When Columbus returned from his historic voyage, he reported a wonderful wilderness of trees "of a thousand kind and tall." From the tip of Florida to the rocky coasts of Maine, this proved to be an accurate description. South Carolina was no exception.
I. The Forest
Along the coast the forest was a tangle of palmetto, live oak, pine, various hardwoods, cedar, and brush crowded against the edge of the dunes. Blackwater rivers and creeks created great swamps stocked with huge cypress and gum trees. On higher land, hundred-foot tall pines grew shoulder to shoulder in almost pure stands, or shared space with oaks, gums, and hickories.
In the midlands and piedmont there were fewer swamps, but stream floodplains were populated with a wide variety of hardwood trees. Much pine, oak, hickory, and sweetgum grew on the uplands.
Less pine and more hardwood were found in upper elevations of the piedmont and mountains. There were large areas of American chestnut (now practically extinct), as well as lots of oak and hickory.
Patches of cleared land were scattered throughout South Carolina, especially in piedmont and mountain floodplains. Many of these were agricultural fields prepared by the Indians; others were the result of natural wildfires that burned unchecked across the countryside.
II. Inhabitants of the Forest
Wildlife was plentiful, but probably not as abundant as most people think. Deer, turkey, black bear,and panther were among the big game animals; some early records indicate elk and a species of bison as well. Small animals included most of the familiar forest animals of today rabbits, squirrels, opossums, beaver, quail, etc., as well as the now extinct Carolina parakeet and ivory-billed woodpecker. Some animals, strangely enough, are probably more prevalent today than they were 500 years ago. These include deer, quail, and rabbit.
Native Americans (Indians) had occupied what is now South Carolina for thousands of years before the coming of the white man. As is the case with most primitive people, their lifestyle was remarkably adapted to the natural environment. The Indians lived in the forest, obtained much of their food from it , and used its products to improve their lifestyle. They made medicine and dyes from certain tree bark and small plants, some of their tools and weapons had wooden shafts and handles, their canoes were made from hollowed-out tree trunks, and many lived in houses made from logs. Some bands survived almost completely by hunting and gathering, but most supplemented the forest's bounty through agriculture.
It was through agriculture that the Indians made their greatest impact on the natural environment. They cleared land by slash and burn techniques, deadening trees by chopping away the bark, then setting the area on fire. These fires doubtless burned large acreages of forest since the Indians had no way (or desire) to extinguish them once their original purpose was served. In these clearings, the Indians planted their crops of corn, squash, and gourds. When fields lost their natural fertility, the Indians simply abandoned them and applied the slash and burn process to another area. Abandoned fields and the clearings created by these wildfires eventually reverted to forest, creating extensive stands of pine.
Ask the children where slash and burn agriculture is presently in the news. Discuss the similarities and differences between what the Indians did and what is now going on in the rain forests.
For more information on Indian lifestyles, you may wish to consult these references:
Sun Circles and Human Hands, Emma L.Fundaburk, 1957.
Indian & Eskimo Artifacts of North America, Charles Miles, Bonanza Books,1968.
The World of the American Indian, National Geographic Society, 1974.
How Indians Use Wild Plants,Frances Densmore, Dover Publications, 1974.
See also several books by Dr. Bert Bierer, Univ. of SC Press.