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The historical distribution of prairies in the Jackson Prairie Belt and in western Mississippi.

Blackland prairie was once found in two regions of Mississippi, the Black Belt and the Jackson Prairie Belt. The latter is located on the Jackson Formation and stretches from central Yazoo County across the center of the state to the border of Alabama. The extent and location of prairies in this region and elsewhere in the state (excluding the Black Belt) was determined using plat maps from General Land Office surveys conducted in the 1830's. The plat maps show that prairies were most common in Madison and Rankin Counties, and that a large number of prairies were found on alluvial soils in the Delta. In total, 19,555 hectares of prairie were marked on the plat maps. Comparison with other historical records and the locations of extant prairie remnants suggest that many more prairies existed than were marked on the plat maps. Nonetheless, the locations of these prairies should be helpful in conservation efforts and in understanding the historical vegetation of the state.


Grasslands once formed a small but important part of the landscape of the southeastern United States (DeSelm and Murdock, 1993). One type of grassland, blackland prairies, occurred on calcareous substrates that typically had dry soil conditions that limited tree growth and promoted fires (Peacock and Schauwecker, 2003). In Mississippi, these blackland prairies occurred in two general regions or "belts": the Black Belt (or Northeast Prairie Belt) and the lesser-known Jackson Prairie Belt (Peacock and Schauwecker, 2003).

The Jackson Prairie Belt stretches from the Loess Hills in Yazoo County toward the southeast, ending a short distance into Washington County, Alabama (Moran, 1995; Elsen and Wieland, 2003). Prairies in the Belt were found on slopes and uplands and were surrounded by either pine or hardwood forests (Moran et al., 1997).

Little is known about the original prairies in the Jackson Prairie Belt. Moran et al. (1997) review historical descriptions of the vegetation in the Belt, citing several sources that mention prairies in the region. Additionally, a survey of the Belt located more than 54 remnant prairies, ranging from less than 1 to more than 65 hectares for a total of 324 hectares (Wieland and Gordon, 1991 in Moran et al., 1997). But it is not clear how much prairie existed in the Belt prior to the pervasive land alterations of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Early land surveys provide one source of information about the distribution of prairies in the Jackson Prairie Belt. The use of such data to characterize historical landscapes is increasingly important as landscape managers try to conserve or restore disappearing habitats (Noss, 1985, Landres et al., 1999, Laughlin and Uhl, 2003). While the technique has limitations (Noss, 1985, and see below), such surveys provide a starting point for developing maps of historical vegetation.

This study used data from historical land surveys to create a map showing the location and extent of prairies in the Jackson Prairie Belt. These surveys were also examined to look for areas of prairie outside of the Jackson Prairie Belt and Black Belt, to see how common prairies were in other parts of Mississippi.


The Jackson Prairie Belt region is underlain by the Yazoo Clay Formation of the Jackson Group and is composed of Eocene-aged sediments (Moran et al., 1997). Prairie soils are clayey and calcareous with organic matter contents of 4 to 6% (Moran et al., 1997). At the western edge of the Belt, the formation is often covered by loessal soils (Elsen and Wieland, 2003). The Belt covers approximately 566,572 hectares (Elsen and Wieland, 2003).

Data for the prairie map were taken from land surveys conducted by the General Land Office (GLO). The GLO employed a rectangular mapping system that established townships in a grid system. As part of this system, the surveyors produced plat maps for each township that frequently show significant features of the landscape, such as rivers, swamps and prairies. These plat maps, along with notes made by the surveyors, have been used in numerous studies to describe the historical vegetation of the United States (e.g., Delcourt, 1976; Schafale and Harcombe, 1983; Nelson, 1997; Bragg, 2003). The surveys are the most comprehensive source of information available on the historic landscape of much of the United States. In Mississippi, the GLO surveys were conducted primarily during the 1830's, prior to the widespread conversion of land to agriculture in most of the state.

To create a map of the prairies in the Jackson Prairie Belt and other parts of the state, all of the plat maps for the state of Mississippi were examined, either as microfilm (at the Department of Archives and History, Jackson, Mississippi) or as paper copies of the originals (at the Office of the Secretary of State, Jackson, Mississippi). Areas of prairie on these plat maps are shown as irregular shapes labeled with the word "prairie." Often these shapes were sur- rounded by small drawings of trees, to emphasize that the prairies were bordered by forest. Copies of all plat maps showing prairie were scanned to make JPEG files, and then georeferenced using the GIS software program ArcMap (ESRI, Inc., Redlands, CA). The areas of prairie were compiled by county to produce a larger map, showing areas of prairie when the GLO surveys were conducted. Excluded from this map are the prairies in the Black Belt region of Mississippi.

Data on the soil formations of the state were taken from the Mississippi Automated Resource Information System (, which in turn were derived from the Office of Geology of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (Moore, 1969).


