copyright Alan A. Lew, 2004, all rights reserved

Chapter 6 - THE SOUTH

Virtual Field Trip to the South

Note: Links marked with an asterisk (*) are optional.

Introductory Maps


Physical Geography


Human Geography


Other Items of Interest


Southern Distinctiveness

The Lowland South is one of the more distinctive regions in the US. Language accents are stronger and more diverse here than in any other part of the country. Politics and religion are more conservative and fundamental than elsewhere. Historically, settlement occurred later than in the North and at much lower densities. African slaves were brought in to relieve the problems of under-population. Today, the Caribbean has become a major focus of the region's international trade and immigration.

Southern States map



The major characteristics that are common throughout the Lowland South are:

  1. A culture and settlement history that is more similar to Southern Appalachia than the northern states, but with the additional experience of African slavery
  2. A greater degree of isolation from major events in Europe when compared with the northern states
  3. A humid, subtropical climate with warm water and air masses from the Gulf of Mexico and distinctive agricultural opportunities

Humid Subtropical Climate

The South receives almost year-round precipitation due to the steady flow of warm, moist air from the tropical regions of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. A high pressure system sits much of the year over the Atlantic Ocean between Florida and north Africa. Known as the 'Bermuda High' (and bringing great weather to Bermuda most of time), this high pressure system circulates in a clockwise direction, moving warm air from the equator into the South.

In the winter, this flow is occasionally broken by thrusts of cold arctic air from the middle of the continent. (The cooler winter temperatures is what distinguishes the Humid Subtropical climate from the year-round Humid Tropical climate.) The Gulf Coast, including Florida, receives the most precipitation (averaging 50 inches of rainfall a year) and the warmest temperatures. The inland portions of the South receive precipitation levels of 40 inches a year, while further north the Midwest region averages 30 inches a year.


Changing Images

Non-Southerners have traditionally held rather negative images of the Lowland South as a place of racial conflict, intolerable climate, and underdevelopment, yet, in recent years, the South has grown as a major part of the Sunbelt. It is a distinct region which is undergoing considerable dynamic change in the postindustrial US.

The American South Homepage*

The Vernacular South


The Cotton Belt

The lowland areas of the South may be divided into two, three, or four subareas, depending on the level of detail used to distinguish the different regions. The first division exists between the old Cotton Belt and the coastal areas. The Cotton Belt formerly extended from Virginia, south and around the Appalachians, to the Mississippi River Valley and east Texas. It comprised the northern portion of the South and was situated on higher and comparatively drier land. This was also the area in which the largest African slave ownership once existed and today contains the greatest concentrations of rural Blacks in the US. The two subregions of the old Cotton Belt are the southern Atlantic Coastal Plain east of the Appalachians and the Mississippi River Valley to the west. In the north, the Ohio River and the Mason-Dixon Line (separating Maryland and Pennsylvania) mark the transition to the northern states.

1998 Cotton map


The Coastal Plains

South of the Cotton Belt the land gets considerably flatter and increasingly more wet. The coastal margins of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico contain vast swamps and marshes. (A "swamp" is a forested wetland, while a "marsh" is a grass-covered wetland.) These areas also receive plenty of sunshine, are rich in oil and natural gas, and have a strong Caribbean orientation. The Gulf Coast can be further subdivided into Florida to the east and Louisiana and Texas to the west.

US Vegetation map



The Lowland South and Appalachia

Southern Appalachia is often considered a part of the South. With the exception of African slavery and plantations, the cultural geography of Appalachia shares much in common with the lowland South. However, because the physical geography is so different and because there are so few Blacks in Appalachia, it is not included in this chapter. Hereafter, the term "South" will be used to refer to the lowland areas of the southern Atlantic Coastal Plain, the Gulf Coastal Plain, and the southern portion of the Interior Lowland (the Cotton Belt area).

