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The Southeastern States of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia border the Atlantic Ocean on their eastern shores. Georgia is the southernmost state in the region and borders Florida. Virginia is the northernmost and borders Maryland to its north and east.
The general geography of these states comprises three parts. Each has a coastal plain that begins at the Atlantic Ocean and which extends west to a second area-a plateau region called the Piedmont. The third region is the Appalachian Mountains, which run from Canada to Georgia.
Each of these states is traversed by rivers that flow from the mountains to their Atlantic coast. The rivers were the highways used by the pioneers after the beginning of settlements as they moved westward to eventually across the mountains. In Virginia, the rivers all flow into the Chesapeake Bay. From north to south, the rivers are the Potomac, the Rappahannock, the York, and the James. These rivers all have important tributaries upstream.
The Chesapeake Bay is a vast estuary surrounded by Virginia and Maryland. It begins with the entrance of the Susquehanna River into its northernmost reaches. The Susquehanna’s watershed feeding into the Chesapeake includes parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, the District of Columbia, and West Virginia. The length of the Chesapeake is 455 miles (304 kilometers) from the Susquehanna River’s entrance south to the Atlantic Ocean. Geologists believe that the bay was formed at the end of the Eocene era when it was hit by a major bolide at the lower end of the Susquehanna about 35 million years ago. The Chesapeake is relatively shallow with brackish water. The word Chesapeake is an Algonquin word for shellfish, which abound in the bay along with oysters, crabs, and numerous species of fish. Most of the bay is surrounded by Virginia. The James, York, Rappahannock, and Potomac Rivers form peninsulas extending into the bay. The Northern Neck is the peninsula formed by the Potomac and the Rappahannock Rivers. The York and the Rappahannock form the Middle Peninsula. The James and the York Rivers form The Peninsula. The James is the longest river in Virginia with a length of 340 miles. The climate of the Chesapeake Bay is humid and subtropical. It has hot, humid summers and mild, rainy winters. However, severe winters do occasionally occur in which the more brackish parts of the tributary rivers freeze over solid enough for lightweight automobiles to drive across. The Virginia eastern side of the Chesapeake Bay is called the Eastern Shore. It forms a fourth peninsula with its eastern side on the Atlantic Ocean and its western side on the Bay.
Hampton Roads Harbor is located at the southern end of the Chesapeake Bay and is one of the world’s best natural harbors. South of it along the Virginia-North Carolina border is the Dismal Swamp. The swamp is a large wetlands area with a rich variety of wildlife such as Virginia deer, rabbits, raccoons, foxes, bobcats, bears, and numerous species of birds, snakes, frogs, and turtles. A portion of the swamp has been preserved in far southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina as the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. Attempts to drain, log, and farm the Dismal Swamp were made in colonial times, but for the most part it is still in primitive condition. In its center is Lake Drummond. Its soils are so complicated by organic materials that crops from its soils have produced unusual results, such as mottled colors in cotton.
The Atlantic Coastal Plain in all of the southeast states extends inland until it reaches the Fall Line. Ships can navigate the rivers from the ocean to the Fall Line, where rocky rapids make anything but limited journeys by canoe almost impossible. The Atlantic Coastal Plain widens from north to south because the Appalachian Mountains run from northeast to southwest. It is broadest in Georgia where it crosses into Florida, and as it moves westward across south Georgia, it becomes the Gulf Coastal Plain that extends into Texas as far south as the Rio Grande River and westward to Del Rio. In the southeast, the Atlantic Coastal Plain was at the time of the first English settlements covered with forests that were a mixture of pines and a variety of deciduous trees. These were, and still are, harvested for use in paper pulp production and furniture making. The soil is usually sandy loam because the sand was deposited when the area was under the Atlantic Ocean. In South Carolina and in some places in Georgia, there are sand hills that are the ancient sand dunes of the ocean. The Atlantic Coastal Plain is farmed extensively making use of modern chemical fertilizers. Bright-leaf tobacco, peanuts, cotton, corn, sweet potatoes, and, in recent decades, soybeans have become common crops. Large numbers of hogs are also raised.
In North Carolina, the eastern part of the state juts into the Atlantic Ocean. A spear point of barrier islands called the Outer Banks protects the coastline. They have three capes: Cape Hatteras, Cape Lookout, and Cape Fear. The beaches on the Outer Banks are popular tourist destinations and are the site of frequent storms that have wrecked many ships. Between the Outer Banks and the mainland are a number of islands and vast lagoons. Albemarle Sound and Pamlico Sound are the largest of the brackish water lagoons. They are fed by the Chowan, Roanoke, Neuse, and Tar Rivers. The mainland coast is a low swampy tidewater area.
The land rises between Wilmington at the head of the Cape Fear estuary and Georgetown, South Carolina. In South Carolina, the long bay from the North Carolina state line to beyond Myrtle Beach forms an extensive beach resort area. Between Georgetown and Charlestown there are barrier islands such as Paley’s Island and swampy areas that were, until the advent of mechanized rice farming in Texas and Louisiana, major rice growing areas.
