Cow pens, cattle drives, and open range herding—distinctive characteristics typically associated with the American West—were important features of the agricultural landscape during the colonial period in South Carolina....Cattle ranching, a lucrative frontier occupation, appeared first in the lowcountry, where black bondsmen became America’s first “cowboys.”

Cow pens, cattle drives, and open range herding—distinctive characteristics typically associated with the American West—were important features of the agricultural landscape during the colonial period in South Carolina. British settlers, especially colonists of Celtic ancestry such as the Welsh and Scots- Irish, brought husbandry traditions to colonial South Carolina. Many enslaved West Africans also had extensive knowledge of cattle raising. Cattle ranching, a lucrative frontier occupation, appeared first in the lowcountry, where black bondsmen became America’s first “cowboys.” Using the open range system, livestock foraged during the day in the swamps, forests, and pastures. Cattle were usually penned in the evenings and during branding, cattle sales, and butchering. Periodically, large cattle drives occurred, and drovers or “crackers” using cattle whips herded livestock to the ports of Charleston and Savannah. The livestock was then butchered and the beef packed in barrels for shipment to Caribbean plantations and urban centers in the northern colonies.

By the early 1700s beef and pork were leading agricultural exports. As plantation agriculture became established in the lowcountry, cattle ranching shifted to the backcountry beginning in the 1730s. The sandy upper coastal plain soils, ill-suited for agriculture, were ideal for cattle. Consequently, the Edisto, Salkehatchie, and Savannah valleys eventually became the principal areas of cattle ranching in colonial South Carolina. Herds of several hundred head of cattle were common. Capital amassed from livestock also encouraged the later development of plantation agriculture among the sons of backcountry cattle raisers. The cattle ranching tradition that germinated in South Carolina and other areas of the southern backcountry subsequently spread to the frontier of the middle South during the early nineteenth century and eventually developed into the large-scale ranching and cowboy culture typical of the West.

Brooks, Richard D., Mark D. Groover, and Samuel C. Smith. Living on the Edge: The Archaeology of Cattle Raisers in the South Carolina Backcountry. Columbia: South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of South Carolina, 2000.

Groover, Mark D., and Richard D. Brooks. “The Catherine Brown Cowpen and Thomas Howell Site: Material Characteristics of Cattle Raisers in the South Carolina Backcountry.” Southeastern Archaeology 22 (summer 2003): 92–111.

Jordan, Terry G. North American Cattle-Ranching Frontiers: Origins, Diffusion, and Differentiation. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993.

Otto, John S. “Livestock-Raising in Early South Carolina, 1670–1700: Prelude to the Rice Plantation Economy.” Agricultural History 61 (fall 1987): 13–24.

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Citation Information

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  • Article Title Cattle ranching
  • Author Mark D. Groover
  • Author Richard D. Brooks
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • URL http://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/cattle-ranching/
  • Access Date November 12, 2019
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • Original Published Date April 19, 2016
  • Date of Last Update May 10, 2016