Early European Settlement

The earliest European settlers to the southern lowlands were attracted by the agricultural potential of the region. Initially, this involved migration southward along the Atlantic Coastal Plain from Virginia to Georgia. The land here was flat and had plenty of water (from both precipitation and rivers). The climate was warm, allowing for long growing seasons, and the area had access to the early European shipping lines between the Caribbean and northern Europe. However, this region lacked the bays and rivers which enabled the development of deep water harbors on the northern Atlantic Coastal Plain.

Low Population Densities

The early settlement pattern that developed was rural with low population densities, as in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Also, as in the Appalachians, most of the early settlers were Scots-Irish, English, and German, and the region became closed to new settlement relatively early in American history (by 1800). Because of the plantation system and the negative image of slavery, later immigrants to the US preferred to seek their fortunes in the rapidly developing areas of the Midwest and West.

US Black Population Distribution by County - 1990



The principal reason for the lower population densities on the southern lowlands was the introduction of plantations. Plantations were first used in the New World by the Portuguese in Brazil in the late 1500s as a means of commercially exploiting the agricultural potential of their new colony. They were later used by the British, French, and Dutch in the Caribbean and by 1695 had been introduced into the South. Unlike the subsistence family farms of Appalachia, plantations were monoculture agribusiness. They required large tracts of land in order to grow enough of a single crop in order to support the plantation operations. While cotton was the main plantation crop, tobacco plantations were also common in the northern portions of the region (Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina), and rice was grown on plantations in the Gulf Coast wetland areas.

Isolation from the North

Southern cities grew as market and transportation centers to facilitate the movement of crops to factories and consumers in the northeastern US and Europe. However, because of the lack of secondary industries in the southeastern US, the rapidly developing American rail network in the mid-1800s largely bypassed the region. Furthermore, the southern Appalachian Mountains created a major barrier to transportation, which few railroad lines attempted to cross. This resulted in a high degree of isolation and lower levels of development the deeper south one traveled from Megalopolis.

Labor Shortage

The large size of the plantations resulted in less land being available for new settlers. Thus, by the time of massive nineteenth-century European immigration to the US, much of the South was closed to settlement, despite low population densities. Low population densities also resulted in a shortage of labor to work the large southern plantations. This situation was resolved by the institution of African slavery. Slavery also meant that there were fewer manual labor positions available in the South for new European immigrants.

Traditional and Conservative Southern Society

The result was that the South never experienced the influx of large numbers of eastern and southern European immigrants. It remained predominantly English and Scots-Irish, with a segregated African population. This fostered the development of a traditional, parochial, and conservative White-dominated society.

The Mississippi River Valley

In the Mississippi River Valley and into Louisiana, early settlement was influenced by the natural opportunities and limitations presented by the physiography. The large rivers coming out of the Appalachians, Midwest, and Great Plains frequently flooded the lowlands of the southern coastal plain. The natural levees which these rivers created provided the initial sites for settlement and agriculture. Farms and towns, therefore, were frequently located on the banks of a river, because this was the highest land around. These locations also provided them transportation access.


Levee Long Lots

In Louisiana, and along portions of the Mississippi farther north, the French long lot system of land division was employed. This ensured that every farmer had a share of both the high land along the river banks and the lowlands extending into the "back swamps" below the levees. These natural levees have today been reinforced by the US Army Corps of Engineers to prevent their being washed away by flood waters. The back swamps have been drained, making expanded urban and agricultural development possible on lands below the level of the major rivers.



Black Africans and Plantations

The plantations of the southern lowlands shared one other important characteristic with plantations in Central and South America. They all imported Black slaves from Africa because of a shortage of indigenous labor. The Portuguese brought the first African slaves to the New World in the late sixteenth century. The Dutch brought the first slaves to the Caribbean, after the indigenous population had died out. The first Black Africans came to the US in 1619 (a year before the Mayflower). Some initially came as indentured servants, but by the late 1600s almost all had arrived as slaves. As in Brazil and the Caribbean, African slaves were brought to the southeastern US because of a lack of an indigenous labor pool. All three of these areas today have large Black populations.

