Prairie, Pasture, and Woods

Before Europeans first passed through the region in the sixteenth century, the Alabama Black Belt was a mosaic of environments shaped by soil type, available moisture, rivers, and fire. Native Americans strongly influenced the environment, and had done so for millenia. They established a number of towns, cleared lowland cornfields, and lit fires to manipulate vegetations, shaping the Black Belt's landscape.

The Alabama Black Belt is composed of two main environments--the Black Belt uplands that are underlain by white Selma Chalk, and the river bottomlands of the Alabama River and Tombigbee River systems. Before European settlement, the river bottoms were largely wooded, except in those areas used by Native Americas for growing crops. Sloughs and backwaters were filled with enormous tupelo gums and even larger old-growth cypress, some 1,000 years old, with trunks 12 or more feet in diameter. Areas without standing water were filled with bottomland hardwoods--oaks, hickories, elms, sycamore, and sweetgum.

In the thin-soiled and dryer portions of the Black Belt underlain by chalk, large upland areas totaling perhaps 1,000 square miles were covered in a grass and wildflower prairie, intermixed with wooded areas.

One of the most important and now-vanished plant communities of the Black Belt was the canebrake. These tracts of river cane (Arundinaria), covered huge portions of the sandy riverbanks and natural levees of the deep-soiled bottomlands and often extended into the uplands. Early travelers, such as William Bartram, Bernard Romans, and Benjamin Hawkins, consistently mentioned it as covering large areas. The area around Demopolis, the uplands of Marengo County, much of Greene County and portions of Perry County were so densely covered with cane that the region is still known as "The Canebrake."

The river cane was important to Native Americans. They made cane arrows, blow guns, fish traps, hair ornaments, and the walls of their homes were made of woven cane covered in clay daub. The canebrakes were sources of game and served as a refuge in times of trouble. Of all the Black Belt habitats, the canebrake is the most threatened.