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Use of Fire by Early European Settlers

Initial European agriculture differed little from that of Native Americans, but it rapidly became more extensive (Williams 1992). Spreading from the coast inland along rivers, the early settlers sought out Native American clearings for their farms or used similar techniques of girdling and burning to clear land. Instead of using the Native American system of rotational clearing (swidden agriculture), however, Europeans maintained extensive permanent fields. Burning was extended to the bottomlands and hilltops to support open grazing, particularly of hogs (Williams 1992). Prior to the Civil War, over 75 percent of the white population of the South was comprised of pastoral herdsmen of Celtic origin (McWhiney 1988, Owsley 1945) who came from the British Isles, Spain, and France where fire had been an integral part of their livelihood.


In time, agricultural practices differed between the coast and the uplands. Small farmers and herdsmen, who originated in the mid-Atlantic colonies, settled the mountains, Interior Highlands, and plateaus. They moved down the Appalachian valleys to settle western Virginia, eastern North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky (Williams 1992). These small farmers adapted Native American cropping practices. Along the coast, large-scale plantations grew market crops, particularly tobacco, rice, and cotton. Before the American Revolution, rice cultivation was limited to inland swamps with minimal impact on coastal forests. Later, a new cultivation technique was introduced, probably by African slaves, which used tidal action to flood rice fields along rivers. This tidal irrigation affected forest lands as far as 35 miles inland (Edgar 1998).


After Coastal Plain soils were exhausted, plantation culture was extended into the Piedmont of Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, and the rich bottomlands of the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley. On the Coastal Plain, the extensive pine forests away from the rivers were exploited for naval stores. These woodlands were burned periodically, and grasslands were kept open by annual burning. These vast areas between major river valleys hosted large herds of feral and semidomesticated hogs and cattle, tended by prototypical cowboys (McWhiney 1988, Williams 1992).


Early settlers used fire in several ways. They sought out old fields and openings cleared by Native Americans and kept them open by plowing or periodic burning. Woodlands were burned for pasture. Burning small trees and shrubs and girdling large trees cleared new fields. Even though the practice was ineffective, woods in the Piedmont were burned to control the boll weevil, a pest of cotton (Dorn and Derks 1988). As settlers began moving into the mountains, they first settled the better land along the major streams. A description of the settlement of Mulky Creek in the north Georgia mountains tells of harvesting a first hay crop beneath the open timber on a south slope (Brender and Merrick 1950), where broom sedge grew shoulder high on drier sites and wild legumes were abundant. Fire must have played a major role in maintaining such an open ecosystem, even before grazing of livestock became a supporting factor (Van Lear and Waldrop 1989). Annual burning became a standard practice wherever grazing animals were kept, even in the more remote mountain regions.


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content: John Stanturf
webmaster: John M. Pye

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