Contemporary Black Culture in the US*

The Slave Trade

The British slave trade was the main source of Africans to the US. The British brought fabrics, costume jewelry, and other metal products to West Africa, which were traded for slaves. (Most slaves were captured members of rival African tribal groups.) The slaves were then brought to the Caribbean (also known as the West Indies) and the southeastern US to work on plantations. Conditions were difficult. About 15% did not survive the journey across the Atlantic. Raw materials were then purchased in the US to bring back to the factories of England.

Ocean Current map


Dutch, French, and Danish companies also made the triangular slave trade route from Europe, to Africa, to the Americas, and back to Europe. It is estimated that 11 million Africans came to North and South America as slaves. In 1790, the peak of the slave trade, an estimated 75,000 Africans were brought to the Americas. In that same year, the first US census indicated that 30% to 40% of the populations of North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, and Georgia were Black. This region, the southern Atlantic Coastal Plain from Maryland to Georgia, was where the plantation system was first established in the US.

Black Impacts on Southern Culture

The large number of Black Africans in the southern lowlands has affected the culture and settlements of the region. Distinctive southern accents (often varying from state to state), southern cuisine, and the music of the South (blues and jazz) have all been influenced by Black African culture.

Other Southern Ethnic Groups

The Cherokee

While Black Africans and Whites from England and Scotland became the dominant cultural groups in most of the southern lowlands, several other groups continue to shape the geography of the regions. Native American tribes inhabited the region in the past. Most of these groups were moved to reservations farther west as White settlers demanded more land (see the Great Plains chapter). A few, including the Cherokee and Lumbee in North Carolina and the Seminole in Florida, remain. The Cherokee, in particular, caused considerable problems for the early US because of their adeptness in adopting European agricultural and economic systems. They came into direct competition with the early settlers, who eventually demanded their removal to a reservation, which President Andrew Jackson did in 1831, thereby abrogating an earlier treaty signed between the US government and the Cherokee nation.

Indian Removal Routes map


French Settlers and New Orleans

The French influence is primarily centered in Louisiana and around a few cities north on the Mississippi River. Large stretches along the southern Mississippi River and its tributaries show evidence of the French long lot system of land division. New Orleans was founded in 1718 as a significant, though not large, French settlement at the mouth of the Mississippi River. It was the capital of the French Louisiana territory from 1722 to 1763, when France was forced to relinquish Canada and all territory between the Appalachians and Mississippi, including most of Florida and Louisiana, to Britain under the Treaty of Paris. The rest of Louisiana, including New Orleans, was handed over to the Bourbons of Spain. New Orleans was not really a "city" until well into the Spanish period when many of today's French Quarter buildings were constructed.

Spanish rule came to an end in 1803 under Napoleon's rule over much of Europe. In that same year, Napoleon sold the Louisiana Territory to the US for $15 million. concluded the the Louisiana Purchase, Napoleon sold Louisiana to the United States. (This purchase almost doubled the land area of the US.) The Creoles welcomed the end of Spanish rule because it threatened their French heritage. Subsequent Anglo-American settlement in New Orleans occurred outside of the Creole French Quarter* of the city, allowing it to maintain its cultural distinctiveness.


The Louisiana "Cajuns," famous for spicy seafood and lively accordion music (zydeco), reside in the marshlands of southwestern Louisiana. The term "Cajun" derives from "Acadian," which is the name of the French colonizers of Nova Scotia (NS) and New Brunswick (NB). When the British defeated the French in 1763, they removed all the French settlers from NS and NB. It is generally believed that these people migrated southward, finally settling in the marshes of southwest Louisiana. Today, Cajuns speak one of the oldest forms of French in the Americas, and Louisiana is one of only two states which are officially bilingual (in French and English). (New Mexico is officially bilingual in Spanish and English.)

Spain and Hispanics in the South

Although the Spanish were the first European settlers in the southern lowlands (founding St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565), their impact on the geography of the region has been minimal. In the twentieth century, however, portions of the South have experienced significant immigration of Spanish-speaking people from the Caribbean. Puerto Ricans and Cubans constitute the majority of these people and have primarily settled in urban areas in southern Florida. In the 1980s, increasing numbers also came from politically troubled countries such as Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and El Salvador. Many flocked to Miami, where Latinos comprised 56% of the city's 374,000 population (1980). Race riots broke out in Miami in 1980 and 1989, as Miami's Black community complained of racial discrimination favoring new Hispanic immigrants over the city's poor Black population. At the same time, the 1988 vote in favor of making English the official language of Florida indicates the dominance of the non-Hispanic, Caucasian population outside of the Miami area.

