The History of Fire in the Southern United States

Cynthia Fowler, Evelyn Konopik. 2007. The History of Fire in the Southern United States. Human Ecology Review, Vol. 14, No. 2, 2007

Full text [here]

Selected excerpts:


Anthropogenic fires have been a key form of disturbance in southern ecosystems for more than 10,000 years. Archaeological and ethnohistorical information reveal general patterns in fire use during the five major cultural periods in the South; these are Native American prehistory, early European settlement, industrialization, fire suppression, and fire management. Major shifts in cultural traditions are linked to significant transitions in fire regimes. A holistic approach to fire ecology is necessary for illuminating the multiple, complex links between the cultural history of the South and the evolution of southern ecosystems. The web of connections between history, society, politics, economy, and ecology are inherent to the phenomena of fire.

A Holistic View of People and Fire

Written documents that address fire ecology in the South include more than 380 years of publications, ranging from Smith’s 1625 monograph to Kennard’s 2005 essay. This body of literature includes the travelogues of European explorers, research reports on fossil pollen and charcoal records, as well as critical analyses of fire management policies. The wide variety of perspectives that is represented in
this literature reflects the web of connections between history, society, politics, economy, and ecology that are inherent to the phenomena of fire.

A multidisciplinary synthesis of the literature in light of the complexity of fire ecology will lead us to a better understanding of long term interactions between people and fire in specific ecological communities. In this article, we approach the fire ecology literature from two points of view, looking at “fire through people’s eyes” and “people through fire’s eyes” (Vayda 2005). We describe general patterns in fire use during five major cultural periods (Table 1) in four of the South’s physiographic regions: the Coastal Plains, Piedmont, Southern Appalachians, and Ozark-Ouachita Highlands. Using this holistic framework, we consider “both ends of the fire stick” (Vayda 2005) examining elements of fire use by each cultural group that has inhabited the South and its effects on southern ecosystems.

The Native American Contribution to Prehistoric Fire Regimes (12,500 BP to 1540s)

Archaeological, palynological, and charcoal data combined with ethnohistorical information provide some insights into the purposes and effects of Native American fires. Anthropogenic fires were sources of ecosystem disturbance in many places across the South during the prehistoric era. Table 2 lists the predominant reason why each of the five prehistoric Native American cultural groups used fire. The following section describes patterns in Native American fire use from a selection of sites that were occupied during the Clovis and Paleo-Indian era, the Archaic Period, the Woodland Period, and the Mississippian Period. …

Southern Fire Regimes and the South’s First Inhabitants

Frequencies and intensities of anthropogenic and lightning-ignited fires varied across the region during the Clovis (12,500-10,500 BP) and Paleo-Indian (10,500-9500 BP) cultural periods (Christensen 1981; Delcourt 1978). …

Clovis Indians and Paleo-Indians used fire for hunting animals, collecting nuts, and encouraging pioneer plant species. They burned the landscape during the fall and winter when smaller mobile bands congregated for communal hunts of mastodon, bison, and caribou. Clovis and Paleo-Indian hunter-gatherers used ring fires to trap game within a circle where they could be more easily hunted and point fires to drive game towards a natural barrier such as a river where they could be captured more easily (Hammett 1992). The use of fire for hunting megafauna ceased after the Ice Age ended around 12,500-10,000 BP with the gradual warming and drying of the climate and the disappearance of megafauna (Fagan 1991).

Long-Term Records of Anthropogenic Disturbance at Cliff Palace Pond and Horse Cove Bog

In order to find out whether or not fire influenced the establishment and regeneration of Southern forests, pollen data can be combined with charcoal records. The fossil pollen records of Cliff Palace Pond in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky show that oaks (Quercus) and other fire-tolerant species have increased in abundance since 9500 BP (Delcourt et al. 1998). Although this process was interrupted by a cedar-dominated period between 4800 and 3000 BP, oak percentages rose from 10% to 55%. In the interval between 3000 and 200 BP, oak (55%) dominated along with chestnut (19%) and pine (17%). Total values of fire-tolerant species had increased from values of 7- 20% to 82% in the period between between 9500 to 7300 BP. …

Note: see also Ancient Fires at Cliff Palace Pond, a video produced by The Kentucky Heritage Council [here].

