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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
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,
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