Distribution of canebrakes in 19th century Alabama

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Canebrakes are single-species stands of Arundinaria gigantea, a native bamboo of the southeastern United States. Though canebrakes are now considered an endangered ecosystem, little is known about their historic distribution. Early survey maps and other historical sources were examined to determine the extent and location of canebrakes in 19th century Alabama. About 78,900 hectares of canebrakes or probable canebrakes are indicated on the survey maps. These canebrakes were located predominately in the floodplains of the Alabama and Black Warrior rivers and their tributaries, with the greatest concentrations in Lowndes, Dallas, Wilcox and Marengo counties. A comparison of these canebrakes with a soil map of the state suggests that large canebrakes were most common on alluvial soils of river terraces as well as nearby slopes. Historical sources, such as travelogues, journals and diaries, confirm the presence of extensive canebrakes in this part of the state but also suggest that other large canebrakes were likely present along the Mobile and Tombigbee rivers and across much of the Black Belt. Canebrakes appear to have been present but scarcer in the northern part of the state.

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Arundinaria gigantea (Walter) Muhl. is a native bamboo of the southeastern United States that frequently grows in dense, single-species stands called canebrakes (Hughes, 1951: Meanley, 1972; Marsh, 1977; Jadziewiez et al., 1999). Growing from an underground stem, the upright culms or "canes" of A. gigantea can reach a height of 8m with a diameter of 2cm (Hughes, 1951; Meanley, 1972; Judziewiez et al., 1999). The density of canes in a canebrake can reach 49,000 per hectare, though the understory is often open because of the thickness of the evergreen canopy and occasional flooding (Meanley, 1972). Contemporary canebrakes are typically found in mesic, fertile soils and are most common in elevated terraces along rivers where flooding is rare (Judziewicz et.al., 1999). Historically, a variety of animals have used canebrakes as habitat, including bison, swamp rabbit, canebrake rattlesnake, black bear, and Bachman's warbler (Remsen, 1986; Platt et al., 2001).

Extensive canebrakes of A. gigantea covering many hectares were a common feature of the historic landscape of the Southeast. A second species of cane, A. tecta (Walter) Muhl (sometimes regarded as a subspecies of A. gigantea) also occurs in the region and may also have been present in historical canebrakes. Over the last two centuries, these canebrakes have been mostly eliminated by ranching and agriculture (Hughes, 1966; Piatt and Brantley, 1997; Brantley and Platt, 2001; Ethridge, 2003; Stewart, 2007). Noss et al. (1995) suggest that canebrakes have experienced a 98% decline in abundance since European settlement, making them a critically endangered ecosystem. However, little is known about either the current (Brantley and Platt, 2001) or the historical extent and distribution of canebrakes for any part of the Southeast.

Early government land surveys are an important source of information on historic vegetation in the United States (Whitney and DeCant, 2001). For most of the southeastern states, these surveys were conducted by the federal General Land Office (GLO) in the first half of the 19th century. Maps and notes produced during these surveys have been used by ecologists to describe a variety of historical landscapes (e.g. Delcourt, 1976; Schafale and Harcombe, 1983; Nelson, 1997; Bragg, 2003). Despite a variety of limitations (Noss, 1985; Whitney and DeCant, 2001), these surveys provide a starting point for developing maps of historical vegetation, including canebrakes.

The goal of this study was to characterize the distribution of historic canebrakes in Alabama. Three approaches were used. First, data from early land surveys were compiled to create a map showing the location and extent of canebrakes in the first part of the 19th century. Second, this map was compared to a detailed soil map to determine what types of soils and circumstances favored the growth of extensive historical canebrakes. And third, other types of historical sources, such as letters, diaries, and travelogues, were reviewed for accounts of the location and size of historic canebrakes. Such sources confirmed the existence of many canebrakes on the survey maps and established the presence of canebrakes in other parts of the state.


Data to create a map of historic canebrakes were taken from survey or plat maps produced by the GLO as part of the initial land surveys of Alabama conducted from the 1810's to the 1840's. In its surveys, the GLO used a rectangular mapping system that laid out six by six mile (9.7 by 9.7 km) townships in a grid across the state (Whitney and DeCant, 2001). As part of the surveys, a plat map was produced for each township, and these often included landscape features such as streams, rivers, swamps, prairies, and canebrakes (Whitney and DeCant, 2001), Areas of canebrakes on the plat maps show up as irregular, enclosed shapes, labeled by either the word "cane" or "canebrake."