During the Late Archaic, Woodland, and Mississippian Periods, Indians burned riverine areas around their settlements for a variety of subsistence purposes (Delcourt and Delcourt 1997). At various sites throughout the Appalachians, charcoal accumulation increased after 1400 BP indicating a shift towards a different sort of fire regime in which anthropogenic fires were increasingly influential on forests. Another charcoal increase occurred after 1400 AD in the Southern Appalachians coinciding with a significant increase in the size of Native American populations and another shift in human demography (Lynch and Clark 2002).

Anthropogenic Fires and Transforming Subsistence Strategies

Native Americans began to diversify their subsistence strategies, incorporating nuts, seed-bearing grasses, gray squirrels and white-tailed deer into their diets (Fagan 1991) during the Archaic cultural period (8000-2800 BP). Archaic Indians in the Little Tennessee River Valley used fire to create and maintain the ecotones where deer prefer to browse (Chapman et al. 1982). Low-intensity fires were often effective for hunting and had the added benefit of preventing damage to the skins of game animals (Hammett 1992). Archaic Indians burned patches of the landscape during the seasons of the year when smaller family groups gathered together in larger congregations to socialize, trade, hunt, and forage. A cultural transition took place in the Woodland period (2800-1300 BP) from mobile, hunting-gathering groups to settled communities living in river valleys and alluvial plains.

The fertile soils in these areas supported plant cultivation. Woodland Indians used fire to maintain the disturbed habitats in which valuable plants thrive and to prepare seed beds for newly domesticated species (Fagan 1991). An increase in maize cultivation together with an increase in prescribed burning took place at Fort Center, Florida during the time period between 3000 and 1550 BP. Native Americans at Fort Center cleared garden land with fire. They also used fire to manage grasslands and to maintain open, longleaf pine (P. palustris) communities. When disease, slavery, and conflict forced Native Americans to abandon the Fort Center area in the 1600s AD, fire regimes changed and broad-leaved forests emerged in the places where homesites, gardens, and grasslands had been (Myers and Peroni 1983). The old-growth longleaf pine stands that can be found nowadays in south-central Florida date back to the 1700s AD which was shortly after Indians stopped using fire to clear fields and homesites in the area (Myers and Peroni 1983).

Archaeological evidence in Florida’s Ocala National Forest indicates that Indian burning practices had the effect of creating longleaf communities (Kalisz et al. 1986; Myers and Peroni 1983). Ninety-three percent of archaeological sites from the Late Archaic Period (6000-3000 BP) and the Transition Period (3000-2500 BP) are in longleaf pine stands. Sixty-four percent of archaeological sites from St. Johns Period I (2500-1200 BP) and St. Johns Period II (1200 BP-Contact) are located in longleaf pine stands (Kalisz et al. 1986). During the Mississippian Period (1300-400 BP) Indians used fire for a variety of reasons, many of which have been described by early European explorers and settlers. Mississippian Indians used fire to modify more extensive tracts of land, to build political centers and villages and to grow maize. Fire was prominent in the myths and rituals of Mississippian Indians. They believed, for instance, that ceremonial fires were sacred because they represented the Sun and the Upper World (Carroll et al. 2002).

People have been modifying fire regimes in the prairies, pine forests, and oak forests of the Ozark-Ouachita Highlands for at least 10,000 years (Foti et al. 1999). During the Mississippian phase (800-1350 AD) approximately 6000 Quapaw hunted game, gathered wild products, and grew crops near the confluence of the White, Arkansas, and Mississippi Rivers in Arkansas. They burned during the winter and late summer or early fall, while the majority of lightning-ignited fires occur from March to April and from July through September (Foti et al. 1999). Fire regimes in the Ozark-Ouachita Highlands changed significantly when Quapaw populations declined to about 700 people by 1763 AD due to the introduction of European diseases (Guyette and Dey 2000). …

The evidence that we have reviewed in this article shows that not only has fire been important in human evolution, but it has also been important in the evolution of southern ecosystems both prior to and since the arrival of Homo sapiens at least 10-12 thousand years ago. In light of such a long history, anthropogenic fires—and the human influence on the environment more generally—are ‘natural’ phenomena.

Throughout the course of five major cultural periods, human-ignited fires have been integral to the evolution of southern ecosystems. The South has been a cultural landscape and people have been a ‘natural’ part of fire regimes for a very long time.

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