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The United States Gulf Coast states form one vernacular region, but several subregional areas can be delineated based on soils, characteristic vegetation, relief, and climate. These states include Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Beginning in the far southeast, subtropical South Florida encompasses the Everglades and a variety of mangrove, marsh, and forest zones, all resting on a foundation of limestone. To the west, the Gulf Coast comprises barrier islands and sounds protecting pine and palmetto forests. Coastal Louisiana, formed by deltaic sediments from the Mississippi River, consists of salt and fresh water marshes, cypress swamps, and areas of relatively high ground formed by distributary channels of the river. Heading north, the Mississippi Valley bisects the region with a broad alluvial plain of oxbow lakes, hardwood forest, and highly organic soils.
Bordering the Valley in north Louisiana and Mississippi, the Cotton Uplands, referring to their long-standing cultivation of the region’s signature cash crop, are characterized by significant relief and forests of pine. This area, like much of the entire region, has red and yellow podzols which are generally less fertile than more northern soils which benefited from glacial deposits. The Black Belt, so named for its dark tertiary topsoil and for being the historic home of many African Americans, runs through eastern Mississippi and central Alabama. Northern Alabama’s hills, the highest part of the region, are the southernmost extensions of those mountains.
The composition of the soils of the Gulf states is affected by the region’s heat and high rainfall. These factors lead to high rates of oxidation of organic matter and a tendency toward erosion when soils are exposed. Regional soils formed under forested conditions therefore have low carbon content, especially after clearing and intensive cultivation.
The climate features hot summers, cool winters, and rainfall generally exceeding 40 inches per year. Places bordering the Gulf of Mexico have their climate mediated by the sea, but the entire region is susceptible to cold fronts from the north during the winter. The Gulf’s limited circulation with the open Atlantic causes it to become very warm by late summer, making for high rates of hurricane activity along its northern coast.
This physical geography is of course much altered by human action. Native Americans lived in the region for thousands of years. Agricultural cultures extended down the river’s valley, creating urban centers like Poverty Point in present-day Louisiana. Maize, originally from Mexico, formed the basis of these people’s diet, as did the hunting of deer and bison. Widespread fire-setting by Native Americans to clear land and improve hunting is believed to have influenced the landscapes first witnessed by Europeans.
De Soto’s expedition in the 1540s and the growing contacts with the Atlantic world that followed it brought Eurasian diseases like smallpox and malaria, which devastated native peoples and would pose barriers to European settlement in many parts of the region. Colonization moved very slowly, with the Spanish in Florida having only a minor presence and the French arriving in Louisiana in 1699, and remaining there by only the smallest margins. Unfamiliar with the territory, weakened by diseases, and unable to establish European crops to feed themselves, the French were only saved by their adoption of maize, their herds of cattle that ranged through the pastures opened up by burning the thick canebrakes that lined the Mississippi, and the introduction of rice and enslaved Africans knowledgeable in its cultivation. The French introduced the plantation system to the Gulf states, first focusing on indigo and tobacco, and then over time rice and sugar cane. Their export-oriented plantation economy, based on African slavery and leveeing the Mississippi to protect their settlements, set a precedent for the region’s incorporation into global commerce.
Alongside a tiny but growing plantation sector, the trade in deerskins harvested by Native Americans grew to a great scale in the 18th century. The French and English waged a proxy war between the Choctaw and Chickasaw peoples in Mississippi and Alabama, fueled by European goods and firearms purchased with deerskins. The bison, present throughout much of the present U.S. southeast in 1700, disappeared by 1800, and other native animals like large hunting cats and parakeets declined greatly as European settlement advanced. English, then American, settlers began moving into the region from the Atlantic coast in the late 18th century. The incorporation of the Mississippi and Louisiana territories into the new United States combined with great demand for cotton made the expansion of slavery westward a compelling interest.
The Native American nations that occupied Mississippi and Alabama were an obstacle to this expansion. The successive removal of the Creek, Chickasaw, and Choctaw from the 1810s through 1830s opened the land to white settlement and plantations expended westward along the Black Belt as settlers moved into the Mississippi Valley from the north and south. A combination of inexpensive land, soil degradation, and the ambition of planters to chase new opportunities along the advancing frontier meant land was frequently abandoned, succeeding to scrub pine and extensive cattle raising.
Clearing fields contributed to erosion and their leaching from rainfall. The region’s heat reduced dairy production, which worked against rotating pasture and farming and the corresponding benefits of manuring fields. The relations between antebellum land use, soil exhaustion, and the westward advance of slavery are not clear, but in the decades before the Civil War advocates for soil fertilization and conservation grew increasingly louder. Despite the massive acreages planted in cotton during this time, the staple food crop, maize, probably did more to deplete soil nutrients.
The clearing of snags in the region’s rivers, levee improvements, and railroad development opened up new areas to plantation agriculture, but some areas remained isolated. The Mississippi Delta, south Florida, and much of coastal Louisiana remained inaccessible to planters due to the swampy nature of the terrain. The Swamp Land Acts in 1849 and 1850 attempted to stimulate the drainage of these places by promoting land sales that would finance reclamation.