Digital versions of the plat maps for Alabama were accessed at the United States Bureau of Land Management website (http://www.glorecords.blm.gov). Every plat map for the state was examined. Plat maps that showed canebrakes were downloaded as MrSID files and then georeferenced using the Geographic Information Systems program ArcMap (ESRI, Redlands, CA). Areas of canebrake were then traced using ArcMap to create shape files which, in turn, were merged to make a composite map showing areas of canebrake for the state at the time the surveys were conducted. The areas of the canebrakes were calculated from this map using ArcMap.

Soil map data for Alabama were produced by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (2006) and were downloaded from its website (http://soildatamart.nrcs.usda.gov). The distribution of canebrakes was examined across the entire state to determine the general soil conditions that favored growth of large historic canebrakes.

A thorough search of historical sources for references to canebrakes in Alabama was conducted. The list of relevant citations in Platt and Brantley (1997) was expanded upon by including additional pamphlets, journals, letters, diaries, scientific publications, histories, memoirs, travelogues and gazettes. The search was limited to sources from the 18!h and 19th centuries and emphasis was placed on eyewitness descriptions of canebrakes from known locations.


Based on the plat maps from the GLO surveys, about 54,700 hectares of canebrake existed in Alabama from the 1810'sto 1840's, with the largest areas along the Alabama and Black Warrior rivers and their tributaries, in central and west-central Alabama (Figure 1). However, an additional 23,600 hectares of probable canebrakes were observed on the plat maps. This figure is for areas that were unlabeled but contiguous with labeled canebrakes on neighboring plat maps. In some cases, no areas of canebrake are indicated on adjacent plat maps. As a consequence, some canebrake areas on Figure 1 have straight edges (e.g. northern Marengo County). An additional 600 hectares on the plat maps were labeled as being a mix of canebrake and other species, such as oaks. Thus, in total about 78,900 hectares of canebrakes, probable canebrakes and mixed canebrakes are indicated on the plat maps.

A comparison of these canebrakes with the soil map shows that about 87% of the large, historical canebrakes were found on four general soil map units, consisting of 15 soil series (Table 1). These soil series all have moderately deep to very deep soils and are well-drained (Natural Resources Conservation Service, 1998). Most of these soils are typically found along rivers and streams, in flood plains or low terraces (e.g. Urbo-Mantaehie-Izagora-Chrysler) but are subject only to brief, occasional flooding (Natural Resources Conservation Service, 1998). However, some of the soil series, such as the Luverne and the Oktibbeha, are usually found on ridgctops and side slopes. Together, these results suggest that canebrakes in 19th century Alabama were most common near rivers and streams, though in areas not subject to frequent floods, and that the canebrakes would sometimes extend upward onto adjacent slopes and ridges.

Table 1. Areas of canebrake according to soil map unit, based
on General Land Office Plat maps. About 87% of the area of
canebrakes were found in the top four general soil map units.

General Soil Map Units                               Hectares

Vaiden-Sumter-Oktibbeha                                 33932
Luverne-Halso-Conecuh                                   16234
Urbo-Mantachie-Izagora-Chrysler                          9300
Riverview-Minter-Leeper-Canton Bend-Cahaba Annemaine     8939
Malbis-Lucedale-Bama                                     3359
Mantachie-Lenoir-Leeper-Houlka                           1201
McQueen-Houlka-Bama                                       995
Savannah-Quitman-Mashulaville-Bama                        938
Vaiden-Minter-Kipling-Angie                               883
Urbo-Una                                                  753
Water                                                     673
Mantachie-Lenoir-Iuka-Bibb                                575
Mantachie-Ellisville-Cahaba-Adaton                        323
Sumter-Searcy Oktibbeha-Demopolis-Congaree-Brantley       156
Watsonia-Troup-Smithdale-Prim                             148
Vaiden-Sumter-Faceville                                   136
Harleston-Escambia-Bayou                                  113
McQueen-Mantachie-Goldsboro-Congaree                       80
Myatt-Mantachie-Kinston-Iuka-Bibb                          47
Orangeburg-Luverne-Conecuh                                 46
Rains-Bonneau-Bethera-Benndale                             38
Troup-Saffell-Orangeburg-Dothan                            10
Luverne-Lucedale-Bama                                       9

