Bioregional Approach to Southern History: The Yazoo-Mississippi Delta

University of Helsinki
Published January 28, 2010

Mikko Saikku examines the relationship between social and environmental history using the ecoregion of the Mississippi Delta.

Mikko Saikku
University of Helsinki


Map of global ecoregions from WWF website
Map of global ecoregions. View larger version at World Wildlife Fund.

Environmental history emphasizes the role of humans as an integral part of their natural surroundings. Ecological systems and biological diversity, however, typically ignore political and other man-made boundaries. By the 1970s, the US public land management agencies had realized the importance of land classification on the basis of regional variations in climate, vegetation, and landform as an aid to conservation problems. Regional differences were officially recognized in Robert G. Bailey's 1978 book, which divided the United States into 60 "ecoregions" and created a new taxonomy for American nature. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) today defines an ecoregion as "a large area of land or water that contains a geographically distinct assemblage of natural communities that share a large majority of their species and ecological dynamics, share similar environmental conditions, and interact ecologically in ways that are critical for their long-term persistence." Hundreds of scientists have contributed to the development of WWF's Conservation Science Program and identified over 800 distinct terrestrial ecoregions across the globe.1

During the last three decades, the concept of ecoregion (often referred to as "bioregion") has spurred a loose political and cultural movement, which opposes the contemporary consumer culture and advocates local solutions in the search for sustainable development. Among contemporary environmental historians, Dan Flores has most vocally claimed that bioregion should also be recognized as a precise and useful term for historical study. Flores asserts that "the first step in writing environmental histories of place is recognition that natural geographic systems—ecoregions, biotic provinces, physiographic provinces, biomes, ecosystems, in short, larger and smaller representations of what we probably ought to call bioregions—are the appropriate settings for insightful environmental history." Bioregional histories should thus commence with geology, landform, and climate history. The second basis for bioregional history, beyond ecological parameters, is constituted by the diversity of human cultures across both space and time. Flores has criticized environmental historians for too often starting out with a single interpretive framework and forcing their studies of topographically, ecologically, and culturally diverse, and geographically vast territories into some facsimile of that model. A better approach is to aim for "deep time, cross-cultural, environmental histories of places—and after a sufficient number of such case studies have been done, then to look for patterns." Bioregional history is, therefore, the story of different but successive cultures occupying the same space.2

Marion Post Wolcott, Cotton picker in Clarksdale, Mississippi Delta, Mississippi, 1939.
Marion Post Wolcott, Cotton picker in Clarksdale, Mississippi Delta, Mississippi, 1939.

The Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, the floodplain situated between the Yazoo and Mississippi Rivers in the northwestern corner of the present-day state of Mississippi, has experienced enormous environmental change since the Civil War. Agriculture, lumbering, and remaking of the floodplain hydrological system have transformed the landscape, originally dominated by mature bottomland hardwood forest, beyond recognition and resulted in irrevocable alteration of local ecology. The long-term environmental history of the Delta, however, emerges as immensely more complicated. Significant human impact on the Delta's natural environment goes back much further than the late nineteenth century, and shows remarkable fluctuation even during the last 150 years.

Probably the best-known definition on the geographical extent of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta has been provided by Delta author David L. Cohn—"[t]he Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg."3 This culturally apt description of the social extremes of a New South plantation empire does not, however, offer enough help in defining the Delta as a bioregion, and the endeavor calls for classifications provided by the natural sciences.

The Yazoo-Mississippi Delta is actually more oval than deltoid in form. The channel of the Mississippi, from Memphis to Vicksburg, forms the western boundary of the Yazoo-Mississippi floodplain. The eastern boundary is defined by a series of bluffs that begin just below Memphis and run south to Greenwood and thence southwesterly along the Yazoo River, which meets the Mississippi just above Vicksburg. The enclosed area is approximately two hundred miles long and seventy miles across at its widest point, encompassing circa 4,415,000 acres, or, some 7,000 square miles of alluvial floodplain.

Map of Mississippi Delta from Charles Wilson's "Mississippi Delta"
Map of Mississippi Delta from Charles Wilson's "Mississippi Delta." The Yazoo-Mississippi floodplain is usually called "the Mississippi Delta" or simply "the Delta" by the region's inhabitants. It should be noted, however, that the term "Mississippi Delta" in physical geography often refers to the true delta of the Mississippi River at its mouth in Louisiana.

