At the dawn of the historical era, perhaps between 1400 to near 1800, several ecological events coalesced to change the way of life for native peoples living east of the Mississippi River. For centuries, native people created agriscapes across parts of Eastern America, which included clearing fields, creating grasslands and savannas, and promoting rivercane in large canebrakes.
Rivercane was the highest-yielding native pasturage in the Southeast and provided winter forage for elk, deer, and buffalo. Large savannas along the Mississippi River were maintained by systematic annual burning with canebrakes burning every 7 to 10 years. Open woodlands and park-like savannas were widespread.
Native people perfected the use of fire over millenniums and used this tool to create and maintain grasslands, sometimes called barrens or deserts, savannas which resembled open, woodland parks, canebrakes, and strawberry fields. This habitat constituted the Northern Cherokee Buffalo Grounds in TN and KY and the Southern Buffalo Grounds south and east of the Appalachian Mountains. High elevation beaver ponds killed trees and created meadows, which might explain the “buffalo pastures” that surveyors referred to on the headwaters of Catawba in 1755.
By Lamar Marshall, Wild South Cultural Heritage Director