One notable feature of the historic distribution of Alabama canebrakes on the plat maps is that none are located in the northern half of the state. Limitations of survey data may explain this (see below). Nonetheless, with the exception of a small area along the Cahaha River in Bibb County, none of the soils apparently favored by canebrakes are found in the northern half of the state. Indeed, the two dominant soils map units for canebrakes, the Vaiden-Sumter-Oktibbeha and the Luverne-Halso-Conecuh, are found exclusively in the Black Beit and in the northern Timber Belt immediately lo the south. Apparently, historic canebrakes were most common in the coastal plain of Alabama.

However, the data from GLO surveys have many limitations when applied to ecological situations (Noss, 1985; Whitney and DeCant, 2001). In the present study, three issues are particularly important. First, the quality of the plat maps for the state is variable. While some maps, especially those for the Black Belt across central Alabama, include numerous landscape features, such as prairies and canebrakes, many plat maps are blank except for the locations of streams and rivers. Consequently, many canebrakes observed by surveryors were likely omitted from these maps. Second, errors in the placement of the canebrakes, either by the original surveyors or by the authors when georeferencing the plat maps, would have led to distortions of either the size or location of canebrakes. Third, there is no way of determining if the canebrakes observed by the surveyors were uniform stands of Arundinaria gigantea or whether other species were common. For these reasons, the areas and locations of canebrakes in Figure 1 must be regarded as tentative.

A variety of other historical sources confirm the existence of the large canebrakes indicated on the plat maps, as well as additional canebrakes in other parts of the state. These historical sources are reviewed below. The approximate locations described in these sources are shown on Figure 1.

Several authors note that the area from southern Greene County to northwestern Dallas County was often referred to as "the Canebrake" in the 19th century (Pickett, 1851; Smith et al., 1894; Cobb, 1961; Hubbs, 2003). Benjamin Riley (1887), author of several books on the history of Alabama, noted that "the canebrake lands of Marengo are found in the northern end of the county and extend southward about ten or fifteen miles" and that "along the streams are dense brakes of cane." In his 1858 diary, the agricultural reformer and politician Edmund Ruffin (1972) also mentioned canebrakes in Marengo County: "I went home with Mr. Richard Adams, who resides in Marengo, in the midst of the best body of the cane-brake lands." In a separate work, Ruffin (1852) wrote on the soils of Alabama and says that "A [soil] specimen of the very rich 'cane brake' lands in Marengo County, Alabama, contained sixteen per cent of carbonate of lime." W. Brewer (1872), an Alabama lawyer and congressman, in describing Marengo County, said that "the northern part is the canebrake region, a district extending over nearly three hundred square miles," and that it is "covered with a thick growth of cane of marvelous size, and almost devoid of other vegetation." This area of canebrake extended northward into southern Hale County on the plat maps. Riley (1887) observed that the southern portion of Hale County "is composed almost entirely of black canebrake land, which has a marvelous fertility." These descriptions confirm the presence of canebrakes seen on the GLO plat maps.

Significant areas of canebrake were observed elsewhere in the Black Belt. The British naturalist Philip Henry Gosse (1859), who stayed in Dallas County in 1838, found that "The steep banks of many of the winding creeks and branches are densely clothed, for considerable portions of their darkling course, with tall canes. ... When the country was first settled, the cane-brakes were much more extensive, and only penetrable by means of the axe." Riley (1887) also provided a brief description of the canebrakes in Dallas County: "In the western portion of the county is the famous canebrake region. ..." John Witherspoon Dubose (1892), in a biography of Alabama politician William Lowndes Yancey, commented that in 1836-1837 in Dallas County, "Hundreds of wagon loads of cotton bales, each drawn by six great mules, over roads cut through the towering cane, walling the impenetrable sides, came to Cahawba." Riley (1887) also confirmed the presence of canebrakes in neighboring Lowndes County: "[T]he dense brakes of cane, which prevail along the streams and in the marshy lowlands, make this one of the most desirable sections for stockraising."