The whole Delta in Robert G. Bailey's classification belongs to the "Southern Floodplain Forest" (Section 2312), which covers approximately 42,600 square miles, or, 1.4 percent of the United States. Bailey's Southern Floodplain Forest ecoregion is a vast alluvial bed of some 25 million acres along the Lower Mississippi from the mouth of the Ohio River to the Gulf of Mexico, ranging from 30 to 40 miles in breadth at its northern end to 150 miles at the river's mouth in present-day Louisiana. It has been created by the meandering Mississippi River and attained its current form during the final cycle of the latest glaciation. The eastern edge of the Delta contributes to the section's eastern boundary with the Section 2215, "Oak-Hickory Forest," and Province 2320, "Southeastern Mixed Forest." WWF's ecoregions "Mississippi Lowland Forests" (NA0409), "Central US Hardwood Forests" (NA0404), and "Southeastern Mixed Forests" (NA0413) closely mirror Bailey's earlier classification. Thus the Delta can rightfully be described as an identifiable ecological complex, i.e., a natural entity with clearly definable borders, and therefore an appropriate setting for the study of bioregional history.4

The vast bottomland hardwood forests of the pre-Columbian Delta were supported by the floodplain of the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers. The soils of the forests were of alluvial origin, derived from the deposits of sand, silt, clay, and calcareous sediments left by the shifting courses of meandering rivers. Within the Yazoo basin, shallow water frequently covered a sizable portion of the floodplain for varying periods during the year.

Although the region was generally flat, numerous physical features of relief created notable differences in drainage and hydroperiod. The result was a very complex arrangement of soils and biotic communities. Flooding was a vital feature in the maintenance of these systems. The seasonal abundance of water and rich alluvial soil contributed to the formation of vegetation, which clearly distinguished the bottomland hardwoods of the Delta from the upland forests of the hills to its east. Water, soils, flora, and fauna were closely interdependent in the bottomland hardwood forests of the Delta, together forming an identifiable bioregion.

The evolution of distinctive, species-rich flora and fauna in the Delta was structured by processes operative on both evolutionary and ecological time scales. Biotic communities, as known during historical times, assembled only since the last major glaciation, or, the past 20,000 years. Like other southeastern vegetational assemblages, the bottomland hardwood forests of the Delta have not been stable either in composition or in location through long periods of time. Still, pollen data suggests that elements of an oak-hickory forest have been present at the Delta for the past 16,000 years, providing a relatively established zone for faunal—and human—habitation. The pre-Columbian biota of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta was a mosaic of plant and animal communities pursuing compositional equilibrium, but still responding dynamically to impacts of climate, geomorphic processes, fire, and Native American populations.

Gary Bridgeman, Bottomland hardwood forest in Wolf River Swamp, Mississippi, 1998.
Gary Bridgeman, Bottomland hardwood forest in Wolf River Swamp, Mississippi, 1998.

Vastly differing subsistence systems and human modes of production evolved in the Delta since the arrival of the first Native Americans. Originally based on hunting and gathering, the Native American subsistence systems in the Delta changed over time to include various horticultural practices. The amount of horticulture and trade practiced by the Native American societies did not show a continuous, linear increase, but fluctuated considerably. For example, during the late Mississippian era, Native American populations of the Delta were probably larger and more dependent on agriculture as their subsistence base than ever before or after. During this time period, the environmental impact of Native Americans on the bottomland forests accordingly attained significant levels. Consequently, true wilderness, meaning nature uninfluenced by human activities, hardly existed in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta at the commencement of Euro-American settlement.

In the Delta, Native American settlements and agricultural fields concentrated on natural levees in the proximity of rivers. Fields in the vicinity of permanent villages could become quite extensive, and combined with other land use practices, resulted in localized deforestation. Still, the typical Native American use of the bottomland hardwood forest presumably did not endanger the natural variety of the land or its capacity for self-renewal. Much of the Native American use of timber remained furthermore insignificant in relation to deforestation in the bottomlands. It was mostly the vicinity of scattered Indian villages on natural levees that became a patchy landscape of fields, grasslands and young woods, and actions by the Indian generally resulted in local modification of the bottomland hardwood forest rather than its large-scale eradication. In the absence of flood control devices, the human-induced change of the Delta environment was largely restricted to the highest elevations within the floodplain, affecting directly only a very small percentage of the total land area between the Mississippi and the Yazoo Rivers.

