Before European exploration of the Southeast, these lands were inhabited by a number of Native American tribes, such as the Seminole in Florida, the Guale in Georgia, the Yemassee in South Carolina, and the Waccamaw in North Carolina. The Native Americans living along the coast needed to adapt and survive to the ever changing salt marsh-tidal creek ecosystem, and learn how to live with and sustain themselves off it. Many local plants were used in everyday life: sharp yucca leaves were used for cordage, needles, and medicine; Spanish moss was used as stuffing; and yaupon holly was used in a number of traditional rituals. For food, Native Americans participated in activities very similar to what we practice now, including creating net-like structures to catch crabs and fish in the tidal creeks, harvesting oysters, clams, and whelks in the marsh mud, and hunting terrestrial animals such as deer which grazed near the marsh platform. Most notably, Native Americans relied heavily on the extensive oyster beds found in the tidal creeks. Not only did the oysters themselves provide a great source of nourishment, but the sharp, bowl-like shape of the shells made them useful in a number of ways as tools.
Evidence of Native Americans’ reliance on oysters is found today in the form of shell rings or middens. A shell midden is essentially an area where huge numbers of empty oyster shells were piled up by local tribes, some think as trash piles, and are still intact today. In Awendaw, just north of Charleston, SC, there is one midden nearly the size of three football fields! A number of smaller middens can be found, however, by doing some research and simply exploring the maritime forests near the salt marshes. The middens have changed the soil chemistry such that unique and rare plants can be found growing on them, such as Carolina buckthorn, Southern sugar maple, and Godfrey’s forestiera.
Southeastern estuaries are known for their picturesque marsh views and for the many creatures that make this marsh their home. However, there are those rare times those making their way to the shorelines will see a bateau boat coming from amidst the marsh grasses and see the people that have called this home for over 400 years – the Gullah/Geechee. Gullah/Geechees have lived on the Sea Islands from Jacksonville, NC, to Jacksonville, FL, since the 1600s when their African ancestors were forcibly brought to these islands. These islands and 35 miles inland to the St. John’s River encompass the home of the Gullah/Geechee people through which runs the US National Heritage Area called the “Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.”
Gullah/Geechee history, heritage, and culture thrives on the salt waters and marshes from which they have fed their spirits via sacred healing ceremonies including libations and baptisms over the generations. They have also fed their bodies via the continued seafood harvesting practices that are yet alive in the traditional Gullah/Geechee communities on the Southeastern coast. Gullah/Geechees are known for being “boatmen” who craft the flat bottomed wooden bateau boats they use to navigate the rivers and estuaries as they take out handmade cast nets to catch shrimps and fish. There are also those that go out to dig for clams and pick oysters. Many that now go out into the waters to pull in crab traps actually grew up going out along the shores on foot and catching blue crabs hiding in the marsh by using a traditional Gullah/Geechee line or stick and a bucket.
For many generations the Gullah/Geechees have been an active part of maintaining the shoreline because they know to only take what they need to sustain themselves and their families. They also replanted oyster shells along the shorelines in order to insure there would be future oysters. The community is just coming to realize that this practice also insures there will continue to be Spartina marsh grasses which help the coast to remain in place and to better stand against strong tides, sea level rise and storms.
While these grasses are the habitat for the numerous shellfish and fish that Gullah/Geechees consume as a part of their daily diet, they are also part of the sweetgrass basket tradition of the Gullah/Geechee. Bulrush grass is commonly cut and used to enhance the designs of these baskets that have come to be an icon of Gullah/Geechee culture and the continuation of African traditions in the Americas.
Gullah/Geechees often say, “De wata bring we and de wata gwine tek we bak!” Just going to the marsh takes Gullah/Geechees spiritually back to the homeland of their ancestors where the marsh bends and bateaus continue to journey out between them just as they still do in the Gullah/Geechee lands.
In the 19th century, tide-influenced rice cultivation flourished in the Southeast. While it was focused in the freshwater marshes, it still played a significant role in the entire marsh ecosystem, and is an important aspect of marsh history in the Southeast. As planters experimented with a number of approaches, they quickly realized that taking advantage of the large and predictable tides would result in the most efficient method of rice cultivation. Thousands of acres of marshland and tidal rivers were altered by networks of dikes and canals to create rice fields. Structures, called trunks, were strategically placed along the dikes and used to control the water level in the fields. During the early and mid-1800s, this system of impoundments allowed the rice industry to become the dominant form of agriculture along the South Carolina and Georgia coast.
With the end of the Civil War and the loss of slave labor, rice production dropped considerably. After 1870, rice production continued at lower rates until the early 1900s when the Southeast suffered from a particularly intense series of hurricanes which damaged many of the dikes and trunks, returning natural tidal flow and ruining the rice fields. This marked the end of the rice industry in the Southeast. However, remnants of the old fields still exist. For example, approximately 15% of South Carolina’s tidal freshwater marshes are still impounded and primarily used as migratory stopover for waterfowl.