Southern History Month 2019: Firesale Prices: The Decimation of the Southern Public Domain

Editor’s Note: This is a work in progress.

I’ve stumbled across this story in multiple sources.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, Northern and European timber companies corrupted politicians, invaded the conquered and impoverished South, bought up all the prime timberland at firesale prices and absolutely decimated the Southern forests, particularly the virgin forests of Appalachia which is one of the most biologically diverse areas in North America and the world. At the time, it was called “probably the most rapid and reckless destruction of forests known to history.”

This excerpt comes from C. Vann Woodward’s Origins of the New South: 1877-1913 which is surprisingly frank about how the South became a Northern resource colony after the war. Woodward even says that the postwar South had returned to the colonial status of 1776 except that the great majority of empire builders in the New South era lived above the Potomac rather than along the Thames:

“The transition from the missionary and political to the economic and exploitative phase of Northern policy is nowhere better illustrated than by a comparison of Federal land policy toward Southern states in the period from 1866 to 1876 with the policy from 1877 to 1888. In 1861 some 47,700,000 acres in the five public and states of the South (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi) or about one third of their area remained in Federal ownership. …

By 1876 Depew’s “sudden opportunities for wealth” in Northwestern lumber were showing signs of depletion, and the clamor for throwing open to unrestricted speculation the rich Southern empires of timber, coal, and iron was becoming irresistible. The voices of the Southern Redeemers, eager for progress, were added almost unanimously to the chorus. “Clearly by 1876,” writes Professor W. Gates, “the southern land question had ceased to be confused with reconstruction issues and had become a problem in and economics and business policy.” An act of that year repealed all limitations, and after some delay the lands were opened to unrestricted cash entry. The Illinois Central Railroad was obliged to run a series of special trains from Chicago to Mississippi and Louisiana to accommodate the speculators, such was the excitement among Northern capitalists. Huge domains were carved out of the rich timberlands and mineral regions of the Lower South. One Congressman of 1876 purchased 111,188 acres in Louisiana; a group of Chicago capitalists bought 195,804 acres; a Michigan firm acting as and brokers selected and located nearly 700,000 acres of pine land; one purchaser from Grand Rapids acquired 126,238 of pine land; one purchaser from Grand Rapids acquired 126,238 acres in Louisiana, to which his company later added well over half a million acres more in the same state. In Louisiana alone forty-one groups of Northerners bought 1,370,332 acres and nine from the South, 261,932 acres. In Mississippi thirty-two Northern groups acquired 889,359 acres and eleven Southern groups bought 134,270 acres. Between 1877 and 1888, 5,692,259 acres of Federal lands were sold in the Southern states. When, in the latter year, under the spur of agrarian alarm and resentment, Southern representatives succeeded in reviving some of the restrictions of 1866, it was too late. “Northerners,” writes Professor Gates, “controlled the best stands of yellow pine and cypress lands and were to reap the benefit by taking the cream of the profits from the rising lumber industry.

Contemporaries with the era of largess in Federal-land sales was a period of state-land sales that far outstripped it in prodigality. With both hands legislators dealt out their states’ lands to speculators. Florida sold 4,000,000 acres at twenty-five cents an acre to a syndicate headed by Hamilton Disston of Philadelphia in 1881. The transaction, attended by illegal practices, uprooted many squatters and left behind it a trail of resentment discernible in a Populist campaign fifteen years later. The sale was a mere priming of the legislative pump. As the Philadelphia Times merrily put it: “The Florida legislature doesn’t want to make anybody feel bad by saying no and so it says yes to everybody.” A Floridian summed up the “land office” business by writing in 1884 that “the three last Legislatures have granted, or attempted to grant to projected railroads … out of a public domain which had never at any time exceeded 14,831,739.04 acres, the enormous quantity of 22,360,000 acres, or thereabouts.” The Carpetbaggers in all their glory could hardy match such deeds.

Texas awoke in 1885 to find its vast public domain virtually exhausted, including the half of the huge holdings dedicated in 1875 to the public-school fund, which had “not received by ten or twelve million acres the half of the public domain thus dedicated.” It was revealed that under Democratic Redemption rule “frauds covering immense quantities of these lands have been committed …. a Democratic commission’s investigation showing fraudulent sale of 700,000 acres in two or three years.” In all, Texas granted to twelve railroad companies a total of 32,400,000 acres, an area larger than the state of Indiana.