The early European accounts customarily claimed that the Indians encountered in the South lived in harmony with their natural surroundings. Whether this was true in regard to the utilization of natural resources by the Indian populations, the escalating clearing of forest for timber harvest and cultivation by the European colonists, combined with expanding alteration of the floodplain hydrological regime, was to represent a major shift in the degree to which humans affected their natural environment in the Delta.

Euro-American settlement in the Delta commenced in the 1830s. At that time, the Delta landscape possessed many features of pristine wilderness because the elimination of aboriginal populations by virgin soil epidemics had enabled forest vegetation to reclaim the areas affected by Native American agriculture. With the arrival of Europeans, Native American consciousness, which presumably viewed all lifeforms as equal subjects was supplanted by a vision in which humans were largely considered separate from the rest of the world, viewed as a pool of resource objects.

Marion Post Wolcott, Mississippi River near Perthshire, Mississippi Delta, 1940.
Marion Post Wolcott, Mississippi River near Perthshire, Bolivar County, Mississippi Delta, 1940.

The Euro-American period of subsistence-oriented agriculture in the Delta was largely nonexistent, as the development of the market and transportation systems during the early nineteenth century geared the local economy toward production for the capitalist marketplace from the very beginning. The analytical and quantitative consciousness of Euro-Americans emphasized efficient management and increasing control over nature from the establishment of the first cotton field on the Delta bottomlands. Consequently, major human-induced environmental change on the floodplain was unavoidable. During the nineteenth century, agricultural and lumbering activities expanded enormously compared with Native American practices. The first commercial products of the Delta in the industrial age, cotton and cypress, were later supplemented by other crops and tree species, while land use on the fertile floodplain progressively intensified.

After 1880, a marked increase in agricultural development and population took place in the Delta. The explanation for the rise of a New South cotton kingdom on the Yazoo-Mississippi floodplain can largely be summed up in two words—flood control. Land clearing by commercial logging for cotton production and other purposes was closely connected to the growing human control of the hydrological processes of the floodplain, a development gradually attained during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There was a close relationship between the agricultural expansion, amount of land cleared, and growth of flood control and drainage systems in the Delta.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the floodplain had become a leading production center for cotton and hardwood lumber while the system of protective levees on the floodplain expanded enormously. The human exploitation of the Delta's natural resources had turned into what William Faulkner described as "a mad and pointless merry-go-round […]: the timber which had to be logged and sold in order to deforest the land in order to convert the soil to raising cotton in order to sell the cotton in order to make the land valuable enough to be worth spending money raising dykes to keep the River off of it."5

As more dependable levees for the protection of croplands and other property were established, it became evident that maximum yields could be obtained from the flat Delta lands only by providing adequate drainage. These developments furthermore facilitated the removal of the original forest cover. By 1932, only 2.1% of the floodplain supported old-growth forest, and numerous species had become extinct.6 In the following decades, land clearing continued and the hydrological system of the floodplain was remade in a way that offered little chance for the regeneration of the bottomland hardwood forest in the future.

The immense ecological transformation in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta was not limited to the reduction of forested acreage or removal of mature trees by planters and loggers: the native fauna of the bottomlands similarly underwent significant changes. The Delta had formed an important part of the original range of several animals, which had more or less disappeared by the mid-twentieth century. The most striking examples of local—and even global—faunal extinction were provided by the red wolf, cougar, Carolina parakeet, and ivory-billed woodpecker.

Probably the most important question in assessing human-induced change in ecological systems is whether the systems affected retain their resilience. Human modification of the Delta environment up to the late nineteenth century generally remained comparable to that caused by natural occurrences within disturbance regimes, and the change stayed within bounds that enabled the recovery of the natural systems after disturbance. As shown by the successful forest regeneration on the agricultural fields abandoned by the Mississippian people and by the Civil War era planters, Delta forests retained their resilience well into the modern era. Similarly, deer herds decimated by the deerskin trade during the eighteenth century made a comeback within decades.

