A brake is a thicket, usually located in a low, flat, marshy region and composed of tall, hollow, canelike reeds (Arundinaria gigantea) that frequently grow to a height of thirty feet or more. Canebrake once typified true wilderness in the Mississippi River Valley: virtually impenetrable stands of woody, bamboolike grasses regarded by early pioneers as serious obstacles to progress and civilization. Davy Crockett in his 1834 autobiography describes crawling through a thicket “the best way I could; and if the reader don’t know it was bad enough, I am sure I do. For the vines and briers had grown all through it, and so thick, that a good fat coon couldn’t much more than get along.” The term canebrake is used interchangeably with brake throughout the Mississippi River Valley to describe the same type of growth. In Louisiana, brake signifies a low, wet, sloughy area supporting dense strands of cypress and gum trees. And an Illinois pioneer once declared that he had seen canebrakes “in which buffalo, deer, horses, and other animals were completely housed and sheltered, and I may add, fed during the winter storms.” Before the great middle section of the continent could be agriculturally developed on a large scale, the brakes had to be cleared—daunting work, requiring that the land be drained and the thickets destroyed by fire. The soil supporting a canebrake was rich in nutrients, it turned out, and eventually yielded generous amounts of cotton and corn.

Conger Beasley, Jr.