Cotton Plantations

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Cotton Plantations

During the majority of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, cotton was primarily imported to the Northern colonies from the plantations that dotted coastal Demerara, Berbice, and Essequibo in South America. In 1750 most Africans and African Americans slaving in North America labored in the dirt of the tobacco and rice plantations of South Carolina and Virginia. Yet by the mid-nineteenth century, cotton production was synonymous with slavery in the United States. By 1865 cotton plantations dominated the landscape both geographically and socially from the lowlands east of the Appalachians, south of the Ohio River, and all the way west to Texas. The use of plantation slavery to cultivate the textile crop not only redefined what it meant to be enslaved in North America, but also dramatically altered what it meant to be an American in the nineteenth century.

During the crises of war, debt, and slave revolt in the 1730s, plantation owners in South Carolina and Georgia encouraged newly arriving small farmers to grow cotton and corn. The plantation elites, eager to secure the favor of their new neighbors, knew that arrangements with inland farmers might defray some of their costs. Farmers in South Carolina needed the political support of the big planters, who mobilized the militias and controlled colonial legislation. James Oglethorpe, the founder and early leader of the colony of Georgia, encouraged farmers to raise the crop in that state, and the Methodist minister George Whitefield experimented with cottonseed at the Bethesda Orphanage on the eve of the War of Jenkins' Ear. Yet tobacco and indigo proved too profitable for the small farmers who expressed interest in marketing crops. Thus, cotton remained an experimental produce in the lower South for the first three quarters of the eighteenth century.

The nonimportation movement during the American Revolution spurred cotton and cloth production in the colonies. By the 1770s it was not uncommon for slaves to be making cloth to be sold to other plantations on the continent. Plantation owners imported cheap clothing from the New England homespun networks as well. Yet sometimes slaves rejected the cheap, imported clothing given to them by their masters. Slaves on John Channing's plantation refused the "negro clothes" (Chaplin 1993, p. 211). Instead, the male slaves asked for cloth, which they gave to their wives and sisters to fashion, perhaps in African idioms. Starting a plantation was an expensive endeavor. Yet when colonial resistance was met by Parliament's embargo, the children of the elite tobacco and rice farmers found it less so. By the 1790s, Africans and African Americans were increasingly sold by rice and tobacco plantation owners to aspiring cotton masters. The Sea Islands along Georgia's coast became known for the long-staple variety of cotton. In 1793, Whitney's cotton gin forever altered the nature of slavery in the South. If a farmer could afford the gin, inland farms could yield and rapidly send to market the more delicate short-staple variety of cotton. Tobacco farmers and plantation managers viewed the booming internal cotton trade as an opportunity to become plantation owners. Africans and African Americans from the large plantations were sold, their families divided yet again.

The development of the internal slave trade coincided with the westward expansion of the cotton plantations. Thomas Jefferson's Northwest Ordinance in 1787 guaranteed slave owners the right to reclaim black runaways who fled to the free territories. Later, aspiring cotton planters and frontier farmers benefited directly from Andrew Jackson's bloody military campaigns in Florida and New Orleans during the War of 1812. Old Hickory's fame among whites in the burgeoning cotton belt was central to his presidency. In 1830 he signed the Indian Removal Act, which ushered in an era of forced removal of Cherokee, Creek, and Choctaw and virtually guaranteed federal military intervention on behalf of Southern cotton planters. Total cotton production in the United States increased at least 200 percent every decade between 1810 and 1840 (Phillips 1952, p. 211).

In his narrative, the former slave James Williams remarked on the dismal prospects of being sold to new cotton plantations, noting, "It is an awful thing to a Virginia slave to be sold for the Alabama and Mississippi country." Williams knew that slaves sold westward would "die of grief" and "commit suicide on account" of the news of their sale (1838, p. 32). Sale separated black families—brothers from sisters, wives from husbands, children from parents. Being sold to a new master meant that the slave had to teach oneself new methods of surviving the master's abuse, threats, and labor regime. Running away was common. Africans and African Americans also sought out their kin after they were sold. James Williams' twin brother, who had worked alongside him in Richmond since they were children, was sold to an "Alabama Cotton Planter." Despite the distance, Williams heard that his brother ran away from the new plantation. He discovered that his twin "was seen near the Maryland line" and "escaped into the free states or Canada" (1838, p. 27). More common, however, was the experience of Moses Grandy. His family was "dead or sold away" before he could "remember" (Grandy 1844, p. 5).

