The Columbia Guide to American Environmental History

By Carolyn Merchant | Go to book overview

3
The Tobacco and Cotton South,
1600–1900

The study of the Tobacco and Cotton South from the perspective of environmental history considers the relationships among soil, slavery, and the plantation and sharecropping systems. In the southern United States, human activity profoundly affected an environment of long growing seasons, fertile soils, and abundant rainfall. These advantages resulted in massive outputs of staple crops, primarily tobacco and cotton, as well as rice and sugar. This chapter examines changes in the land that occurred in the Chesapeake area under tobacco cultivation in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and in the Deep South as cotton production spread inland following the 1793 invention of the cotton gin. On large plantations, slavery, and later sharecropping, fostered class distinctions and racism, generating social and political tensions. The system was also threatened by the vulnerability of soils to depletion and erosion, and the susceptibility of tobacco and cotton crops to insect infestation.


The Chesapeake Environment and
Indian-European Relations

Nature's fecundity greatly impressed the English who first settled on the southeastern coast of North America—first on Roanoke Island (present-day North Carolina) in 1585 and then permanently, in 1607, further north at Jamestown (present-day Virginia) near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. Off the coast of the future state of North Carolina, Arthur Barlowe reported in 1584 that his expedition encountered “so sweet and so strong a smel, as if we had bene in the midst of some delicate garden.” And on Roanoke Island, the soil was “the most plentifull, sweete, fruitful and wholesome of all the world.” The following year, Governor Ralph Lane of Roanoke Colony told of a land that abounded in “sweete trees,” “pleasant gummes,” and “grapes of such greatness” as not found in all of Europe. 1

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