North - South Relations

Relations between the northern and southern states were strained through much of the history of the US. North-south relations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were influenced by two factors: (1) the national economy of the US, and (2) slavery.

Economic Disputes

During the war of 1812, the US government doubled the import duty on foreign goods to raise money to fight the British. When the war ended in 1814, the industrial northern states favored keeping the high import duties because they made US products relatively cheaper. The southern states opposed the tariffs because it meant that their cotton and tobacco exports would face high tariffs in Europe. The depression of 1819 ensured that tariffs on imported products would remain high to protect American jobs. In 1824, Congress voted to raise tariffs even higher. The bill passed the House of Representatives because of the greater number of northern congressional districts. In the Senate, the 11 northern states voted in favor and the 11 southern states opposed the bill, with the tie being broken by the vice president in favor of passage. In addition to the issue of tariffs, the agricultural South was increasingly feeling economically dominated by the influx of industrial products from the north.

The Slavery Issue

Slavery was the other issue which divided the northern and southern states. Antislavery sentiments gradually grew in the eighteenth century. In 1783, the Massachusetts Supreme Court declared slavery illegal under the state's constitution. Most other northern states, which traditionally had very few slaves, anyway, followed suit. Even in the South, an estimated 10,000 slaves were voluntarily freed between 1782 and 1790. In 1807, the British banned slavery, and, in 1808, the US government banned the trade in slaves. (The year 1808 for banning the slave trade had been established at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.)

The Mason-Dixon Line

In the early 1800s, the division between North and South was the Mason-Dixon Line (named after the surveyors of the line separating William Penn's Pennsylvania from Lord Baltimore's Maryland) and the Ohio River. The politics of the time required that new states had to be admitted to the Union in pairs: one slave, one free. Problems arose as territories west of the Mississippi sought statehood. The Missouri Compromise (1817) established 36 degrees north latitude as the dividing line between western slave and free states.

US 1820 - Slave and Free States map


Slavery and the New Western States

By the time California and New Mexico sought statehood, new problems arose. Since neither of these states had slaves, President Zachary Taylor (who himself owned slaves in Mississippi) decided to let all new states vote on the slavery issue. The problem for the South was that new areas of the US were growing faster than slaves could be brought in. The prospect of having a slave-free West would upset the 50-50 balance between slave and free states.

The Compromise of 1850

The Compromise of 1850 admitted a slave-free California as the 31st state but also saw passage of a strong Federal Fugitive Slave Act and ensured that the western territories would remain open to settlement by slave owners from the South. However, many northern states ignored the Fugitive Slave Act, and those that did try to return runaway slaves to the South were often prevented from doing so by mobs of Whites and Blacks. Throughout the 1850s, both northern abolitionists and southern slave owners became increasingly more militant in their rhetoric and methods.

The Start of the Civil War

By 1860, Abraham Lincoln (who had promised to maintain southern slavery) was elected president with only 38% of the popular vote, defeating three rivals. His image as an abolitionist led to South Carolina seceding from the Union in December 1860, followed by most of the other southern states within a few months. The American Civil War had begun.

Abraham Lincoln visiting the Union troops


Southern Defeat

The largely rural and agricultural South was outnumbered and outgunned in the war from the beginning. In 1860, the 11 southern states had a population of 9 million (including 3.7 million slaves) and produced $73,000 in arms. The 11 northern states, on the other hand, had 20.7 million people and produced $2.3 million in arms. When the South surrendered in 1865, more than 600,000 people had died. The meager infrastructure of the South was in a shambles, including the loss of two-thirds of its railroad track mileage. The southern Confederate currency was worthless. Crops and livestock had been destroyed or confiscated by northern soldiers, and cheap slave labor had been eliminated. Slaves, while freed, continued to live the same type of prewar existence under the sharecropper system. The few positive outcomes to result from the war were centered in the North, which had a better integrated, more productive, and technologically advanced economy at the Civil War's end.