Historical sources also describe large canebrakes that do show up on the plat maps, such as at the eastern end of the Black Belt region. In 1798, Benjamin Hawkins (1848), the United States Indian Agent, observed that the village of Ecunchate along the Alabama River, site of present-day Montgomery, was "on the right side, in the cane swamp." He also noted that in what is now north Montgomery County "in the fork of the two rivers, Coo-sau and Tal-la-poo-sa, where formerly stood the French fort Toulouse," there was "a flat of low land of three thousand acres, which has been rich canebrake; and one-third under cultivation, in times past; the centre of this is rich oak and hickory, margined on both sides with rich cane swamp." Charles Lyell (1849), the prominent Scottish geologist, visited central Alabama in 1846. During a steamboat ride from Montgomery to Mobile, he observed that "The banks of the Alabama, like those of the Savannah and Alatamaha rivers, are fringed with canes, over which usually towers the deciduous cypress, covered with much pendent moss." E. Dana (1819), who explored much of the Southeast during the early 19th century, explained that "Bordering on the Alabama [River], are cane swamps, interspersedwith pine flats, covered with soil suitable for sugar, cotton or corn." W. Roberts (in Dana, 1819) worked as a surveyor in central Alabama. In describing streams of Montgomery County, he said: "The principal of these are the Catoma, Pinkahna, Pophlahla and Big Swamp creek, all of which afford extensive bottoms of rich cane brake and beech swamp." As part of a description of the Alabama River in the central Black Belt, Roberts (in Darby 1818) commented that "The river cane bottom land, we suppose to be equal in fertility to any on the continent, and may average in width a half to three-quarters of a mile; the river winding through it in a serpentine course, leaving the cane land sometimes on this side and sometimes on that." About the same region, Dana (1819) wrote: "Between the dividing ridge that separates the waters of the Cunecuh from those of the Alabama, and the latter river, is a tract of rich land, about 30 miles long and 20 wide; the timber of a large growth, and the cane abundant. ... " Samuel Brown (1817) mentioned the same area: "Proceeding towards the dividing ridge between the Alabama waters and those of the Conecah, we pass over an extensive tract of rich land, the timber large, and cane abundant, thirty miles long and twenty miles wide."

Several sources suggest that canebrakes were extensive in Elmore County and further north. Willam Bartram (1791), the famous botanist, wrote of his visit to the area: "July 13th, we left the Apalachucla town, and three days journey brought us to Talasse, a town on the Tallapoose river, North East great branch of the Alabama or Mobile river, having passed over a vast level of plain country of expansive savannas, groves. Cane swamps and open Pine forests." Dana (1819) described an area 60 miles (97 km) north of where the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers combine: "The streams are margined with cane." Brown (1817) remarked on the presence of cane in this same area.

Neisler (1860), a Georgia botanist, briefly notes that he had observed large cane in Russell County: " ... whilst I have seen occasional [cane] specimens cut from the swamps of the Uchee in Alabama, which, though not actually measured, I should judge, could not have fallen short of forty feet."

Except for a single patch in northwest Marengo County, no canebrakes show up on plat maps of townships arrayed along the Tombigbee, Tensaw or Mobile Rivers in the southwestern portion of the state. However, a variety of other historical sources make it clear that canebrakes were abundant along parts of these rivers. For example, David Taitt (1771) produced a map, based on his own surveys, of the areas adjacent to these rivers. According to this map, extensive areas of canebrake were present on both banks of the Mobile River, up to about 30 km from its mouth. The largest of these canebrake areas was near Mobile Bay, extending about 16 km from the bay, with a maximum width of about 3 km. Similar large canebrakes are also shown on both banks of the Tensaw River. As on the Mobile, these canebrakes did not extend much more than 29 km from Mobile Bay. However, further north on the map the words "large canes" appear in an area that lies between Gumpo Lake and Tensaw Lake, about 10 km east of Mt. Vernon, in Baldwin County.

Other written sources confirm the presence of canebrakes in this part of the state. On Baldwin County, Riley (1887) wrote: "Along the streams and in the swampy lowlands there are extensive districts of luxuriant wild cane. ... " Northward, in Clarke County,Riley (1887) observed that "Along the streams are dense thickets of cane."

Lyell (1849) traveled by steamship from Mobile to Tuscaloosa up the Tombigbee and Black Warrior Rivers and noted that "We admired the canes on the borders of the river between Tuscaloosa and Demopolis, some of which I found to be thirty feet high." Riley (1887), described canebrakes in Tuscaloosa County: "In low places, usually along the creeks, are found dense brakes of wild cane, which is greatly relished by stock."

