English colonists and African slaves began occupying the South Carolina Lowcountry in the late seventeenth century. During the eighteenth century thousands of slaves cleared thousands of acres of swamplands to create the colony’s signature rice fields and secure its place within the Atlantic economy. This essay examines the changing perceptions and uses of trees as the key to understanding how planters transformed a perceived wilderness into one of British America’s wealthiest and most repressive plantation societies. Colonists used trees to assess and understand the land’s capacity for market agriculture. Slaves cleared land of its wood to prepare the terrain for planting, provide Britain’s empire with vital commodities, and build the infrastructure of daily material life in the region. As colonists and slaves came into sustained engagement with this landscape they learned to exploit its distinctive natural resources more intensively. This transformation is better understood as a process of agricultural adaptation than as an episode in environmental degradation.

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