The coast of Georgia is home to a number of barrier islands including Sea Island and Cumberland, which is a natural preserve. Inland, the Atlantic Coastal Plain in Georgia is lightly populated. The region is farmed and forested with loblolly pines, which are logged for pulpwood and, in some areas, worked to gather pine rosin.
Just north of the Florida state line lies the Okefenokee Swamp, which has been a national wildlife refuge since 1936. It covers an area of 438,000 acres, which is about 38 miles long by 25 miles wide. The Okefenokee Swamp occupies a vast peat bog that lies in a saucer-shaped depression. Until 7,000 years ago, the depression was part of the ocean floor. The Suwannee River (280 miles long) rises in the swamp, flows west out of Georgia to cross Florida, and empties into the Gulf of Mexico near Cedar Key. The Okefenokee teems with wildlife and is famous for it numerous alligators. The areas to the west and south are very lightly populated and heavily forested.
The Atlantic Coastal Plain changes into the Gulf Coastal Plain as it moves westward. It ends in Georgia at the Chattahoochee River, which is the boundary between Georgia and Alabama for the southern half of the state. The Chattahoochee changes its name to the Apalachicola River when it enters Florida. In all of the southeastern states, the Atlantic Coastal Plain extends west and southwestward and gradually rises until it meets the Fall Line.
The Fall Line marks the beginning of the Piedmont Plateau. The region varies in elevation but is generally from 200 feet to 1,000 feet above sea level. In the western areas, some individual hills rise to over 2,000 feet in height. Along the Fall Line are a number of cities that grew up to take advantage of the waterpower at the rapids. Among the important cities on the Fall Line are Richmond, Petersburg, Raleigh, Columbia, Augusta, Macon, and Columbus. The Piedmont Plateau has two major sub-regions. The Outer Piedmont is the lower-level section while the Inner Piedmont is the higher portion that is close to the Appalachian Mountains. The soils of the Piedmont are often thick red clay. The red clay is high in iron content and permanently stains white garments. It is fertile, especially if organic material is applied as a soil conditioning mulch. The red soil is like that found in Africa from which this part of North America split off millions of years ago.
The Piedmont was settled by Scotch-Irish pioneers before the American Revolution. The population has changed a lot due to immigration from other population stocks, including African Americans. Cotton, corn, livestock, and some tobacco varieties have remained staple crops. However, most of the people now work in cities or factories, as farming has become more a matter of contract operations, such as chicken production. Plantations were developed on the Atlantic Coastal Plain but rarely were there large farms in the Piedmont.
The Piedmont Plateau is fairly level, but desiccated by rivers and streams. Numerous rivers that flow across it include the Broad, the Catawba, the Yadkin in North Carolina, which is called the Pee Dee River in coastal South Carolina, and the Savannah, which divides Georgia and South Carolina. The Chattahoochee River rises in Habersham County, Georgia, and crosses the plateau to supply Atlanta with water and then flows almost due south to the Gulf of Mexico. The dam at Buford, Georgia, that impounds Lake Lanier is like that of other dams and lakes on the rivers of the Piedmont region: It supplies water, generates electrical power, and provides water sports recreation.
The rocks in much of the inner Piedmont are usually igneous. A unique example of the igneous rock is Stone Mountain in Georgia, which is a granite monolith or dome. It rises above the surrounding Piedmont Plateau to a height of 1,683 feet (512 meters) above sea level. Running north of Atlanta through South Carolina and North Carolina is a belt of igneous rocks that are usually granite from subterranean volcanic action millions of years ago, including the granite at Elberton, Georgia, which is quarried extensively.
The transition from the Piedmont plateau to the Appalachian Mountains is an abrupt shift to the Blue Ridge Mountains, which run from Georgia to Pennsylvania. They form the eastern front of the Appalachians and are usually composed of metamorphic rocks, some of which are igneous and some sedimentary. They are among the oldest mountains in the country. The Blue Ridge Mountains are heavily forested in deciduous trees, and pines of various types also grow in abundance. Bears, wild cats, and other animals inhabit its cool woods.
Beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains is the Ridge and Valley Region. Long ridges, usually of metamorphic or sedimentary rock, run from northern Alabama to New York. Between the ridges are valleys that are usually flat and fertile. The rock may be sandstone or limestone. Because of the folding of the ridges, metamorphism is common. Marble is found at Tate, Georgia, and other minerals such as coal are found in the sedimentary areas.
Many of the Southern Appalachians are over 5,000 feet high. Because the temperature is cooler, they have attracted visitors seeking relief from the summer heat in the Atlantic Coastal Plains or the Piedmont. The higher elevations have flora that is similar to southern Canada.
- Peter Alden et , National Audubon Society Field Guide to the Southeastern States: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee (Knopf Publishing Group, 1989);
- Wilber Duncan and Marion B. Duncan, Trees of the Southeastern United States (University of Georgia Press, 2000);
- Keith Frye, Roadside Geology of Virginia (Mountain Press Publishing, 1986);
- Scott Weidensaul, Mountains of the Heart: A Natural History of the Appalachians (Fulcrum Publishing, 1994);
- Sarah Bird Wright, Islands of the South and Southeastern United States (Peachtree Publishers, 1989).