Living the Civil War in Pennsylvania and Virginia*

Recovering from the Civil War

It was not until well into the twentieth century that the South began to recover from the impact of the Civil War. New England textile industries were attracted by the low wage levels of the postwar South. By 1919, 57% of US cotton textiles were being produced in the South.

The Industrial Core of the South

Iron ore near Chattanooga (Tennessee) and bituminous (coking) coal near Birmingham (Alabama) resulted in the development of a major industrial area at the southern end of the Appalachians. Today, this region, which includes Atlanta (Georgia), is the most important urban region in the South. Atlanta, as you may recall from the last chapter, has long been the most important transportation city in the South due to its strategic location at the southern end of the Appalachian range.

Wood Products Industry

In addition, the early 1900s saw the growth of the South's wood products industry. Today, the South is one of the two most important timber regions in the US (the other being the Pacific Northwest).

US Tree cover map


US Vegetation triangle diagram

The South Prior to World War II

At the time of the Depression (1930s) and through the start of World War II, the South still reflected the impoverishment left by the Civil War. It was a region of sharecroppers living a life close to slavery and of small towns, low wages, and low technology. Southerners still felt a strong sense of being different and separate from the rest of the country.

Post-World War II Southern Manufacturing Growth

The post-World War II era was a time of major change. By 1950, over half of the Southern labor force was working in urban areas, and the sharecropping system had almost completely disappeared. The South's economy became more diversified with the development of the synthetic textile and apparel industries, chemical industries associated with newly discovered oil, furniture products associated with the vast forest areas, and shipbuilding in Atlantic and Gulf Coastal cities.

Agricultural Output

Agricultural output also increased dramatically. Soybeans replaced cotton as the region's principal crop (as in the Midwest) and increased farm income threefold. High-technology farm machinery was introduced to replace workers who found better jobs in the cities. Livestock production also increased, making the South the most important chicken-producing area in the US.

1998 Soybeans map


USDA Crop Maps* - most recent US government data

Southern Integration into the National Economy

All of this development led to greater integration of the South into the national economy. As the economic isolation of the South ended, so did its social isolation. Increased opportunities for travel resulted in closer ties with other regions of the US, while Northerners were increasingly being drawn to the Sunbelt, which included the South.

Sunbelt Growth

Today, the Sunbelt phenomenon is resulting in net population gains for the South for the first time since the end of the Civil War. The cultural distinctiveness of some of the larger southern cities is gradually wearing away as large numbers of former northeastern residents move in.

US Annual Mean Temperature in 1998 map


Racism Today

Interracial discrimination is less institutionalized today than in the past. Like the rest of the US, racism usually exists at a more subtle level, while Black incomes and standards of living continue to remain far below those of Whites.

The South Today

Differences still remain between the South and the rest of the US. The South is still politically more conservative than most of the rest of the country. The region still has the only significant rural Black population. The dominance of the Baptist religion is also distinctive to the region. But the sense of alienation and isolation from the rest of the US, which was one of the major causes of the Civil War, has virtually disappeared.

The Gulf Coast Subregion

The Gulf Coastal Plain, on the southern fringe of the South, shares most of the physical and social characteristics of the region as a whole, but it is also different enough to require separate discussion. This area comprises a narrow strip of land from Brownsville (Texas), next to the Mexican border, to the entire state of Florida.

Subregional Distinctiveness

The Gulf Coast is both wetter and hotter than more northern areas of the South. Although soils are generally poor and swampy, they can be productive if properly drained and managed. In central Florida, the higher elevation, sandy soils hold little water and actually require irrigation for agriculture. In general, the climate of the Gulf Coast allows it to be more intensively farmed than any other part of the US, with two and sometimes three crops grown in a single year.

