A subsistence-plus economy was the typical pattern of frontier America. It involved getting most things required for living from the natural environment and crops raised for home consumption (subsistence) plus anything that could be marketed for cash. If markets were distant or weak, if transportation to market was unreliable or difficult, people had to rely on what they could gather or grow at home.
Much of South Georgia was only a generation past the removal of Native American tribes to the Oklahoma territory. Like the Cherokees, the Creeks endured a “Trail of Tears.” Some retreated to Florida to become part of the Seminoles. A vast area in southern Georgia was still frontier in 1850 and subsistence practices prevailed.
The “plus” part — things that could be sold for cash — was not absent. The Altamaha River and its tributaries were conduits for timber in the form of timber-rafts cut and constructed upstream and floated to Darien at the time of year when water levels would permit. There was rafting on the Canoochee and Ogeechee, but this system lacked a good port market. Livestock — mostly cows, but some hogs — were driven many miles to port cities, especially Savannah, where ocean going ships’ crews required food. Steamboats plied the rivers up to the fall line scarce items for farms families and provided market transportation for farm products, like cotton.
However, most roads were primitive and difficult to maintain in rainy conditions. Rivers were not always navigable. Early railroads ran north and northwest; the SAM uniting South Georgia east to west was built rather late in the 18th century. People in the hinterlands could produce things but had limited access to market.
Residents of the remote interior were often depicted as backwoods “Crackers” of low intellect or ambition. In fact, they were the same people who had settled further east, having simply moved on in search for land and opportunity. They were skilled in tasks required by their environment. They were highly innovative, coming up with new tools and ways to use them. A piece of cypress wood could be transformed into a dough tray, usable bowls and plates for serving food, even eating utensils. The literacy rate was not high, but better than most of Europe. They knew how to extract food and medical remedies from forests and how to grow and preserve food in their fields and gardens.
The Civil War rolled back the economy in the South, especially parts that were most vulnerable. W.J. Cash, in “The Mind of the South,” stated that the war returned much of the South to “frontier-like conditions.” Draft animals — horses, mules and oxen — necessary for farming, had been killed or confiscated. Livestock had been taken or just slaughtered. Young men away at war or dead from battle or disease had raised no crops. Salt for curing meat or seasoning food ran out. Malnutrition was a greater danger than the Creeks had been during the frontier era.
The post-war market system changed radically. Europe, especially England, had been the destination for much of Georgia’s exports: cotton, sugar, meat, etc., for ships’ crews, timber. After the war, these markets turned to other suppliers. The power to levy tariffs was in the hands of Reconstruction lawmakers. The North controlled the economy. That means capital, the availability thereof, essential banking. It also means markets, including day-to-day prices for major farm products.
Dr. Richard Persico defined this economic system as “Internal Colonialism,” where control was vested in power brokers in one part of the country leaving the rest powerless. Raw materials — farm products, timber, coal — flowed to the power center at controlled prices and finished products from clothes to tools flowed back to the internal colony.
This began an era of heavy exploitation of natural resources by companies from outside of the region. A firm from Germany bought the Perry’s Mill site on Cobb’s Creek a short distance from the Altamaha, assembled a large crew housed in a large dormitory and fed on site, and proceeded to strip the area in easy reach of its virgin pines. Farmers were destitute; a little money for their trees was better than none. The trees were squared at the mill, moved to the Altamaha by tram-road and rafted to Darien.
The back country area along and between the Ocmulgee and Oconee rivers was the locus of even more dramatic exploitation involving a powerful northern company, expulsion of long-time settlers through federalized courts, murder and questionable imprisonment of local leaders. A timber operation involved thousands of acres. This is well chronicled in Brainard Cheney’s somewhat fictionalized “Lightwood,” in collected resources by Stephen Whigham entitled, “The Lightwood Chronicles” and in “The New South Comes to Wiregrass Georgia: 1860-1910,” a powerful piece of research by Mark Wetherington, native of the region, Georgia Southern graduate and University of Tennessee scholar.
Similar accounts of exploitation abound concerning timber in North Carolina, iron/steel in Birmingham and coal throughout southern Appalachia. Profits from these activities flowed out of the place and left the people of the place in poverty.
Railroads eventually came to South Georgia, attracted in part by the vast pine forests that could not be reached by river transport as lumber. Pines also lured naval stores — turpentine and rosin — operators from the used-up forests of Carolina. Although much of South Georgia was ill-suited for short-staple cotton, there was a market for it in the North and with rail service it could be grown, shipped and sold. The price was usually low, but it was money. Prosperity from this new mode of transportation was spotty. Even the sea of pines was finite. Besides, prices were controlled elsewhere.
These are some of the reasons why I grew up in a world where cash from crops and livestock was never enough. Country people depended on subsistence activities from woodland resources to cane syrup, turnip greens, sweet potatoes, etc. This is not a lament. Those things were good, still are if they can be found.
Interestingly, one of the transforming developments of mid-20th century, rural electrification, provided a new way to preserve harvests, the home freezer. Not many people rely on that resource now. Freezing takes a lot of work. However, when my beloved Annette died in 2013, she left three chest-type freezers full of food and had blanched peas and butterbeans to fill them even fuller just the day before.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.