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The Origins of Alabama's Black Belt Prairies

By David K. Nelson

Alabama's Black Belt Prairies originated about 90 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period. During this time, warm ocean waters covered a shoreline that extended from present-day Montgomery, Alabama, westward into Mississippi, then north toward Memphis, Tennessee. These prehistoric waters teamed with marine creatures and algae that produced tiny plates of calcium carbonate. When they died, their remains settled to the ocean bottom and over eons of time accumulated to form a thick layer of white chalk-like material. When ocean waters receded, these landmasses began to weather and plants colonized them. The impermeable nature of this underlying chalk and the alkalinity of the soils originating from chalk promoted the growth of grasses and cane. The organic material left behind from many generations of grasses produced a fertile black clay soil that gave the Black Belt its name. Prairie grasses were frequently burned, either by natural occurrence, such as lighting, or by people that began to inhabit this region about 10,000 years ago. Frequent burning of this natural prairie maintained the meadows by killing back trees and shrubs that tried to establish in these areas.

Archaeological records of Native Americans found in the Black Belt indicated only limited use, mainly by small groups of hunters and gatherers. The large civilizations of native Alabamians were associated with those areas that were suitable to slash and burn agriculture. Trees were killed by girdling, the area burned and the sandy soils were worked with simple tools of wood, bone and stone to grow corn and beans. Black Belt soils, although fertile, are very sticky when wet and dry out to form a hard crust. They are very difficult to cultivate with simple tools.

Hernando De Soto and his expedition were the first Europeans to see the Black Belt Prairies. In November 1540, De Soto and his expedition traversed an extremely fertile, but uninhabited county called Pafallaya, now portions of Marengo and Greene counties. The French occupation of Alabama gives us a more vivid description of the Black Belt Prairies. In the History of Alabama, Albert Jones Pickett writes of a French expedition into the Black Belt regions in May 1736. “The banks on either side (of the Tombigbee River) were covered with large cane. Soon, however, the French were relieved by the appearance of the most beautiful county in the world. The prairies were stretched out wide before them, covered with green grass and flowers, while forests of magnificent trees were seen in the distance.”

By the early 1800s, the fertile soils of the Black Belt Prairies began to attract a flood of immigrants. Armed with plows and teams of mules, these immigrants began to change forever these natural prairies as they were cleared and tilled, turning the native prairie grasses and flowers into cotton fields. In many areas, the fragile black prairie soil was washed away exposing the underlying chalk. Today, much of the agriculture of the Black Belt is pasture for livestock or used for aquaculture, with only limited amounts of row crops.

 

Lands throughout the Black Belt region continue to be highly desirable for their recreational value. The rural nature of this area, the abundance of wildlife and the suitability of these soils for construction of lakes and ponds all contribute to this demand. Through education and management, it is hoped that some of these areas can be brought back to the native grass prairies that were a unique part of Alabama’s historical landscape.

 


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