In 1808, Edmund Pendleton Gaines (in Stone. 1971 a) traveled down the upper Tombigbee River from Monroe County, Mississippi, to the river's intersection with Noxubee Creek, in Sumter County, Alabama. In his survey diary, Gaines made 140 notes of canebrakes over 138 river miles. All are very brief, such as "thick Cane-brake both sides [of the river]" and "Rich Cane-brake low grounds on left & right". These notes make it clear that canebrakes were ubiquitous along the river, except in areas with high bluffs.

Bartram (1791) observed cane along the upper Tensaw River: "These islands exhibit every shew of fertility, the native productions exceed any thing I had ever seen, particularly the Reeds or Cane (Arundo gigantea) grow to a great height and thickness." Near the confluence of the Alabama, Mobile and Tensaw Rivers, he saw " ... Canes and Cypress trees of an astonishing magnitude, as were the trees of other tribes, indicating an excellent soil." In the same area, Dana (1819) saw that "Along the Tensaw, are many pine and cypress trees; near the river are canebrakes and some cypress swamps." He added: "Adjacent to the swamps, for a mile in width, is a sterile, stiff clay; the growth, pine and underbrush; further back, are broken pine barrens; and on the streams, cypress ponds and cane brakes." The Reverend Lorenzo Dow (1859) traveled through this same region. He left from "the Tensaw settlement and went over the Alabama by the Cut-off, to the west side of the Tombigbee, through a cane brake or swamp, seven miles and found a thick settlement."

No canebrakes show up on the plat maps for the northern half of Alabama, and only a few historical sources describe them. One is the diary of Richard Breckenridge (1816, in Halbert, 1898-1899), which details a solo trip through northwestern Alabama after leaving from Columbus, Mississippi. The exact path of the trip is difficult to determine (Halbert, 1898-1899), but Breckenridge observed canebrakes in what is likely Marion County: "I have seen no good land since morning, except in the creek bottom, where I had to cut my way with my tomahawk through a cane brake. I continued down the branch to a creek where I had to cut my way through another cane brake, in doing which I narrowly escaped being bit by a large rattlesnake."

Captain Edmund Pendleton Gaines (1807-1808, in Stone, 1971b) led a surveying party from Muscle Shoals on the Tennessee River to Cotton Gin Port on the Tombigbee, in what is now Monroe County, Mississippi. In the surveying notes, cane or canebrakes are mentioned 16 times, all in association with streams or rivers. None of these instances include detailed descriptions of the size of the canebrakes in Alabama, though several of them suggest that the canebrakes were relatively narrow and confined to the immediate vicinity of the creeks. For example, he wrote: "Thin Cane-brake, near a branch [of a stream], to the left"; "Narrow Cane-brake to the right"; "[A] narrow skirt of Cane-brake both sides [of a creek]."


The historical evidence suggests that canebrakes were common and extensive in Alabama in the 19th century. The greatest density appears to have been along rivers in the Black Belt and in the southwestern part of the state. Most of the data from the plat maps and the historical descriptions suggest that large canebrakes were associated with streams or rivers, apparently growing best in alluvial soils along river terraces. The absence of historical descriptions of canebrakes from the northeastern and southeastern corners of the state does not necessarily mean that canebrakes did not occur in these regions. Historical descriptions of vegetation for these portions of the state are more difficult to locate, likely reflecting travel and settlement patterns. Nevertheless, it does seem likely that canebrakes were much more common in the coastal plain, where meandering rivers provided broader alluvial terraces for their growth.


We would like to thank the librarians of the Alabama Department of Archives and History for their assistance and the Biology Department and the Environmental Science Program of Columbus State University for their support. David Whetstone, Michael Woods, and one anonymous reviewer provided many helpful comments on an earlier version of the manuscript.


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John A.Barone, Jessica W.Beck,Matthew B.Potter,Susan R.Sneed,Karen E.Stephenson and Edgar J.Dollar II

John A. Barone, Jessica W. Beck, Matthew B. Potter, Susan R. Sneed, Karen E. Stephenson and Edgar J.Dollar II

Department of Biology, 4225 University Ave., Columbus State University, Columbus, Georgia 31907-5645

Correspondence: Barone, J. A. (barone_john@colstate.edu)

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A179501612