Alabama Folkways Articles

August, 1992

CATTLE CULTURE IN THE PINEY WOODS

by Erin Kellen

Recently in Clarke County, in the southwestern part of the state, I met an eighty-one year old black man named Theodore Roosevelt "Step" Bryant. While I watched, Mr. Bryant wove a whip out of four strands of rawhide--a skill he learned when he was a boy. To me this whip is more than an object--it has a much deeper significance. This whip is a tangible legacy of a relatively unexplored facet of our traditional cultural heritage.

Before cotton became a profitable crop, prompting the land grab that swelled the population of the Alabama territory, most of the early white settlers lived a backwoods lifestyle. Many supported themselves by raising cattle and swine that ranged freely in the woods until they were rounded up and "drove" to markets. In the Piney Woods of the Gulf South, where the sandy soils make cotton growing--as well as other forms of agriculture less worthwhile, livestock raising on the open range persisted until the recent past.

These settlers of the Old Southwest adopted the Southeastern Indians' practice of burning off the landscape to create a meadow-like habitat where wildlife and livestock grazed beneath the towering long leaf pines. In this way, the Indians had semi-domesticated deer and wild turkey. The early settlers found that the swine and cattle they brought with them could fend for themselves in this environment and allowed their stock to lapse into a semi-feral state. Some found raising livestock in this fashion so profitable that they achieved the economic and social status of planters. In fact, men of wealth from the Piney Woods region of the state who were classified as "planters" may have gained their wealth not by "planting" but by raising livestock on the open range system.

The labor for rounding up and driving livestock to market was provided by "drovers," who often performed their tasks on horseback using rawhide whips and specially bred dogs. Scholars have speculated that the term "cracker" used to describe poor white men may have originated from the "cracking" of the whip used to drive cattle. Western scholars who have wondered about the source of the African American cowboy can find its roots in records from slave times. After emancipation, skilled black cowboys found work in the immense cattle drives of the Great Plains, where they played a role in the shaping of the destiny of yet another part of the country.

Cattle was more than "meat on the hoof." Trained oxen were used for hauling logs as the virgin Piney Woods were cut. Again, the skilled drover was in demand and his artistry was remarked upon. The cattle herding and logging economies seem to have traditionally coexisted all across the long leaf pine belt from the Carolinas through Alabama to East Texas. An occupational analysis of Piney Woods family genealogies would confirm this.

Surely there are other vestiges of this open range livestock heritage--crafts traditions, language, stories and music that persist in the present that testify to the past.