Based on the plat maps of the GLO surveys, 19,555 hectares of prairie existed in the Jackson Prairie Belt, neighboring areas, and western Mississippi at the time of the surveys (Tables 1 & 2). The greatest concentrations of prairie were located near the western end of the Jackson Prairie Belt, in Madison and Rankin Counties, but sizeable areas of prairie were found outside the Belt, especially in Yazoo and Holmes Counties (Figure 1). In total, 18 counties had at least small areas of prairie in this portion of the state. Areas of prairie were most common on soils of the Jackson Group and the neighboring Cockfield soil formation (Table 2). However, over 7000 hectares of prairie were located on alluvial soils, along a line from southern Yazoo County to the northeast, suggesting the presence of an "alluvial" prairie region in Mississippi.

The use of surveys and other historical descriptions to characterize historical landscapes has limitations (Noss, 1985). Two types of error are possible in this case: the surveyors may have failed to draw in prairies that were present or drawn in prairies that were not there. The problem of ignoring actual prairies was apparently common, because in several instances prairies are shown crossing the boundaries to adjacent plat maps, where they were not drawn in. How many areas of prairie were simply not shown on the maps is difficult to evaluate, though evidence discussed below suggests it was common. In addition, smaller prairies were more likely to be missed than large ones simply because the surveyors were less likely to encounter them.

The other problem, of drawing in prairies that were, in reality, not there, appears unlikely under most circumstances. The surveyors could, of course, confuse other types of habitats with prairies, but in this instance the only likely error would be the confusion of different types of grasslands. Another possible mistake would be if the surveyors mistook old fields for prairies. This appears unlikely as the surveyors often marked fields on the plat maps, and on some maps prairies and fields occur together.

An additional consideration is that the plat maps represent the extent and distribution of prairies as they were at a particular time. Presumably, as fire (both natural and anthropogenic), drought, temperatures and other factors changed through time, the area of the prairies responded. The map thus represents a snapshot of a dynamic system.

Confirming the accuracy of the GLO plat maps is difficult because few independent descriptions of the Jackson Belt prairies exist. Two early accounts do, however, provide locations for particular prairies, allowing for a partial assessment of the map in Figure 1. Harper (1857), a state geologist of Mississippi, describes the Jackson Prairie formation and notes that "the largest of these prairies are on the line of Wayne and Clarke counties, near Miltonville, in Wayne county, in T[ownship] 10, R[ange] 6 W[est], containing here from five thousand to six thousand acres of fine land." This prairie was marked on the plat map for this township (and is located on Figure 1), though it was much smaller than described by Harper (1857). On the other hand, Harper (1857) also mentions the presence of prairie in Township 3 Range 10 in Jasper County. The plat map for this township does not have any prairie marked on it (though prairie is shown in Township 3 Range 12). Finally, Harper (1857) provides a geological map of Mississippi that indicates 15 areas of prairie in the Jackson Belt. Only seven of these appear to correspond to areas on the plat maps.

Hilgard (1860) also provides both a general description of the Jackson Prairie Belt (see Moran et al., 1997) and the locations of three specific prairies in Rankin County. All three of these prairies are shown on the GLO plat maps for the corresponding townships. Hilgard (1860) also mentions the presence of "small spots of black prairie" in west central Jasper County, but these are not marked on the plat maps.

Another means of assessing the accuracy of the map is to compare extant prairie remnants with historical locations. For example, J.G. Hill (pers. comm.) located a prairie remnant in section 17 of Township 5 north, Range 9 east in Scott County. This prairie is present on the plat map for this township. Moran (1995) published the locations (by township, range and section) of four prairie remnants in Jackson Prairie Belt, in Scott, Smith and Newton Counties. Of these only one corresponds clearly to a prairie on the GLO maps. Thus, both historical and contemporary data suggest that the plat maps show only some of the prairies that were originally present in the region, but it is difficult to estimate how many prairies are missing on the plat maps.

The large area of prairies on alluvial soils outside of the Jackson Prairie Belt was an unexpected result. Most of these areas lie close to the Loess Hills at the eastern edge of the Delta. These prairies are not mentioned by either Harper (1857) or Hilgard (1860), but they do appear in one historical source. Hodgson (1823), when describing a trip to the town of Elliot in Grenada County in the early 1820's, writes "We had a delightful ride along our Indian Path, through a forest of fine oaks; which, within ten or twelve miles of the Yuloo Busha, was occasionally interspersed with small natural prairies, and assumed the appearance of an English park." No other historical descriptions of these prairies have been located. However, in eastern Arkansas an extensive region of prairie, called the "Grand Prairie" occurred on loessal deposits in the alluvial plain of the Mississippi River (Irving et al., 1980). The alluvial prairies seen in Figure 1 may have been similar to the Grand Prairie in origin. The nature of these alluvial prairies in Mississippi deserves further attention.



