The early colonial settlers on the east coast learned about the significant agricultural products that would be available to them in their new home from Spanish, French, and English explorers. The long established Spanish settlements of the West Indies, Florida, and Mexico also contributed to their understanding of the conditions they would face. It is significant that these new settlements were established in areas where there was an established dominant Native culture. To them we owe a lot!
These earliest settlements were located in areas where there had already been established the cultivation and use of three of the most important crops which were contributed to civilization by Native agriculture: corn, tobacco, and sweet potatoes. The economic importance of corn (maize) already being raised on the Atlantic coast cannot be overemphasized.
Its widespread use as the principal bread grain of Natives from Canada to Brazil and through the West Indies is historical and monumental. Beginning with Columbus, practically all explorers to the New World found that the plant was extensively grown.
It was utilized in various ways by Natives, and most of these methods were adopted by the early pioneers. Corn was the native grain most widely adopted into colonial agriculture. It was the principal source of food for De Soto’s expedition and for many of the French explorers and traders.
Along the lower Mississippi River, two crops could be grown in a season and in the rich alluvial lands French explorers found corn stalks fifteen to twenty feet tall. Wild rice appeared to be abundant in the marsh spots along parts of the east coast and Gulf. It was harvested by the natives by simply shaking it into their canoes as they passed along the shore of the streams and rivers.
For a century after the beginning of settlements in America, agriculture was confined mainly to the Atlantic coastal plain, Florida, and the Gulf Coast. The valleys of the larger rivers contained broad stretches of alluvial soil of high fertility. The sites selected for the first permanent white settlements were the best that could be found.
The first crops planted by English colonists in America were sown in the spring of 1586 by the Sir Walter Raleigh settlers in Virginia. They planted barley, oats, and peas. In 1603, members of Martin Pring’s expedition planted, wheat, barley, oats, peas, and garden vegetables in the northern part of the area now known as Virginia.
The organizers and leaders of the earliest settlements in what is now South Carolina exerted themselves to procure a small supply of cattle; however, they did not delight in the thought of developing the livestock industry beyond the point of domestic use. They declared: “They intended to introduce planters and not graziers.” It was the early colonists that came to America who recognized the advantages and opportunities for the raising of livestock on the open range.
Because of the mild winters and abundant grassland, conditions were ideal for the raising of large cattle herds. There were many open meadows and an abundance of water that kept the livestock fat all winter without the need for other feed.
Ten years after the establishment of the first Colonial settlements in South Carolina, they were well on their way to becoming an important herding region. About 1682 it was observed “that the settlers had many thousand head of cows, hogs, and sheep . . . and some individual planters had as many as 700 or 800 head of cattle.”
The earliest known written document where a term describing the open-range and the raising of cattle was in a court document in 1634 on the east coast. The earliest use of “cowpen” in what is now the United States was used for the first time in a court judgement in 1634 on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.
Many of the terms used to describe the raising the cattle and other livestock were not the words used on the northern plains west of the Missouri River. “Cowpen or cow-pen” was the term used to describe their largest early open-range operations on the Coastal Plain. Today they use the term to describe a small enclose to hold cattle on their farm.
In South Carolina, the first reference to “cowpen” meaning more than a mere enclosure occurs in the South-Carolina Gazette for August 4, 1733: “To be sold . . . 200 Acres of Land, at English Santee, on the north side of the River, joining a large Savannah, very commodious for a Cow-pen or Hog-Craul.”
Thereafter cowpens were frequently mentioned in the Gazette. South Carolina cowpens were cleared areas commonly 100 to 400 acres in extent, each with a large enclosure for cattle, enclosures for horses and hogs, dwellings and other buildings for the owner or manager, his family, and the hired hands, and a garden tract for provisions.
The owner had title to the cow-pen land; however, the cattle also grazed on nearby open-range. Like what was to later happen farther west on the Great Plains, the early cattle ranges on the east coast were overstocked and overgrazed.
There were the annual roundups, the branding and marking of calves, conflicts were resolved, and the cattle were driven to tidewater markets. Cattle rustlers were always nearby and they were summarily dealt with when caught. They did not use the term rustler. They called it stealing!
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on March 30, 2022