North America Air Masses map

Gulf Coast Agriculture

Citrus*, sugar cane, and rice are the major specialty crops grown on the Gulf Coast. Sugar cane is grown primarily in Louisiana and Texas. This is the only place in the 48 contiguous states where sugar cane can be grown, because of its need for abundant rainfall (over 50 inches/year) and its sensitivity to frost. Mild winters also make the Gulf Coast region a major supplier of vegetables to the northeastern US in the winter months.

1998 Rice map


Amenity Attractions and Florida's Population Boom

The mild climate of the Gulf Coast also contributes to making it a major recreation, tourism, and retirement destination. The Texas and Louisiana coasts receive their share of visitors, but the greatest impact of tourism has been on Florida. Since the 1960s, Florida consistently has had one of the highest total population growth rates of any state in the US. The area from Miami Beach to Palm Beach has become the center of the recreation industry in Florida, although it also extends as far up the coast as North Carolina. One single attraction, Walt Disney World, has completely changed the economic geography of central Florida, around Orlando. By attracting more than 25 million visitors a year, Disney World has contributed to the development of a Miami-Orlando-Tampa Megalopolis across the state.

Southern Coastline Formation

Unlike the north Atlantic Coast, the southern Atlantic Coastal Plain and the Gulf Coast do not have good harbors. In part this is because these coastlines were not shaped by continental glacial processes as were those farther to the north. Instead, the land areas were created by the gradual filling in of swamps and marshes on the continental fringe. This process continues today off the coastlines of the South. With the exception of the Mississippi River, it is not possible to navigate very far inland up the rivers and bays of the South because they are too shallow.

Hurricane Alley

The Gulf of Mexico is sometimes referred to as "Hurricane Alley" because every year about six or more hurricanes approach or pass through it between late May and early December. Hurricanes begin as low pressure swirls caused by the collision of air masses off the coast of West Africa. About one hundred of these swirls become 'tropical disturbances' and about a dozen of those become 'tropical storms'. When the winds in these storms reach 74 miles per hour, they are classified as 'hurricanes'. (The same phenomenon in several other parts of the world is called a 'typhoon'.) When a hurricane hits land it quickly looses its source of energy -- the warm waters of the tropical and subtropical ocean -- and it quickly dies out (though winds can remain quite strong far inland).

Hurricanes in the US follow two main tracks:

1- Northwest across the Greater Antilles islands in the Caribbean, then up coast of Mexico to Texas and Louisiana
2- North across Cuba and Florida and up Atlantic Coast, occasionally reaching as far as southern New England

Hurricanes are also found in the Pacific Ocean side of North America. On rare occasions they hit Hawaii and bring wind and rain to southern California.


Some Hurricane Records:

Hurricane Gilbert (1988) = Lowest Low Pressure ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere

"Galveston" Hurricane (1900) = Deadliest, probably 6,000 died in the Galveston, Texas area near Houston

Hurricane Andrew (1992) = Costliest, hit Miami/Dade County, Florida and Southwest Louisiana with 145 mph peak winds, causing an estimated $20 billion in damage and leaving 250,000 homeless in Dade Co. (esp. the Homestead, FL area)

A 1935 hurricane = Most Powerful to hit US, with 200mph winds on the Florida Keys (Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 also had 200 mph winds, but they had died down some by the time it hit US.)


Coastal Cities

The cities that did develop were founded either near the mouths of rivers (Jacksonville, Florida, New Orleans, Louisiana, and Brownsville, Texas) or along the shores of bays (Galveston, Texas, Mobile, Alabama, Pensacola and Tampa, Florida). The poor connections to inland areas hindered their growth. The introduction of railroads in the nineteenth century greatly enhanced the trade activity of the coastal cities.

New Orleans Site and Situation

Built below the natural levees of the Mississippi River, it is difficult to imagine a worse site for a major city than that of New Orleans. The elevation of the river is above that of the city for most of the year, and floods, pests, and diseases were constant problems in the early days of French settlement, keeping the population low. The inland access of the Mississippi River, however, gave New Orleans one of the best situation (or relative location) factors along the Gulf Coast. Its role as a major gateway for transportation to the Interior Lowland made New Orleans the largest city in the entire South, until about 1950.

