The wiregrass region of Georgia, located today in the state's southernmost section, once stretched from Savannah to the Chattahoochee River and covered all or portions of twenty-three counties, according to the 1880 U.S. census report on cotton production. The boundaries of the region have shifted over time in response to deforestation and commercial agriculture.
Ecology and Geology
Early travelers frequently noted the woodland's open and parklike appearance, the result of a pine canopy that shaded out most undergrowth on the sandy uplands. This canopy was created by the region's most conspicuous form of plant life, the longleaf pine (Pinus palustris), which like wiregrass lends its name to the area as "pine barrens" and "piney woods." Plant life in the bottomlands was more diverse, including mixed stands of oak, gum, hickory, sycamore, magnolia, and cypress, as well as smaller plants like cane and saw palmetto. The naturalist William Bartram and his father, John, discovered a rare species of gordonia (Franklinia alatamaha), also known as the Franklin tree, along the lower Altamaha in the 1760s. The forest also supported a rich and diverse fauna, including bears, deer, gophers, rattlesnakes, and wolves, as well as wild hogs called
Economic change and immigration in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries had a profound influence on the region's environmental history. Deforestation altered a unique ecological system, gradually removing much of the virgin forest and its canopy, and transforming it into a landscape of cotton farms and trading towns. Timber clearing and land cultivation increased agricultural runoff, the silting in of creeks and streams, and the evaporation of water in the region's shallow creeks. Underground, the Floridan aquifer forms one of the largest sources of freshwater in the eastern United States. Today mixed farming, including the cultivation of peanuts, soybeans, Vidalia onions, and trees, continues to give the area an overwhelmingly rural appearance.
For much of Georgia's history, the wiregrass region has been viewed as the state's poor relation, an isolated and impoverished land of hookworm, pellagra, and poor whites. But its human history is much more complex. Its native inhabitants included the Hitchiti, who were evidently living along the Ocmulgee River when the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto passed through wiregrass Georgia in 1540, on his way from present-day Florida into the Carolinas. By the time of sustained European contact and settlement, the Lower Creeks hunted and occupied parts of the region.
Because of its early reputation as a barren region of limited agricultural possibilities, however, the forest remained out of the mainstream of colonial and antebellum commercial agricultural expansion. In many respects the area formed borders for Georgia's richer cotton- and rice-producing regions. Because they both occupied interior woodlands, often associated in the European mind with "wild" places inhabited by Indians, and made few changes to the natural landscape, wiregrass Georgia's white settlers in time were branded by their wealthier neighbors as lazy, poor, primitive, and violent. These characteristics, previously ascribed to Indians, form the basic features of the "cracker" stereotype.
Because it was a relatively poor region characterized by low slaveholding, secessionists feared that the yeomanry would not support disunion or rise to the defense of a slave society. But wiregrass Georgia, like the state as a whole, was badly divided during the secession crisis.
During the Civil War, infantry companies with names like the Irwin County Cowboys and the Forest Rangers (from Clinch and Ware counties), reflecting the region's almost frontier-stage culture, were shipped off to the front. Anti-Confederate sentiment raised its head among the region's Unionists as the war wore on, and pockets of deserters, aided by family and friends, found refuge in the woods.
Manpower losses and impoverishment left many postwar communities in a vulnerable condition. Some families sought to regain economic self-sufficiency by returning to such traditional economic pursuits as farming, timber cutting, and livestock herding. Two major developments, however, made such pursuits increasingly difficult. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the rise of both national and international markets for longleaf pine, as well as extensive railroad construction, opened the forest to rural industrialization, largely in the form of the naval stores and lumber industries. Wherever railroads went, turpentine distilleries, sawmills, and market towns arose, transforming much of the landscape.
The lure of new agricultural land attracted diverse groups of newcomers to the wiregrass region, each with its own immigrant narrative. African Americans came to work in turpentine stills and sawmills; cotton farmers sought new ground for raising their crop; up-country Georgia yeomen moved to the piney woods to escape fence laws; and small-town merchants and professionals sought new beginnings in railroad towns.
With each passing decade the percentage of wiregrass farms operated by owners declined, while the number of farms worked by tenants and sharecroppers increased. As cutover land was brought into cotton production through the use of commercial fertilizers, the region's people became mired in the same crop lien system that plagued the rest of the South. Many rural farming families saw their status change from self-sufficiency to tenancy, working land on shares or renting it from others and struggling to finish the year out of debt to landlords and merchants. The arrival of the boll weevil during the late 1910s caused additional difficulties for cotton farmers, but the dependence upon cotton as a cash crop continued until the mid-twentieth century. Significant out-migration of the population after World War II (1941-45) virtually depopulated many rural communities.
Folklore and Literature
Lawrence S. Early, Looking for Longleaf: The Fall and Rise of an American Forest (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).
Jerrilyn McGregory, Wiregrass Country, Folklife in the South (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997).
Mark Wetherington, The New South Comes to Wiregrass Georgia, 1860-1910 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994).
Mark V. Wetherington, The Filson Historical Society
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.