The Myth of a Natural Prairie Belt in Alabama: An Interpretation of Historical Records

Erhard Rostlund (1957) The Myth of a Natural Prairie Belt in Alabama: An Interpretation of Historical Records. Annals of the Association of American Geographers Volume 47, Issue 4, pages 392–411, December 1957.

Full text [here]

Review by Mike Dubrasich

This classic paper was written by the renowned geographer Erhard Rostlund. Born in Sweden in 1900, Rostlund joined the merchant marines at age 17. After fifteen years of sailing the oceans he enrolled at UC Berkeley, eventually earning his M.A. in 1946. He taught at UCB for the next 15 years, serving as Assistant Dean, College of Letters and Science, 1957-60. Rostlund died at age 61 in Berkeley.

The Berkeley Department of Geography in the mid-1950s was a bastion of forward thinkers that included Carl O. Sauer, Clarence Glacken, John Kesseli, John Leighly, Jim Parsons, and Erhard Rostlund. The students of that era, such as William M. Denevan and Carl Johannessen, and their students, have the the field of geography ever since.

Rostlund’s most noted book is Freshwater Fish and Fishing in Native North America (Univ. Calif. Publ. Geogr., 9, 313 pp., 1952). He studied fishing among primitive peoples as well as the geography of post-Columbian landscapes in North America. A follow up article to the one listed here is The Geographic Range of the Historic Bison in the Southeast (Annals, Assoc. Amer. Geogr., 50(4):395-407, 1960).

In The Myth of a Natural Prairie Belt in Alabama Rostlund notes that his contemporaries often referred to the Black Belt of Alabama as a “natural prairie”.

The Black Belt is a crescent-shape area 20 to 30 miles wide and 300 miles long found in central Alabama and northeastern Mississippi typified by black, calcareous soils derived from Cretaceous limestone bedrock.

Rostlund studied the documents of early explorers including four narratives from the Hernando De Soto Expedition (1539-1542) [here], the journals of William Hilton from 1663 and naturalist William Bartram from the 1770’s [here], and numerous other reports and journals of early explorers and pioneers in the Southeast.

Rostlund concluded that prairies were common in the Southeast, no more and no less prevalent than those of the Black Belt. He noted that by the 20th Century trees had invaded the dark calcareous soils, which were no impediment to forest growth.

Further, Rostlund concluded that the prairies of the Southeast were not “natural” but instead anthropogenic, the result of millennia of Indian burning:

[T]he cause was the Indian practice of burning the woods at frequent intervals. … Indian burning has sometimes been both misunderstood and misrepresented; it was not wantonly destructive but rather, as Gordon M. day puts it, a method of maintaining a balance in the forest favorable to their economy. The woods were burned for several reasons, but one of the most common was the belief that occasional light fires helped to increase the food supply for game, and improved conditions for hunting by keeping down the underbrush. That is, burning was primitive management of a food resource. The hunting territory of the Creeks, their “beloved bear ground” in Bullock County, Alabama, was in fact a sort of managed game preserve, and there must have been hundreds of others in the Southeast. In short, the open, parklike appearance of the woodlands, undoubtedly the most common type of forest in the ancient Southeast, was mostly the work of man. …

If one thing is certain about aboriginal farming in the Southeast, it is that the Indians, lacking in manure and other fertilizers, were continually clearing new land and abandoning old fields. Most of this land, if left undisturbed for a generation or two, would no doubt have reverted to forest — just as part of the Alabama Black Belt has become reforested in the twentieth century — but the land was not left undisturbed. The Indians customarily burned over not only the woodlands but the open tracts as well, which also became favorite hunting grounds; and this burning, to judge from old reports, was so common and widespread that it is highly improbable that any large part of the cleared and abandoned land had a chance of reverting to forest. On the contrary, it is far more likely that the area of this type of open country was steadily increasing, and since this aboriginal deforestation had been in progress for a long time, for millenia rather than centuries, the upshot is that the open country made by men must have constituted a very considerable part of the old Southeast.

The maximum of cleared land was probably reached at some time before contact was made between the Indians and the Europeans, and thereafter, because the Indians were displaced from many regions and their frequent burning of the vegetation ceased, the area of cleared land diminished and the forested part increased.

Anthropogenic fire and other historical human influences shaped the vegetation and wildlife populations of North America, as well as those of other continents. Rostlund realized that more than 50 years ago.

Thus Erhard Rostlund was a pioneer himself, paving the way for students of historical landscape geography and ecological development.

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