The massive human efforts to restrain the rivers for the first time endangered the ability for recovery of the whole natural complex. From the late nineteenth century on, the system of protective levees on the floodplain expanded enormously. The immense human-induced change in the hydrology of the Mississippi and its tributaries, especially after the disastrous flood of 1927, has aimed at making floodplains safe for agriculture and human habitation. After centuries of hard work and enormous investments by local, state, and federal governments, it is customarily assumed today that almost any amount of high water can be safely transported through the Lower Mississippi Valley. Still, as pointed out by the foremost student of the history of flood control in the region, Robert W. Harrison, the "task has been difficult, costly to carry out, and is not yet completed," a fact that became painfully evident by the collapse of New Orleans levees in 2005 after a storm surge.7

Marty Bahamonde, FEMA image of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, 2005.
Marty Bahamonde, FEMA image of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, 2005.

Even before the arrival of the European settlers, the shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture and trade among the Delta's native peoples had led to a general increase of human influence on the natural environment. Still, it was the region's inclusion to the greater European economy, which revolutionized the way the floodplain was exploited by humans. For the first time, local economic development became dictated by the supralocal needs of the world economy. The basic productivity of the bioregion remained the same, but now it was the capitalist world system, which ultimately mandated how the Delta was utilized as a pool of natural resources. The first commercial products of the Delta in the industrial age, cotton and cypress, were later replaced by other crops and tree species, while land use on the fertile floodplain progressively intensified. As a result, great personal fortunes were made, always based on the biological productivity of the land. For most of the people involved in the transformation of the Delta bottomlands, especially black slaves, sharecroppers and agricultural workers, economic gain and social mobility remained severely limited. Despite its distinctively southern features, the environmental history of the Delta bioregion is but one example of the processes idiosyncratically duplicated on a global scale. Human inhabitants along the Mississippi have not succeeded in liberating themselves from the limits set by the natural world. In many places along the lower Mississippi and its tributaries—including the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta—it might have been wiser, even from an economic point of view, to regulate development on the floodplain rather than restructure the bioregion at enormous cost and with considerable loss to the biological diversity of the region.

About the Author

Mikko Saikku is an Associate Professor in the North American Studies program at the University of Helsinki in Finland. His research interests include North American environmental history and the history and culture of the US South. His publications include This Delta, This Land: An Environmental History of the Yazoo-Mississippi Floodplain, and Encountering the Past in Nature: Essays in Environmental History (with Timo Myllyntaus).

For a thorough discussion of much of the material in this essay, including complete documentation, see Mikko Saikku, This Delta, This Land: An Environmental History of the Yazoo Mississippi Floodplain (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005).

  • 1. Robert G. Bailey, Description of the Ecoregions of the United States (Ogden, UT: US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, 1978), 1–2, Appendix 2; WWF, "Ecoregions," (accessed December 1, 2009); David M. Olson et al., "Terrestrial Ecoregions of the World: A New Map of Life on Earth," Bioscience 51 no. 11 (November 2001): 933–38.
  • 2. Dan Flores, "Place: An Argument for Bioregional History." Environmental History Review 18 (Winter 1994): 1–18.
  • 3. David L. Cohn, Where I Was Born and Raised (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1948),12.
  • 4. Robert G. Bailey, "Description of the Ecoregions of the United States," 13, 22–24, Appendixes 1 and 2; National Geographic Society, "Terrestrial Ecoregions of the World," (accessed December 1, 2009).
  • 5. William Faulkner, Big Woods: The Hunting Stories (Originally published in New York: Random House, 1955; New York: Vintage International, 1994), [166].
  • 6. I. F. Eldredge, "Preliminary Report on the Forest Survey of the Bottom-Land Hardwood Unit in Mississippi," Forest Survey Release, no. 6 (New Orleans: US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Southern Forest Experiment Station, 1934), 2–5.
  • 7. Robert W. Harrison and Joseph F. Mooney, Jr., Flood Control and Water Management in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, Social Research Report Series 93–95 (Mississippi State: Social Science Research Center of Mississippi State University, 1993), 15.

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