A Serpentine Barren in Georgia (Burke’s Mountain)

I almost visited Burke’s Mountain not long ago but the road leading to it looked like a long gravel driveway and in fact a sign even said, “Private Driveway,” so I didn’t want to trespass and instead turned around and went home.  Reed Noss, author of the below referenced book, and Philip Juras, a gifted landscape painter, have had the opportunity to see the site first hand, and it’s from their writing and art, respectively, that I get most of the information for this blog entry.

Columbia County, Georgia where Burke’s Mountain is located.

Burke’s Mountain is located in northeast Columbia County, Georgia near the Lincoln County line.  It is the highest elevation in Columbia County at 455 feet which makes it more of a really big hill when compared to the real mountains farther north. Serpentinite rock outcroppings cover this mountain.  Rainwater dissolves minerals from serpentinite rock, creating ultramafic soils, and this feature is what makes this site unique.  Ultramafic soils are characterized by low calcium to magnesium ratios, low fertility, and high concentrations of iron, nickel, and chromium.  This soil chemistry is toxic to many trees, and grassland thrives here as a result.  Open savannah conditions prevail without the aid of fire as the following photos and painting portray.

A Philip Juras photo of  part of Burke’s Mountain.  It is a serpentine barren.  Elk and bison probably grazed here as recently as the 18th century.

Philip Juras’s painting of Burke’s Mountain.  Note the rocky outcroppings.  Erosion of minerals from the rock create a soil chemistry that is more favorable to grass than trees.


Alan Cressler took half a dozen photos of Burke’s Mountain and posted them in the above link.

Dr. Noss found 3 species of southern pines growing here–loblolly (Pinus taeda), shortleaf (Pinus echinata), and longleaf (Pinus palustris).  This is a northern disjunct population of longleaf pine, a species more commonly found on the coastal plain and some dry ridges in the western part of the state.  He also found pyrophitic species of oaks including blackjack oak (Quercus marilandica), post oak (Quercus stellata), sand post oak (Quercus margarettae), sand laurel oak (Quercus hemisphaerica), and Georgia oak (Quercus georgiana).

William Bartram passed by Burke’s Mountain circa 1776 but didn’t specifically describe the site, but in the following passage he probably generically described it along with similar dry ridges located in present day Lincoln County.

This day’s progress was agreeably entertaining, from the novelty and variety of objects and views; the wild country now almost depopulated, vast forests, expansive plains, and detached groves; then chains of hills whose gravelly dry barren summits present detached piles of rocks, which delude and flatter the hopes and expectations of the solitary traveller, full sure of hospitable habitation; heaps of white, gnawed bones of ancient buffaloe, elk and deer, indeterminably mixed with those of men, half-grown over with moss, altogether, exhibit scenes of uncultured nature, on reflection, perhaps, rather disagreeable to a mind of delicate feelings and sensibility, since some of these objects recognize past transations and events, perhaps, not altogether reconcilable with justice and humanity.”

According to Frances Harper, the editor of the naturalists edition of Bartram’s Travels, William Bartram was likely in Lincoln County when he saw the elk bones but there’s no way of knowing for sure.  He may have seen them on Burke’s Mountain.  Though Bartram took careful notes, he didn’t actually write Travels until years after he actually traveled, and his descriptions consist of composite memories.  Sometimes his notes and his book are in contradiction.  Frances Harper followed Bartram’s path and tried to estimate where he was when he made his descriptions, but he was proved wrong on at least one occasion.  For example he incorrectly deduced the true location of The Great Buffalo Lick, as I discussed in the following linkhttps://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2011/05/21/my-expedition-to-kettle-creek-battlefield-the-little-kettle-creek-fossil-site-and-the-great-buffalo-lick/ .  The ridge Bartram wrote about must have been visible from miles away, indicating it was surrounded by open grassland rather than thick forest.  When I rode over there, I couldn’t really see the mountain from far away.  Poor Bartram initially mistook the rocky outcroppings seen from a distance for houses.  Instead of a hot meal, a bed, and companionship, he had to camp on the ground by himself again.

The elk bones Bartram wrote about seeing on a dry ridge that may have been Burke’s Mountain is rare evidence this species lived in Georgia.

The floral environment on Burke’s Mountain is interesting because it has probably remained relatively unchanged for tens of thousands, if not millions of years.  During cold glacial stages, the shallow soils under sparse shade warmed quickly and hosted a similar plant species composition compared to the present.  These same poor quality soils prevent most local hardwood trees from colonizing and dominating this locale during warm interstadials and interglacials.

Ultramafic soils are a rarity in Georgia, but mafic soils are common here.  Mafic soils also consist of a chemistry that favors grass over trees, but they aren’t as extreme.  Forests eventually replace grasslands on mafic soils, unless fire is frequent, whereas ultramafic soils can maintain an open appearance without fire.  Before humans were present, natural processes created a mosaic of forest, savannah, and even prairie in the southeast.  Horses, bison, elk, and mammoth grazed the grass; mastodon, tapir, deer, and peccary browsed the forest.  The existence of mafic soils and fire explains why the regional fossil record includes both forest and grassland dwelling megafauna.  Later, Indians expanded existing grassland openings with fire.  Perhaps Bartram could see “gravelly ridges” from a distance because Indians had started fires on the grassy mountain, and the fires spread to the surrounding area for miles all around, creating a relatively treeless plain.  Today, most of this area consists of dense young forests and suburbs that block the view that Bartram enjoyed.



Noss, Reed

“Forgotten Grasslands of the South”

Island Press 2012

4 Responses to “A Serpentine Barren in Georgia (Burke’s Mountain)”

  1. James Robert Smith Says:

    I’ll be damned. You’ve listed a place in Georgia that I didn’t know existed!

    Having been raised by a man native to south Georgia, I have a very healthy respect for private property. My Yankee friends make fun of me when I refuse to trespass on any spot that I suspect may be private land. Like you, I’d have turned around before proceeding.

    That said, I’d love to see that place!

    There were plenty of elk farther north in Georgia. I’d never thought of them as a southern animal, though. When my wife and I visited a park on the coast of South Carolina a couple of years ago, they had posted accounts of “great numbers” of bison and elk at that location. To that end, the park now has both elk and bison in habitats as examples of what was once there. I’d never considered either big animal as coastal inhabitants, but apparently they were.

    I like Cressler’s photo sites. I use them to populate my need-to-see places here in the South.

  2. markgelbart Says:

    The oldest elk fossil in North America comes from a site located near Charleston.

    I think the park may be exaggerating about elk being near the coast just prior to colonial times. The Indian population was fairly high and probably hunted them out long before.

  3. The Amazing Adaptable Whitetail Deer (Odocoileus virginiana) | GeorgiaBeforePeople Says:

    […] Elk.  William Bartram found elk bones on a grassy hilltop that I believe is located in Columbia County just above Augusta.  See https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2013/01/01/a-serpentine-barren-in-georgia-burkes-mountain/ […]

  4. Locating Exactly Where Herds of Pleistocene Megafauna Grazed in the Georgia Piedmont Region | GeorgiaBeforePeople Says:

    […] ratios, and they contain heavy concentrations of toxic metals leached from the rock.  (See:https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2013/01/01/a-serpentine-barren-in-georgia-burkes-mountain/)  Grass is able to outcompete trees in these types of environments, especially when aided by the […]

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