Finding Longleaf Pine in American History

Editor’s NoteThis post is the second in the “Seeds: New Research in Environmental History” series cosponsored by NiCHE and Edge Effects highlighting the work of members of the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) Graduate Student Caucus. This series serves to highlight new work being done in the field of environmental history and connect this research to other fields and contemporary issues. Graduate caucus members were asked to respond to the following questions: “How does your work push at the boundaries of current literature and add to existing discussions of the environment/environmental history? What forces drive your research?” The first post in the series was “Sliding down the Timber Chute: The 1901 Royal Tour of Canada,” by Elizabeth Anne Cavaliere. 

All environmental history graduate students are encouraged to join the caucus by contacting current student liaison, Rachel Gross, at 

As I turned off U.S. Highway 1 onto roads made of sand in the town of Hoffman, North Carolina, I rolled my windows down and began taking in the sights and sounds of the longleaf forest. Skinny, tall trees lacking lower branches seemed to stretch on forever. Though I was only a few miles off the main road, I felt utterly isolated in the sea of widely-spaced trees with breezes moving through the canopy. The smell of pine in the hot summer sun reminded me of camping when I was child and of the farm my family owned in Virginia. Pine trees of various types can be seen throughout North Carolina. But when you enter the region known as the Sandhills, suddenly pine trees with pom-pom like structures and beautiful elongated needles appear everywhere. Pinus palustris, or longleaf pine, thrive in this region of sandy, porous soil. Entities ranging from The Nature Conservancy to North Carolina’s Wildlife Resources Commission and the U.S. Army protect large reserves of the trees. Local towns note the significance of longleaf with names such as Pinehurst, Pinebluff, Whispering Pines, and Southern Pines.

The historic range of longleaf pine. Map by Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The historic range of longleaf pine. Map by Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The longleaf pine was once a sweeping feature of the American landscape. Spacious forests with park-like grass understories maintained with fire by indigenous people, European settlers, slaves, and later professional foresters provided easy movement through the North American southeast. Today less than two percent of this 90-million acre ecosystem remains, and the surviving tracts are not contiguous. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, industrial turpentine and timber companies engaged in wasteful strategies that left much of the land denuded. By 1935 only 20 million longleaf acres remained, and of that amount roughly three-fifths was second growth. By 1955 only 12 million acres were left, by 1965 only 7 million, and as of 1996 only 2.95 million acres remained of this uniquely American forest.1

Widely-spaced longleaf trees with grass and shrub understory. Photo by author.

Widely-spaced longleaf trees with grass and shrub understory. Photo by author.

Though longleaf pine’s story shares trajectories with other famous American natural resources: bison, grassland prairies, California’s wetlands, Pacific fisheries, and northern white pine, it is seldom taught as part of the canon of environmental history. Indeed, landscapes of the American South outside of the plantation are often absent from the stories historians tell about resource extraction and conservation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I hope to demonstrate why it is important to include forgotten landscapes, just as we seek to include all peoples and perspectives in our narratives, in order to more fully understand the past. Around 1880, with the advent of industrial turpentining and timbering, longleaf pine acreages decreased rapidly, especially in the Gulf States. By 1920, when timber companies began to move to the Pacific Northwest en masse, roughly half of the ecosystem remained. The cutover was put to various agricultural uses, including fruits and vegetables, tobacco, cotton, pulp and paper production, the corn/wheat/soybean rotation, and most recently, industrial meat production, even as longleaf acreages continued their precipitous decline. At the end of the twentieth century, concerted conservation efforts sought to halt the destruction of remaining longleaf stands and restore habitat while facing challenges ranging from climate change to urban sprawl.

I discovered the story of longleaf pine through circuitous means. My master’s thesis examined the history of U.S. commercial strawberry production. The foundational chapter focused on a small North Carolina town, Chadbourn, whose fruit industry grew on ten-thousand acres of cutover longleaf pine lands in the late 1890s. I knew about Chadbourn because I drove through the town on the way to my grandmother’s house in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Signs in the town celebrated its annual strawberry festival—the oldest agricultural festival in the state of North Carolina. This provided the inspiration for research on strawberry farming and then on longleaf pine.