The GLO surveys suggest that over 19,000 hectares of prairies were present in central and western Mississippi in the 1830's, with about half of this area in the Jackson Prairie Belt. This figure is almost certainly an underestimate since many areas of prairie documented by other sources do not show up in the GLO surveys. Despite these inaccuracies, the map made from the surveys should prove a valuable tool in locating and conserving areas of prairie and in understanding what the natural vegetation of the state was like prior to extensive agriculture.
Table 1. Areas of prairie in the Jackson Prairie Belt and adjacent
regions based on GLO plat maps.

County Area (hectares) Prairies

Attala 12.8 1
Carroll 1274.9 19
Clarke 519.7 11
Coahoma 180.4 3
Grenada 114.9 6
Hinds 577.1 18
Holmes 3474.3 39
Jasper 143.6 9
Kemper 14.8 1
Leflore 1305.5 12
Madison 4538.4 64
Rankin 2540.6 23
Scott 1498.4 12
Simpson 39.9 1
Smith 27.5 2
Warren 52.5 1
Wayne 84.7 3
Yazoo 3154.7 40
Total 19555.0 265

Table 2. Area of prairies based on GLO plat maps and grouped by soil

Soil Formation Hectares

Alluvium 7268.7
Catahoula 74.7
Cockfield 1531.3
Cook Mountain 22.6
Forest Hill/Red Bluff 342.5
Jackson Group 9998.7
Kosciusko 115.7
Tallahatta/Neshoba 48.9
Vicksburg 50.9
Wilcox 26.6
Winona 72.3
Total 19553.0


I would like to thank the staff of the Department of Archives and History in Jackson, Mississippi for their assistance, J. G. Hill for unpublished information and help, two anonymous reviewers for their comments and Columbus State University for its support.


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Delcourt, H.R. 1976. Presettlement vegetation of the North of the Red River Land District, Louisiana. Castanea 41:122-139.

DeSelm, H.R., and N. Murdock. 1993. Grass-dominated communities. Pages 87-139 in W.H. Martin, S.G. Boyce and A.C. Echternacht, eds. Biodiversity of the Southeastern United States: Upland Terrestrial Communities. John Wiley & Sons, New York, New York.

Elsen, D., and R. Wieland. 2003. Rediscovery and management of prairie remnants of the Bienville National Forest, East-Central Mississippi. Pages 239-245 in E. Peacock and T. Schauwecker, eds. Blackland prairies of the Gulf Coastal Plain. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, AL.

Harper, L. 1857. Preliminary report on the geology and agriculture of the state of Mississippi. E. Barksdale, State Printer, Jackson, Mississippi. 350 pp.

Hilgard, E.W. 1860. Report on the geology and agriculture of the State of Mississippi. E. Barksdale, State Printer. Jackson, Mississippi.

Hodgson, A. 1823. Remarks during a journey through North America in the years 1819, 1820, 1821. Samuel Whiting, New York, New York. 335 pp.

Irving, R.S., S. Brenholts, and T. Foti. 1980. Composition and net primary production of native prairies in eastern Arkansas. Amer. Midl. Nat. 103:298-309.

Landres, P.B., P. Morgan, and F.J. Swanson. 1999. Overview of the use of natural variability concepts in managing ecological systems. Ecol. Appl. 9:1179-1188.

Laughlin, D.C., and C.F. Uhl. 2003. Xeric limestone prairies of Pennsylvania. Castanea 68:300-316.

Moore, W.H. (ed.). 1969. Geologic map of Mississippi. Mississippi Geological Survey, Bureau of Geology, Jackson, MS.

Moran, L.P. 1995. Soil and ecology of prairie remnants in the Jackson Prairie Region of Mississippi. Thesis. Mississippi State University, Starkville, MS.

Moran, L.P., D.E. Pettry, R.E. Switzer, S.T. McDaniel, and R.G. Wieland. 1997. Soils of native prairie remnants in the Jackson Prairie Region of Mississippi. Bulletin 1067. Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, Mississippi State, MS.

Nelson, J.C. 1997. Presettlement vegetation patterns along the 5th Principal Meridian, Missouri, 1815. Am. Midl. Nat. 137:79-84.

Noss, R.F. 1985. On characterizing presettlement vegetation: how and why. Nat. Areas J. 5:5-19.

Peacock, E., and T. Schauwecker. 2003. Nature, culture and sustainability of blackland prairies. Pages 1-7 in E. Peacock and T. Schauwecker, eds. Blackland prairies of the Gulf Coastal Plain. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, AL.

Schafale, M.P., and P.A. Harcombe. 1983. Presettlement vegetation of Hardin County, Texas. Am. Midl. Naturalist 109:355-366.

John A. Barone (1)

Department of Biology, Columbus State University, Columbus, GA 31907

(1) Tel: 706-569-2832; Email:
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Author:Barone, John A.
Publication:Journal of the Mississippi Academy of Sciences
Geographic Code:1U6MS
Date:Apr 1, 2005
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