Accessing the reports of cartographer William Gerard de Brahm, housed at the British Library, has contributed significantly to my current research into the environmental history of the Southeast, writes Gregory D. Smithers, Eccles Centre Fellow 2015.
William Gerard de Brahm’s “Report of the General Survey in the Southern District of North America” (1764) provides historians with a uniquely detailed series of observations about the ecological and economic opportunities awaiting European colonists in what is today the Southeastern United States. Critical to de Brahm’s report were his observations of the rivers, streams, and swamps – the waterscapes – of the Southeast.
De Brahm, a German cartographer and engineer, produced a detailed “Report” following his appointment as surveyor-general in the British colony of Georgia. His observations detailed not only the economic opportunities that awaited settler colonists on the rich soils of the “Southern District,” but underscored the importance of the waterways of the region – riverine environments controlled by Native American people.
Indeed, de Brahm became acutely aware that the land and waterscapes of the Southeast were dominated, and in many cases controlled, by indigenous communities. So too were colonial officials. In the mid eighteenth century, the British decided to divide the governance of, and diplomacy with, Native Americans, into two geopolitical regions: the “Northern District” and the “Southern District.” In the Southern District, which de Brahm made extensive travels through, he encountered the Seminolskees (Seminoles) throughout Florida and larger tribal groups, such as the Cherokees, in the interior and mountainous regions of the Southeast. While generally dismissive of the civilizational attainments of Native Americans, de Brahm made no secret of his belief that these “savages” occupied some of the most fertile lands and navigable rivers and streams in all of North America.
In South Carolina , for example, de Brahm enumerated four streams – the “Wackamaw, Sante, Port Royal Savannas” – and twenty-two rivers – “Yatkins, Black, Catabaw, Congaree, Broad, Pakolet, Tyger, Linwells, Little, Great Saludee, Litte Saludee, Cooper, Ashly, North Edisto, South Edisto, Ashipoo, Cambahee, Pocotalego, Chulifini, Coosahatchee, May, Long Cane.” According to de Brahm, the waterscapes of these rivers and streams provided settlers from Georgia and the Carolinas with vital transportation arteries. They also yielded the raw materials for the manufacture of “earthen vessels.” As de Brahm recorded in his report, “The Sands upon the Rivers and Streams &c if low (commly called Swamp or Marsh Land:) they both are of a very rich black mould with a F[o]undation of blue Clay.”
In de Brahm’s eyes, the waterscapes of Southeastern North America nurtured an “American Canaan.” The Native peoples who long occupied the lands and traveled the region’s rivers had squandered an opportunity to improve – or in de Brahm’s words, “manufacture” – nature’s bounty. This prompted de Brahm to quip that “This Country seems longing for the Hands of Industry.”
William Gerard de Brahm’s two-volume report, housed at the British Library, provides environmental historians with a detailed rendering of how mid-eighteenth-century Europeans saw the land and waterscapes of the Southeast. That knowledge was produced in the service of settler colonial expansion, wealth accumulation, and good health. As de Brahm observed from Florida, “The great Weight of the Sea inclosed [sic] within the vast extent of the Mexican Gulf is set in Agitation by the Trade Winds … whereby the famous Florida Stream is supposed to be effected, and thence called the Gulf Stream, by which Nature conduces both to the Health, and Conveniency of that Region.”
Gregory D. Smithers is Associate Professor in the Department of History at Virginia Commonwealth University.