Fossil Fuel Discoveries

In the twentieth century, many of the cities along the Gulf Coast experienced rapid development as a result of the discovery and exploitation of oil and natural gas. Texas and Louisiana are the two largest oil-producing states in the 48 contiguous states. (California and Oklahoma are a distant third and fourth.) Major oil and natural gas fields are found both on and off the entire length of shoreline from Louisiana to the Texas-Mexico border (and into Mexico).

Oil and Natural Gas Formation

Oil and natural gas have formed here because of the area's flatness. The inland areas are barely above sea level, and the continental shelf extends 50 miles out to sea. Slight changes in sea level either inundate vegetative growth or expose new areas for vegetation to grow. Dense marine and wildlife habitats grow in the warm, wet waters, providing the organic matter for fossil fuel formation.

Fossil Fuel Exploitation and the Growth of Houston

Oil and natural gas exploitation along the Gulf Coast began in the early 1900s. At that time, Houston's population was only 75,000. By 1980, Houston was the largest city in the South, with a population of 2.9 million, and was the center of the South's oil industry. The growth of Houston was due to the large amounts of money generated by the sale of oil and natural gas. Profits were reinvested into oil-related industries. Oil refineries were set up near every major port on the Gulf Coast. Petrochemical industries, which use refined oil to create other products, also were attracted to the region. These included producers of plastics, paints, fertilizers, insecticides, and prescription drugs.


Infrared image of Houston & Galveston Bay


Oil-Based Economic Growth

Oil is a primary industry, and the Gulf Coast presents a good example of how a primary industry is basic to the economic development of a region. Oil refining is a secondary industry, because it is the processing of raw crude oil. Petrochemical companies are known as "forward linkage" secondary industries, because the products they manufacture are derived from the products manufactured by other industries. All of the money to generate these industries is supplied by the sale of crude, refined, and reprocessed oil to other places. This money supports the workers in the primary and secondary industries, who then support work in the tertiary and quaternary service sectors. (These latter groups are known as "non-basic" industries -- which will be discussed more in the next chapter.) The high demand for oil made Houston one of the fastest growing US cities of the twentieth century.

Periodic Oil Slumps

In the 1980s, there was a worldwide oversupply of oil on the market. Oil prices dropped considerably from their peaks in the 1970s. In turn, so have the economies of places dependent on the sale of oil. Texas and Louisiana experienced serious economic recessions due to the drop in oil prices. These states experienced (1) major cutbacks in state social programs (due to the loss of oil tax revenues), (2) the highest vacancy rates in brand new downtown office buildings, and (3) the highest bank and savings institution failures in the US. The situation stabilized at the end of the 1980s, as the economies of Texas and Louisiana became more diversified. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait resulted in a dramatic increase in the price of oil, which gave the Louisiana government a $400 million surplus in 1990. Subsequent declines in prices in the late 1990s, to near record lows, caused new budgetary problems, though not as bad as those a decade earlier.

North and South in the Appalachian Mountains and the Interior Lowlands

It is possible to think of differences between the southern Interior Lowlands (the South) and the northern Interior Lowlands (the Midwest) as roughly analogous to similarities and differences between the northern and southern Appalachian Mountains. The following table of differences and similarities between these regions and subregions focuses on the major characteristics of each.

Table 6.1 Comparison of North and South in the Appalachian Mountain System and the Central Lowlands

  Similarities between North and South Differences between North and South
Appalachian Mountains
  • Mountainous barrier to transportation
  • Small, scattered rural communities
  • Rich coal resource in mountains
  • Lower living standards than lowlands East and West
  •   North South
    Climate: Cooler Warmer
    Recent European Migration: More Less
    Income Levels: Higher Lower
    Interior Lowland South
  • Flat, inland plain
  • Small, scattered rural communities
  • Natural resources-based industries near water routes
  •   North South
    Climate: Cooler Warmer
    Recent European Migration: More Less
    Income Levels: Higher Lower
    Black Population: Large Urban Large Rural

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