Agricultural Expansion Era (c. 1630-1880)

photo_p27_clearEuropeans began to permanently settle portions of the South in the 1600s, concentrated at first in southeastern Virginia. During the 1700s, settlements in the South spread along the Atlantic Coast and inland toward and over the Appalachian Mountains. Expansion westward accelerated during the 1800s. For more than two-and-a-half centuries, the most common and widespread occupation in the region was farming. Although settlers valued southern forests for the ecosystem services of fuelwood, timber, and wild game, more importantly they valued what lay underneath the forest—land for agriculture. Farmers thus slowly started clearing and converting forest into fields.1

This era of agricultural expansion had a pronounced effect on the distribution and composition of the region’s forest landscape in at least three ways. First, settlers reduced southern forest extent by converting large swaths of woods to agricultural fields and grazing lands. Farms with corn, other food crops, tobacco, and — after around 1784 — cotton2 became an increasingly prominent part of the landscape. In addition, forests gave way to pastures for cattle and other livestock. Between 1630 and 1880, an estimated 65 million acres of southern forest was cleared, primarily for agriculture. By the 1870s, people had transformed the South from a region pervaded by forest to one with a patchwork of forests. According to a forest survey from 1873, the dense forest cover that remained was concentrated primarily in southern Georgia, southern Alabama, Florida, and in the region’s mountainous interior (Figure 3.5).

Second, settlers altered forest composition by fragmenting the forest landscape and increasing the proportion of forest that was second-growth. Farm plots broke up previously intact forest expanses. As farming expanded, demand for building material, fences, and fuel increased as well. For most of this era, trees met this demand. As late as 1840, for instance, wood supplied an estimated 95 percent of U.S. energy requirements for heating, lighting, and transportation.3 In addition, southern forests helped provide naval stores. Furthermore, wood was used to fuel the emerging train system and supply its ties, bridges, and trestles.4 Harvesting trees to meet this demand continued to convert once-primary forests into secondary forests.

Source: WRI analysis based on forest cover (Brewer 1873) and administrative boundaries (ESRI Data and Maps 9.3.1, ESRI 2008).

Third, settlers altered forest composition by disrupting Native American fire-based forest management systems. Soon after Europeans arrived, Native American populations started to decline in the South due to conflict, relocation, and the spread of European diseases such as smallpox. With fewer native communities setting fires, fire-dependent, open-canopy forest ecosystems started to become closed canopy.5 In some locations, however, Europeans did adopt the practice of managing lands with fire to maintain savannas and other open areas. These fires created desirable grazing conditions for domesticated animals.6

Concern about the sustainability of extensive forest cutting and clearing began increasing during the 1800s. With forests being cut with little thought for regeneration, U.S. President James Madison proclaimed in 1818 that of all the errors in the rural economy of the United States, “none is so much to be regretted, perhaps because none is so difficult to repair, as the injurious and excessive destruction of timber and firewood.”7 But the emergence of a more widespread sustainable forest management and conservation ethic was still a century away.


  1. Williams, M. 1989. Americans and Their Forests: An Historical Geography. New York: Cambridge University Press. 

  2. West, Jean M. 2004. “King Cotton: The Fiber of Slavery. Slavery in America.” 

  3. Williams, Michael. 1980. “Products of the Forest: Mapping the Census of 1840.” Journal of Forest History 24 (1): 4–23. 

  4. Williams, Michael. 1980. “Products of the Forest: Mapping the Census of 1840.” Journal of Forest History 24 (1): 4–23. 

  5. Baker, James C. and William C. Hunter. 2002. “Effects of Forest Management on Terrestrial Ecosystems.” In Wear, David N., and John G. Greis, eds. Southern Forest Resource Assessment. Gen. Tech. Rep. SRS-53. Asheville, NC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Southern Research Station. 

  6. Trani, Margaret K. 2002b. “Terrestrial Ecosystems.” In Wear, David N., and John G. Greis, eds. Southern Forest Resource Assessment. Gen. Tech. Rep. SRS-53. Asheville, NC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Southern Research Station. 

  7. Williams, M. 1989. Americans and Their Forests: An Historical Geography. New York: Cambridge University Press.