The deeper I delved into Chadbourn’s strawberry story and the more interested I became in southern truck farming, the more readily apparent it became that deforestation was the predecessor to small, but important pockets of diversified agriculture in the American South. Intertwined in both stories—that of lumber mills, longleaf pine, and strawberries—were railroad companies, the symbol of economic progress, corporate power, and monopoly in the late nineteenth century. Railroads provided the essential links to ship lumber and fruit to burgeoning northern markets and also brought farmers, commission men, and lumber companies to the southern pinelands. Soon I realized that I had unearthed an important story of ecological, economic, and social change, a story that encompassed not only deforestation at the turn of the twentieth century, but the subsequent varied uses of the cutover and the outside capital and transportation links that made these changes possible.

Forest fires both killed off agricultural pests and regenerated the longleaf pine ecosystem. Columbus County: Forest Fires, North Carolina County Photographic Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Forest fires both killed off agricultural pests and regenerated the longleaf pine ecosystem. Columbus County: Forest Fires, North Carolina County Photographic Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

This story of longleaf pine differs from narratives that focus on ecological change or on timber workers in that what came after the felling and cutting of trees mattered to both people and the environment. I seek to tell a story not only of environmental change, but of the social, economic, and cultural effects of deforestation and agricultural development on the historical populations of the area—indigenous peoples, descendants of slaves, and multigenerational European settlers. Examining how land-use changes affected the people living in the pinelands as well as those who worked in the forest and agricultural industries provides another lens for understanding the engines of historical change. For example, Chadbourn, North Carolina’s timber and strawberry businesses operated in an area where many Lumbee people resided and yet I have found no references to indigenous people in my research. Does that mean they did not participate in the lumbering and fruit farming of the era? Not necessarily. It means I have to revisit my sources, read them against the grain, and seek out different types of evidence to provide as complete a story as possible about social-ecological change in the longleaf pine belt. It also means using the rich collection of extant photographs, such as the one of strawberry harvesting pictured below, and material artifacts to demonstrate realities sometimes hidden in textual sources.

African American women and children harvesting strawberries on the cutover. Catherine and Robert Yates Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

African American women and children harvesting strawberries on the cutover. Columbus County: Strawberries, Wooten-Moulton Collection, North Carolina County Photographic Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

I remain passionate about longleaf pine because it allows me to show how the American South intersects with and constitutes part of the Global South. One way that my dissertation will further this discussion is by highlighting the activities of U.S. Northern and European businessmen and financiers who invested capital in large swaths of federal and state government lands, stumpage, railroads, and agriculture, often without providing long term economic stability to the inhabitants of the pinelands. These same companies and stock traders typically earned considerable profits providing northern and European cities with wood and food through the destruction and specialized development of the South’s natural resources. Similar patterns could be seen throughout the colonized world in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These findings will link longleaf pine to stories told about other regions in the U.S. and abroad and make this ecosystem an integral part of environmental historiography.

As I walked through the longleaf forest in the Sandhills Game Land, listening to the dry pine needles, grasses, twigs, and pinecones snapping underfoot, I remember wondering if my experience was at all akin to that of travelers moving through the forest in centuries past. Though not as extensive in scope as the original forest, protected parcels of longleaf habitat help us to think about how and why people use land and natural resources in certain ways. The motivations to cut longleaf on an extensive scale no longer exist, but the drive to save what is left of the ecosystem and even restore habitat is gaining momentum. What are the forces—economic, social, cultural, political, or ecological—that cause these changes in use? By what mechanisms do these changes occur? These are the questions I would like to see more people ask about the landscapes they inhabit, specifically endangered ecosystems such as the longleaf pine.

Featured Image: Healthy longleaf pine forest in the sandhills of North Carolina. Photo by author.

Stacy N. Roberts is a National Science Foundation IGERT Trainee in Climate Change, Water, and Society and a History PhD Student at the University of California, Davis. Her dissertation is a social-ecological history of the longleaf pine ecosystem in the U.S. South from the advent of industrial timbering in the late nineteenth-century through the permutations of the cutover in the twentieth. She is a trained oral historian and digital historian and has collaborated with colleagues from numerous disciplines on projects ranging from an interdisciplinary conference on water scarcity to co-authoring a digital-born piece for the Rachel Carson Center’s Environment and Society Portal. Website. Contact.



  1. Lawrence S. Earley, Looking for Longleaf: The Fall and Rise of an American Forest (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 2, 208, 213. 

8 Responses

  1. Shirley A. Chosy says:

    Hi: Read “Barkskins” and so your article was even more interesting. Now we know where the trees went!

Leave a Reply