Down to Earth: Nature's Role in American History

By Ted Steinberg | Go to book overview
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April 15, 1849, was one of the strangest spring days on record in Dixie. To the disbelief of many, it snowed. For three hours a blizzard raged across Marietta, Georgia. From the southeastern coast west to Texas, the storm and subsequent frost killed cotton, corn, and other crops, as winter refused to relinquish its grip on the land. “The damage done by the late frost you can hardly form an idea unless you were here to see,” lamented one South Carolina planter. By all measures, the cold spell was an exceptional event, although it seemed to confirm what James Glen, colonial governor of South Carolina, said about a century before: “Our Climate is various and uncertain, to such an extraordinary Degree, that I fear not to affirm, there are no people on Earth, who, I think, can suffer greater extremes of Heat and Cold.” 1

It has long been realized that climate played an important role in southern history. 2 Growing such staple crops as tobacco, rice, and cotton would have been impossible were it not for the region's long growing season, its ample rainfall, and its warm weather pattern. Beyond this obvious and important insight, however, climate is taken for granted, with most students of the South viewing it as a largely stable and unchanging aspect of life in this region. And yet, it bears noting that slavery and the plantation economy emerged during the Little Ice Age, a period of erratic weather conditions. Growing any kind of crop is a chancy enterprise, made even more unpredictable by a volatile weather regime, a point not lost on the antebellum South's planter class, people who suffered through the 1849 freeze and other cold weather outbreaks, including a devastating one in February 1835, which killed Florida's entire citrus crop.

One does not have to accept the inevitability of the slave-based plantation economy to recognize the important role that natural forces played in it. It is the place of nature—climate, soil, and water—in the history of this brutal system of racial and labor exploitation that is our subject in this chapter.


Located at the northern end of a plantation region stretching as far south as Brazil, the southeastern United States was part of a set of tropical and subtropical environments well suited to growing commodities for European consumption. In Virginia the commodity of choice was tobacco.

From the start, a business mentality informed life in the colony. While the New England colonists had lofty religious ambitions in mind as they ventured across the Atlantic, Virginia's colonists set their sights much lower. Their goal was to


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