Defining the Wiregrass
Where is the Wiregrass Region?
The most common current definition of the Wiregrass Region includes South Georgia, North Florida, and Southeast Alabama. The ecological and geological nature of the region helped contribute to the region developing differently culturally and economically from adjacent regions. Approximately one million years ago, the shoreline for what eventually became the Southeastern United States was at the current Atlantic Seaboard Fall Line. In Georgia and Alabama that is roughly from Augusta, GA to Milledgeville, GA to Macon, GA to Columbus, GA to Montgomery, AL. Essentially at that time all of the Wiregrass Region, and all of Florida was under the Atlantic Ocean.
As sea levels dropped the Wiregrass Region emerged from beneath the ocean. Over time the landscape became dominated by two plants: the longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) and wiregrass (Aristida stricta). They were able to survive better than other plants in the sandy soil. The shade created by the longleaf pine prevents the growth of most other plants with the exception of wiregrass. The Wiregrass Region has also been called "pine barrens" and "piney woods." There are other ecological regions within the Wiregrass Region. Carolina Bays (marshy elliptical depression) are scattered throughout the region. There are also occasional stands of hardwood trees. Two major sub-regions are the lower Chattahoochee River valley and the Okefenokee Swamp. The distribution of the longleaf pine and wiregrass biome is no longer a suitable definitive trait of the region due to extensive deforestation. The map below from the United States Forest Service depicts the historic range of the longleaf pine.
So what are the borders of the Wiregrass Region? The major dividing lines on a map (stare borders) offer little assistance as human culture rarely stops for imaginary lines. At times those lines combined with ecology have even helped contribute to the Wiregrass becoming an internal frontier region.
The Florida/Georgia border divides the Wiregrass Region with a definite, but for the most part imaginary line. That border has even changed over time. A thin strip of North Florida even uses the various land surveying systems of Georgia instead of the Public Land Survey System (PLSS) like the rest of Florida does because of the border shifting over time. That border before 1821 was in fact an international border. We should not think of international borders back then as we think of them today. There was no fence marking the border or even a sign. One could easily wander from one side of the border to the next without knowing that one had even crossed an international border.
The border between Georgia and Florida had also shifted during the colonial period. When originally chartered in 1733, Georgia's southern border was the Altamaha River. The Proclamation of 1763 shifted the southern border to St. Mary Rivers. Before 1763, nearly all of the Wiregrass Region was therefore part of the Spanish colony of Florida. Catholic missions had been established among the various Native peoples in the area during the mid-1500s. The mission system was devastated by disease, warfare, and slave raids over the next century and a half. Following raids from the Carolinas, the mission system had completely collapsed. The international border between Spanish Florida and the United States was later defined by the Treaty of San Lorenzo (1795). The Wiregrass Region of Alabama inherited its southern border from Georgia when the latter gave up much of its lands (most of modern Alabama and Mississippi) to the United States government following the Yazoo Land Fraud.
By the early 1800s, outside of a few Euro-American Indian traders and land squatters, the Wiregrass Region was primarily inhabited by Native Americans and some runaway slaves. Before Native land was ceded, the border was just an imaginary line with
The Alabama part of the Wiregrass Region was opened up to Euro-American settlement in 1815, when Monroe County was established after the land was ceded by the Lower Creeks by Treaty of Fort Jackson (1814). Monroe County, Alabama Territory was originally large when established and was subdivided into additional counties. Neither Monroe County nor Conecuh County are in areas today considered to be part of the Wiregrass Region. In 1819, Henry County, Alabama Territory was established. The counties that have been formed from Henry County since then are all still part of the Wiregrass Region.
The Georgia part of the Wiregrass Region was opened up to Euro-American settlement in 1818, when Appling, Early, and Irwin counties were established following the land being ceded by the Lower Creeks by the Treaty of Fort Jackson (1814) .
The Florida part of the Wiregrass Region attracted Euro-American settlers after Florida became the possession of the United States in 1821. The land in North Florida would not be ceded by its Native inhabitants until 1823.
After the Wiregrass Region was opened up to Euro-American settlement it remained a frontier area that was sparsely populated for over a century afterwards. Some counties remain relatively low in population to this day.
If the modern distribution of wiregrass and modern states borders are both inadequate for defining what is the Wiregrass Region, what then is a good metric for doing so? There is not really a good one. The concept of fuzzy borders is helpful when trying to define the Wiregrass Region. The borders are difficult to define because rarely is there a clear border between the Wiregrass Region and surrounding environmental/cultural regions.
The sandy soil throughout the Wiregrass Region was by in large not good for cotton production. The Black Belt Region lies for the most part north of the Wiregrass Region. It was named for the color of the fertile soil. The soil of the Black Belt was good for growing cotton and became a center for plantation economy. It extends from Virginia all the way down to Louisiana. It roughly follows the areas below the fall zones throughout those states.
The above map depicts the percentage of the population of each county at the same of the 1860 United States Federal Census that was enslaved. The Black Belt extends down into the Wiregrass between the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers in Georgia. Baker, Calhoun, Dougherty, and Early Counties in Georgia could be described as being in both the Wiregrass and the Black Belt. The percentage of population enslaved increased as one got closer to Tallahassee, Florida; however, that area is generally not considered to be part of the Black Belt. While the Black Belt regularly had counties in its region with the enslaved population above 40%, the Wiregrass had many counties with that percentage below 25% with some counties getting into single digits (Colquitt County, GA had 8.4%, Holmes County, FL had 8.1%, and Suwanee County, FL had 0.0%).
Above the Altamaha River in Georgia, several counties (Montgomery, Tatnall, and Telfair) had their percentage of population enslaved not too far above of several counties that are considered to be part of the Wiregrass. Those areas also had pine barrens typical of the Wiregrass. They were also from where many settlers who moved into the Wiregrass often originated. Away from the Altamaha and Ocmulgee Rivers, the inland areas of those counties were sparsely populated and served as interior frontier within the boundaries of Georgia for decades after the Wiregrass was opened for settlement.
The boundary between the Atlantic Coastal Plain the Wiregrass is not easily defined. The counties along the Atlantic coast often had Euro-American settlement before the 1800, while the Wiregrass was well beyond the colonial period's frontier. The Atlantic Coast also had a noticeably higher percent of its population as enslaved due to labor intensive rice production. In addition, as one gets closer to the coast the pine barrens are slowly replaced by winding marshes that eventually lead to river deltas.
The border between Central Florida and the Wiregrass is obscure. Geologically they are both karst. The historic range of the longleaf pine/wiregrass biome extended well into Central Florida. Alachua County, Florida had earlier been the location of Rancho La Chua during the colonial period. It was a large Spanish cattle ranch and represent one of the few inland Spanish colonial settlements in Florida. It later became the home of the Alachua band of Seminoles. By 1860, it was still a population center with cattle ranching still prominent.
The Gulf Coast bordering the Wiregrass has a similar environmental transition from pine barrens to marshes as does the Atlantic Coastal plain. The Gulf coast had fewer settlements than the Atlantic Coast did because of fewer areas with good harbors. The area also had fewer barrier islands when compared. Unlike the Atlantic Coast counties in Georgia and North Florida, the Gulf Coast counties in North Florida, for the most part, have their centers of population further inland. Past Alligator Point on the Gulf Coast, barrier islands begin appearing along side population centers on the coast. The coastal nature of some of these counties has affected their cultural character.
The map below (which is also used in our scope discussion) depicts counties that are normally considered to be part of the Wiregrass as green, and those sometimes considered to be part of the Wiregrass in brown.