Entering along the railroads and joining them in the profitable business, Northern lumber syndicates sliced wide swathes through Southern forests, stripping them of timber. This happened, for example, in the “backbone grant” of the Texas and Pacific Company in Louisiana. Lumber production in Louisiana increased in value from $1,764,644 in 1880 to $17,408,513 in 1900. In the five Gulf states the increase in that period was from $13,068,353 to $75,077,050. Early warnings against denuded forests and irreparable race were brushed aside was “immeasurably stupid” by a Tennessean in 1886. “Such stuff, if taken seriously would leave all nature undisturbed,” was the argument. “As for these investments of Northern capital, the South is glad to have it come … We welcome the skilled lumberman with the noisy mill.” The work of the noisy mills was thorough. Twenty years after this welcome was extended, a government forest expert pronounced the result in the South “probably the most rapid and reckless destruction of forests known to history.”

Of the splendid hopes of developed resources by which the Redeemers had justified their support of the Federal land law of 1876 little was heard in later years. The Redeemers soon found the South returned to a status comparable with that occupied prior to 1776, though the great majority of the new empire builders lived north of the Potomoc rather than along the Thames.

A surprising number of them, however, did live along the Thames. So active were English investors in the region that for a time it seemed as if the mother country, after a lapse of a century, were about to renew an old relationship with the South. One English syndicate bought 2,000,000 acres of the Disston purchase in Florida in 1881, and a Scotch company took up a half-million acres in the same state. Phillips, Marshall and Company of London purchased 1,300,000 acres located mainly in the Yazoo Delta from the State of Mississippi in 1881. General Gordon served as broker extraordinary in the transaction. It was reported from London that “nearly all classes are interested in the scheme – noblemen, members of Parliament, country squires, journalists, army and navy officers. Government officials favor the enterprises, as they will afford a good outlet for what they regard as pauper emigration.” The following year an English company purchased 4,500,000 acres in western and northwestern Texas, and a member of Parliament for Peterborough bought 311,00 acres for an English company in the Texas Panhandle. “Foreign capital is pouring into the South at an unprecedented rate,” observed a Philadelphia journal in 1883. “Not since the fiasco of the Emma Mine” in the seventies had there been anything like it. The London Standard believed that “the time of the South has come again,” and reported that in London “company after company is being organized for the exploration of the old Southern States.”

None of the English ventures equaled that of the North American Land and Timber Company, Limited, as a colonizer of the New South. It was organized in London in 1883 under the chairmanship of a member of Parliament. In combination with other English companies, it bought more than a million and a half acres of unsettled land on the Louisiana Gulf Coast between Vermilion Bay and the Texas border at 12 1/2 to 75 cents an acre.”

Northern and British capitalists bought tens of millions of acres of prime Southern timberland at firesale prices. The Southern state legislatures simply gave away tens of millions of more acres to railroad corporations. As we have already seen, three Yankee conquistadors – J.P. Morgan, Henry Flagler and Henry Plantended up with a monopoly on the entire Southern transportation network which was only ultimately broken by the automobile and federal highways.

Here’s an excerpt from John Alexander Williams’ book Appalachia: A History which shows how West Virginia was the most extreme example of how Northern timber companies raided the South after the 1870s and exploited our natural resources to fuel their own industrial development:

“In a generation that saw rapid change, the greatest change of all was the disappearance of the Appalachian forest. As late as 1870, two-thirds of West Virginia was covered by old-growth forest, amounting to at least 10,000,000 acres. By 1900, this figure had been reduced by half; in 1910, by more than four-fifths. The virgin forest was gone, except for a pathetic remnant of a few hundred acres, by 1920.”

By 1920, Northern timber companies had clear cut virtually the entire state of West Virginia, destroying pretty much all of the Appalachian virgin forest there except for a few hundred acres. The profits were all extracted and deposited in the bank accounts of wealthy Yankee capitalists in the Northeast. The coal, of course, was hauled out of mines by child laborers who worked in their company towns.

Note: We haven’t even gotten to that story yet.

About Hunter Wallace 9302 Articles
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6 Comments

  1. From the Civil War to WWII, the south was raped in many ways. Sam Dickson speaks to this on some occasions (wish he’d write a book on this subject).

  2. Another good article sir. Use this history as one of many arrows in the Confederacy 2.0 quiver. We don’t have time to keep whistling Dixie. The Confederate Party needs to be perfected then opened for business …

  3. The B&O Railroad was a prime mover in resource exploitation In northern, and central West Virginia. I was their state. They created it!

  4. Is there a good textbook on the history of the Civil War and/or its horrible aftermath, written from precisely this kind of pro-Southern perspective, that homeschool teachers could use in teaching this aspect of American history?

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