding of soils—quickly exhausted colonial plots. Without the tangle of food plants typical of Indian gardens, English fields were also more subject to erosion and attracted insect pests such as grasshoppers, tobacco flea beetles, and rice worms. To colonists, monoculture appeared more “civilized,” but it was ecologically less sophisticated than the Indian system and therefore more subject to a greater variety of problems.

Free-roaming livestock had to be protected from native predators, especially wolves. Every English colony offered bounties for wolves’ heads. Virginia’s law even required those paying the bounties to remove the ears or tongue from every head, lest some unscrupulous hunter try to turn in the same head twice. By the 1730s wolves were extinct in the settled regions, though other animals—such as crows and squirrels—for which officials offered bounties, continued to thrive.

English colonists eventually found ways to turn trees into commodities, too. Lumber from live oaks became important to the shipbuilding industry. Barrel staves made from white oak helped sustain the international trade in molasses and rum. Bald cypress and Atlantic white cedar became the preferred woods for shingles and clapboard. By far, however, English people derived their greatest woodland profits from the South’s vast longleaf pine forest. Lumber from the trees could be used in ship construction and pinesap (known as resin) could be collected by cutting large rectangular notches or “boxes” into longleaf pines. The resin was then distilled into turpentine, tar, and pitch, products all used in the shipping industry and collectively known as naval stores. North Carolina, which—unlike South Carolina and Virginia—never developed a single-crop economy, led the southern colonies in the production of naval stores.

Agricultural clearing and the various forest industries had the overall effect of reducing the forest cover and altering drainage patterns along major rivers. By the mid-eighteenth century, spring floods spawned by excessive runoff, annually threatened coastal communities. Those trees most in demand, including longleaf pine, disappeared from settled regions, to be replaced by scrubby oaks and less valuable loblolly pines. In the years immediately before the American Revolution, firewood became increasingly scarce and expensive in Charleston, Baltimore, and other burgeoning southern towns. Dams constructed to provide waterpower for sawmills also restricted the annual runs of fish up coastal rivers.

As floods threatened, fish and game animals diminished, and trees disappeared, England and the colonial governments responded with some of the nation’s first conservation laws. The Broad Arrow Policy, instituted in the South in 1729, allowed officials to mark certain trees with an inverted “v” and reserve them for the King’s use. Virginia established a closed hunting season on deer in 1699. Other colonies outlawed night hunting and the killing of does, two measures designed to relieve some of the pressure on the deer herds. Such laws, however, were almost impossible to enforce and in 1772, Virginia decided to invoke a four-year moratorium on deer hunting in an effort to save the lucrative trade in leather products. As they turned the South’s resources into commodities, European settlers experienced scarcity and understood—even if they did not articulate it as such—the concept of an endangered species, notions with which modern Americans are all too familiar.

The African World

Wringing money from southern soils and forests required an extensive labor force, a need England first met with white indentured servants and, by the early eighteenth century, with African slaves. The shift to slaves resulted from several factors (including a growing shortage of white labor, English racism, and the profitability of the slave trade), but the cash crop economy and the southern environment also played crucial roles in the changeover. In Virginia and Maryland, as tobacco fields became exhausted, planters eventually developed a system of field rotation in which laborers first cleared a plot in the Indian manner by girdling trees and burning off the underbrush. The first year, planters grew corn and beans on the new tracts, then (as the land became more open and fit for cultivation) several crops of tobacco, followed by wheat. Fields then lay fallow—sometimes for as long as 20 years—before they recouped enough fertility to produce more food and cash crops. As a result, any planter actively engaged in growing tobacco had a constant need for labor to clear new fields. Because a servant’s indenture eventually ended and a slave’s did not, Virginia planters came to regard slaves as a better long-term investment for tobacco labor. The shift was gradual, but between about 1680 and 1710, most Chesapeake planters seem to have concluded that environmentally sustainable tobacco farming went hand-in-hand with slavery.

The southern climate and disease environment figured into the shift as well. The mosquito-borne parasite that causes malaria might have been present in North America before Europeans colonized the South; anopheles mosquitoes capable of carrying the organisms flourished in the swampy environs of the Atlantic coastal plain. However, because southern Indians lived in relatively small villages and frequently moved in conjunction with the seasons, malarial outbreaks were rare before European settlement. As the English became established along Chesapeake Bay and in South Carolina, they seem to have brought malarial parasites with them. By the 1650s, vivax malaria (a comparatively milder form of the disease) began to afflict colonists in Virginia and Maryland; by the 1680s, it was present in the Carolina low country. In the first decades of the eighteenth century, falciparum malaria (a much more virulent form of the disease) became prevalent in both regions.

