Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Ernest F. Freeberg

Committee Members

Derek H. Alderman, Robert J. Norrell, Carl T. Olsson


“Alabama’s Public Wilderness: Reconstruction, Natural Resources, and the End of the Southern Commons, 1850-1905,” examines the environmental history of the longleaf pine forest in nineteenth-century Alabama. The research draws on newspapers and census reports, and the records of a federal land office in the state’s capitol. Once the domain of innumerable American Indian tribes, the public lands owned by the federal government became a common resource for a range of people in the antebellum period, used for foraging, grazing, and squatting. In the aftermath of the Civil War, Republican legislators passed the Southern Homestead Act, which reserved southern public lands – numbered at some 47-million acres in 1865 – for African Americans naturalized by the Fourteenth Amendment, and for small-scale white settlers. This experiment in promoting the Republican goal of “free soil” failed. Poor soil conditions and a wave of white backlash doomed the Act, and its repeal by ex-Confederate Democrats in 1876 opened these marginalized lands to direct purchase. Northern lumber companies came, bought much of the remaining public domain, and within two decades cut down the ancient longleaf forest. A new generation of scientific experts first promoted this economic development, and later raised concerns about the environmental devastation of poorly regulated logging. A once-great forest, with its original inhabitants removed, became a space for democracy, but the southern captains of industry privatized even these most rural places on the road to the Jim Crow Era.

This dissertation argues that a pitched battle between the forces of industrial capitalism and egalitarian democracy took place not only in city centers or scientific laboratories, but in the “middle of nowhere.” In the nineteenth century, the public domain – an area cleared of its original inhabitants, then held-in-trust by the federal government, used but unsettled, and not owned in fee-simple by its citizens – became an arena where industrialists and citizens alike sought to bend natural resources, namely land, lumber, and minerals, to their own economic benefits.

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