The Civil War left many levees destroyed, farms abandoned, and investment capital in desperate scarcity. Emancipation and Reconstruction led to contestation over control of land. The counterrevolution of Redemption led to the reinforcement of monopoly over land and capital by planters and the prevention of black emigration from the region, which served to maintain a low cost rural labor force.
This period also saw increased Northern and European investment and control over land and infrastructure. The South became a principal source of lumber for the United States, as companies practiced a cut-and-get-out strategy that produced brief prosperity for lumber towns and left forests severely degraded. Market hunting decimated populations of waterfowl. The fad for feathered ladies’ hats led to the slaughter of much of Florida’s bird life and generated support for wildlife conservation that eventually banned market hunting and the plume harvest.
The turpentine industry spread to Florida and southern Alabama from the Carolinas and did much damage to pine forests and workers alike. The region around Birmingham became a coal and iron center and Florida became a source of phosphate fertilizers. Agriculture in the uplands became more dependent on cotton as cheaper provisions in stores undermined local produce. Diseases like malaria continued to drain the energies of many people in the countryside, while summer epidemics of cholera and yellow fever, especially in cities like New Orleans, killed thousands at a time.
The economic development of the region was marked by selective industrialization in extractive industries, dependence on outside capital, and a widening inequality relative to the United States as a whole and between localities within the region. A national depression in the 1890s contributed to the rise of the Populist movement, composed of small white farmers and black farmers, working separately or together, to break the monopoly of planter interests on state government and industrial trusts over the regional economy. The polarization of planters based in naturally rich regions like the newly drained Mississippi Delta from upland smallholders facing economic ruin on land planters didn’t want temporarily fractured the political alliance based on white supremacy that maintained the Southern social order.
The boll weevil infestation that swept the region destroying cotton crops beginning in 1894 added to a wave of rural emigration propelled by economic crisis. Pellagra, a nutritional deficiency disease caused by a maize-based diet, became a serious public health problem in the 1900s as cotton dependency reduced kitchen gardens.
Increased state and federal government intervention and rapid industrialization in the coming decades made for radical changes in the Gulf states. The massive Mississippi river flood of 1927 brought federal support for comprehensive flood control. New Deal-era programs brought rural electrification and reforestation. Endemic diseases finally began to be brought under control, then eradicated altogether through a combination of better nutrition and the elimination of breeding grounds for vectors.
The mechanization of agriculture was spurred by generous subsidies for price stabilization and soil conservation begun during the 1930s, programs influenced by the political power of large planters. This had the effect of accelerating the outmigration of rural farmworkers to regional and Northern cities. South Florida began its spectacular development from an isolated backwater to vacation destination and plans to drain the Everglades were implemented, creating the huge Everglades Agricultural Area for sugar cane farming. In Louisiana, exploitation of oil and gas wealth stimulated industrialization in the form of a petrochemical corridor along the Mississippi (known to environmental justice activists as “Cancer Alley”) and did great harm to the state’s wetlands by dredging thousands of canals to access drilling sites in the marsh.
The Civil Rights movement focused on issues like voting rights, but also had an important component of rural development and agrarian reform advocated by leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer, harkening back to historical African-American community development and earlier rural organizing efforts. During the mid-1960s peak of activism, plantations greatly reduced their workforces in favor of highly capitalized farming, resulting in a greater exodus of black farmworkers from rural areas and the dilution of the base of the movement.
Green Revolution technologies were incubated in the American South with public-private research partnerships, and as the old plantation order unraveled land companies transformed themselves into agribusinesses or even biotechnology firms. Delta and Pine Land, once a huge Mississippi Delta plantation, created the so-called terminator sterile seed technology and is now a part of Monsanto. After World War II pine plantations proliferated and the South became the United States’s largest softwoods producer. Pulp and paper mills and new forms of agro-industry like off-soil chicken raising operations and catfish aquaculture were established.
All the Gulf states experienced the transformation of the Southern arc of the United States into the Sunbelt, a region of economic resurgence, net immigration, and suburbanization, but none more so than Florida. That state’s population increased fivefold between 1950 and 2000, making it the fourth largest state in the United States. Air conditioning played a role in this growth, as did coastal tourism development across the Gulf Coast and the migration of many Northern retirees in search of warmer climates and a lower cost of living.
The ecological costs of regional development in the late 20th Century are particularly evident in coastal Louisiana and south Florida, the two largest areas of wetlands in the region. Louisiana’s coast lost 1,900 square miles of land since the 1930s, due to a combination of oil development, reclamation, subsidence, and sediment deprivation caused by narrowly channeling the Mississippi river. This has compounded the vulnerability of south Louisiana to tropical storms.
Much of Florida’s Everglades were drained for agriculture and urbanization. The remainder was affected by the hydrological engineering of South Florida that sometimes deprived the glades of seasonal water flows or flooded it with too much. A federal multibillion dollar restoration project for the Everglades using adaptive management was approved in 2000. The plan is driven by an interest in increasing fresh water availability for urban growth as much as a desire to preserve nature. Restoring the Louisiana coast has gained new urgency after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, but has not seen the same financial backing as Florida received for the Everglades.
- Ayers, The Promise of the New South (Oxford University Press, 1992);
- Cowdrey, This Land, This South: An Environmental History (University Press of Kentucky, 1996);
- Woods, Development Arrested: Race, Power, and the Blues in the Mississippi Delta (Verso, 1998).