Because many of the slaves imported to work on tobacco and rice plantations came from West Africa where malaria was common, they brought with them both acquired and genetic protection against some of the more virulent strains of malarial parasites, another trait that, in the eyes of English planters, made Africans better suited to work in tobacco and rice fields. Colonists paid a high biological price for their decision, however. Slaves imported to the region brought in new strains of malarial parasites and either slaves or slave traders eventually introduced yellow fever, a much more deadly mosquito-borne disease, into the town of Charleston. In addition, the boggy habitats of the ever-expanding rice fields provided acres of new breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Malaria and yellow fever would plague the South for decades to come.

Planters relied on slaves for more than labor. Africans brought crucial environmental knowledge to southern fields and forests. Many of the first slaves imported into South Carolina probably had some prior experience with raising cattle on the open range. The use of fire to clear new fields was also a technique used with which Africans had long been familiar. Much evidence suggests that slaves from West Africa, where rice had been grown for generations, aided rice planters in harnessing coastal tides to provide irrigation, an innovation that came to the Carolina low country in the 1740s. As one South Carolina governor noted in 1802, were it not for slaves, “the extensive rice fields which are covered with grain, would present nothing but deep swamps … while the pine lands … would have done little towards raising the state to its present importance.”

Scholars still have much to learn about slaves’ perceptions of the southern environment. One thing, however, seems certain: Where Europeans saw uncultivated, worthless land, slaves often saw opportunity. In the forests that bordered the tobacco and rice fields, slaves hunted rabbits, opossums, raccoons, squirrels, and other small game, perhaps employing snares and other trapping techniques perfected in Africa. Around their cabins or in other areas not frequented by white folks, some slaves kept garden plots and in some instances raised chickens and hogs, all used to supplement the meager diet provided by white masters.

In the ocean waters of the Outer Banks, in Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds, up the tidal rivers and numerous small creeks that spilled across the North Carolina coastal plain, slaves worked as boatmen, stevedores, and fishermen. Although they helped turn hefty profits for their masters, these watermen also had a measure of independence. Some ran their own fishing operations, catching mullet, shad, herring, and other fish that they sold in local markets, either with or without consent of their masters. Traditional African practices likely played important roles in the construction of nets, seines, fish traps, and the temporary shelters at slave fish camps.

Black watermen frequently harbored escaped slaves or helped them find safe passage by sea to northern ports, a practice that became even prominent in the antebellum period. Some runaways simply took to the woods and swamps and never left, forming so called “maroon” communities where escaped slaves maintained independent subsistence-oriented villages. In the years after the American Revolution, the Great Dismal Swamp (located on the border between North Carolina and Virginia) harbored a large maroon community. Similar societies could be found in remote areas along the Georgia and South Carolina coasts. African slaves—no less than Europeans or Indians—used the environment to meet their needs, even to the point of reshaping southern swamps into places of sustenance, refuge, and freedom.

Guiding Student Discussion

Many students will simply want to “blame” Europeans and their capitalistic system for “destroying” the southern environment. Students will need to be reminded that the world Europeans encountered in the South was not some idyllic Eden, but a land already changed by Native American practices such as hunting and agriculture. You can also point out some of the general similarities between European and Indian culture, especially dependence on agriculture and well-developed systems of trade. European adoption of Indian agricultural techniques for clearing fields and the natives’ willingness to trade deerskins (which they regarded as common items) for more efficient and exotic metal goods are but two examples of ways in which the two cultures borrowed from each other.

Why, then, did the European system come to dominate? (Students will often ask simply, “Why did Indians lose?”). In arriving at an answer, the class will need to grapple with two key factors that made the cultural exchange uneven: disease and alcohol. It helps to note that Europeans themselves did not yet understand what caused infectious disease and probably did not anticipate that their presence would set off epidemics. Likewise, Europeans had a long cultural history with alcohol and might not have foreseen its effects on Indians. This can make for a lively discussion of Europeans’ moral culpability. As one of my students explained, “it’s like they [Europeans] came to rob a candy store and accidentally killed a bunch of people. They didn’t mean to do it, but it still made it easier to get away with the loot.”

Finally, in discussing European-Indian relations, remind students that the continent had undergone plenty of environmental change before either group arrived on the scene. Note that 10,000 years earlier (a mere instant in geologic time) the continent had been much colder; indeed many of the forests Europeans encountered had been in the South only 6-8,000 years. The goal here is to get students not just to think of Europeans as agents of change (they certainly were), but to see them as agents of change in an already highly changeable world.

