Episode 1 The Geography of the American South
A New History of the American South
Dr Edward L Ayers
In this first lecture of a Great Courses series about stuff we never study in school, Ayers begins by reminding us the South gave rise both to the most recognized corporation in the world (Coca Cola) and the largest third party in American history (the Populist or People’s Party of the late 19th century – see Populism: America’s Largest Democratic Moment). He goes on to discuss the basic geology of the South, emphasizing the poor soil quality. Lacking prehistoric glacial deposits (North American glaciers never extended further south than Kentucky), most Southern soil is a low fertility mixture of red clay, aluminum and iron. The Mississippi Delta, the Shenandoah Valley of western Virginia and the Black Belt across Alabama and Mississippi are exceptions.
He gives a date of 40,000 BC for the arrival of indigenous Americans in North America from Siberia and describes fossil evidence suggesting they hunted (to extinction) mastodon, horses and camels that foraged just south of the glacial ice sheet during the last Ice Age.
Around 1000 BC, there is evidence of corn being cultivated along the Mississippi. There is also evidence of early Native Americans using fire to clear forests for land cultivation and to drive the deer they hunted into open meadows. Numerous chiefdoms established settled communities in the southeast and abandoned them once they depleted their soils and wood stock. The chiefdoms built large mound-shaped monuments (and a handful of towers) and engaged in frequent resource wars with other chiefdoms.
A sudden severe cooling of the climate* between 1300-1850 AD led to a significant decrease in food production and population. At the time of first European contact, they had an estimated population (in the South) of 1.2 million.
When, in 1539, the explorer DeSoto led his army 4,000 miles from Florida to East Texas, he was looking for a rich society like that of Aztecs or Incas. Carrying none of their own provisions, they simply seized food from indigenous storehouses and either killed or enslaved any Native Americans who tried to stop them.
Three hundred Spaniards, including DeSoto, died on this expedition. Many chiefdoms lost between 2,000 – 3,000 warriors (each). In 1565 when Europeans settled in St Augustine Florida (the first European settlement in North America), Native Americans were further decimated by infections European illnesses and an ongoing process of warfare, enslavement, land expropriation and resource depletion.
Earlier chiefdoms reconstituted into the Choctaw, Cherokee and Katawba tribes, and by the time the English (who had no armies) arrived, southern indigenous people were helpless to resist further confiscation of their land.
*Believed to be due to solar dimming caused by large South American volcanic eruptions.
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