Any discussion of the shift from white indentured servitude to African slavery must be approached with care. Some students (like Ulrich B. Phillips and other early historians of the South) will want to adopt a kind of environmental determinism to explain slavery, to wit: “the climate made them do it.” To steer students away from such a one-dimensional explanation, it is useful to point out that, although the southern climate made it possible to grow tobacco and rice, it was the European economy that demanded cash crops and cheap labor.

Many students will not know that slaves had knowledge and skills that proved especially adaptable to the southern environment. The notion of slaves as experienced cattle herders or hydrologic engineers able to manipulate the tides will help combat still-too-prevalent stereotypes of Africans as unskilled field labor. Likewise, the idea that slaves—like Native Americans—had “agency” and were able to manipulate certain environments to their advantage will come as a surprise. Coupled with the discussion of Indian-European relations, this approach to colonial slavery should make clear that if the landscape reflected the values of European capitalism, it was also a distinctly American countryside—one shaped as much by red and black as by white.

Scholars Debate

For an overview of environmental change in the colonial South, teachers can consult Albert Cowdrey, This Land, This South: An Environmental History (1983) and my book, A New Face on the Countryside: Indians, Colonists, and Slaves in South Atlantic Forests, 1500–1800 (1990). On the difficult and controversial question of southern Indians and the environment—especially the disputed notion of Native Americans as ecologists and/or conservationists—Shepard Krech’s The Ecological Indian: Myth and History (1999) chronicles the debate and has especially useful chapters on the deerskin trade and the impact of Old World diseases.

Scholars now have a solid understanding of tobacco cultivation and the shift from indentured to slave labor in the Chesapeake. Some especially useful volumes are Allan Kulikoff, Tobacco and Slaves: The Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake, 1680–1800 (1986), T.H. Breen, Tobacco Culture: The Mentality of the Great Tidewater Planters on the Eve of the Revolution (1985), Edward Countryman, How Did American Slavery Begin? (1999) and Edmund Morgan’s classic, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975).

Though scholars generally agree that Carolina rice planters made use of slave knowledge and skills, the exact ways in which Africans influenced rice culture has been a matter of considerable inquiry and debate. Peter H. Wood’s Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 Through the Stono Rebellion (1974) first broached the idea that slaves from West Africa were well versed in tending cattle and understood certain techniques of rice cultivation. For other treatments of the topic, see Daniel S. Littlefield, Rice and Slaves: Ethnicity and the Slave Trade in Colonial South Carolina (1981), Joyce E. Chaplin, “Tidal Rice Cultivation and the Problem of Slavery in South Carolina and Georgia, 1760–1815,” William and Mary Quarterly (January 1992), 29-61, and Judith A. Carney, Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas (2002). Carney’s book makes the strongest argument for African influences in all phases of rice production.

The ways in which slaves perceived and used the natural world to their advantage is a topic that scholars have only recently begun to explore. Mart A. Stewart’s “What Nature Suffers to Groe:” Life, Labor, and Landscape on the Georgia Coast, 1680–1920 (1996) and his article, “If John Muir Had Been an Agrarian: American Environmental History West and South,” Environment and History 11 (2005), 139–62 are the best sources currently available for the agricultural South. Robert B. Outland III’s Tapping the Pines: The Naval Stores Industry in the American South (2004) is the first detailed study of slave life and labor in the pine forests. David Cecelski’s The Waterman’s Song: Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina (2001) is a treasure trove of information and fascinating anecdotes about slaves’ efforts to create a place for themselves in the coastal environs of eastern North Carolina.

Timothy H. Silver is a professor of History at Appalachian State University. His current research interests include the environmental history of North America with an emphasis on the South and Southern Appalachia, the history of America's National and State Parks, and the ethnohistory of Early America. His recent publications include: Mount Mitchell and the Black Mountains: An Environmental History of the Highest Peaks in Eastern America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003); A New Face on the Countryside: Indians, Colonists and Slaves in South Atlantic Forests, 1500–1800 (Cambridge University Press, 1990); "A Useful Arcadia: European Colonists as a Biotic Factor in Chesapeake Forests," in Philip D. Curtin, Grace Brush, and George Fischer, eds., The Chesapeake: The History of a Watershed (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001); "Big Tom Wilson," Wildlife in North Carolina, November, 1997; "New Faces in an Old World," in Peter Nabakov, ed., Through Indian Eyes: The Untold Story of Native American People (New York: Reader's Digest General Books, 1996)

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To cite this essay:
Silver, Timothy H. “Three Worlds, Three Views: Culture and Environmental Change in the Colonial South.” Nature Transformed, TeacherServe®. National Humanities Center. DATE YOU ACCESSED ESSAY. <>


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