Slaves new to cotton production survived by learning the new work regime from their fellow slaves. Owners of large plantations invested in technologies that improved harvesting and finishing of cotton. Masters and drivers allocated tasks based on experience, age, and gender. Unlike slaves on farms, blacks slaving on plantations were assigned specialized tasks that included masonry, blacksmithing, and woodworking. The social division between "domestic" and "field" slaves was greater on large plantations. On the smallest farms, slaves and masters sometimes ate in the same room. On plantations, domestic slaves were expected to remain hidden from public view, use separate entranceways, and sleep in quarters apart from their counterparts in the field. Domestic slaves, often women, raised their master's children, mended clothing, and fixed meals. Sexual exploitation was common. During harvest season, when the need for "field hands" was the greatest, masters did not hesitate to send their "house slaves" into the field. Slaves began to bale cotton toward the end of the harvest season. In the east, slaves might finish the process by December, but in the western states harvesting and baling often extended into March or April. Masters sometimes gave the slaves a few days off during Christmastime. However, even as the harvest season came to a close, slaves began working the fields and preparing for the next year of production. Like tobacco, slaves planted cotton in rows or in linear mounds. Yet masters assigned work according to the task method. Slaves used plows and hoes to turn the soil in the early months of the new year. They removed the old and dead stalks and fertilized the rows with ginned seed or guano, which was imported from South America. Other slaves were ordered to mend the fences or plant corn and wheat in March. In April, black laborers planted the seed by tilling it into the rows of soil. Within three weeks, as the young plants began to sprout, field hands thinned the plants and arranged the plants to grow at intervals of twelve to eighteen inches apart. By midsummer, the plants were left to bloom. Meanwhile, slaves began to harvest the corn and prepare the gin house and bale press for the harvest season.

August and September marked the beginning of picking season. The cotton bolls opened in series, so slaves continued picking for three to four months. Slaves developed rapid techniques for removing the seedy lint from the boll while picking; deft pickers were able to use two hands simultaneously to pick and remove the lint at the same time. Work lasted from sunup to sundown with only short moments of rest, often signaled by horn. Harvest time was the most intense and grueling season for slaves. Drivers and masters often patrolled the task laborers on horseback, usually with a shotgun and whip at their side. Men, women, and children were all ordered to pick as fast as they could in order to beat the planta-tion owner's competitors to the market. Slaves picked hundreds of pounds of cotton from the plants every day, for weeks on end. In 1844, Levin Covington of Natchez, Mississippi, recorded the typical workload of his slaves. Bill averaged 220 pounds of lint per day, Aggy 215 pounds, Dred 205, and Delia 185. Other plantation owners recorded averages of 300 pounds per day (Philips 1952, p. 210). Only rain provided moments of respite for the laborers in the field.

Cotton plantations exhibited features of industrial production and agricultural labor. On the short-staple cotton plantations of the interior, slaves worked in the gin house and the bailing press. Gin houses were typically weatherboard structures, raised about eight feet from the ground. Slaves carted seed cotton from the field to the front of the gin house, where it was weighed and stacked until it could be fed into the gin. Gin rollers separated the seed from the cotton bolls. The seedless lint gathered at the other end of the gin house, where slaves packed into baskets or sacks. They then hauled the sacks to the press, which was used to pack the finished cotton into round or square bales. Slaves carried the ginned cotton to the top of a stepped structure and dumped it into the bale. Mules or horses attached to a long poll moved in a circular motion around the press, which wound the pinion and compacted the lint to the bottom of the bale. They were sealed and set aside until they were ready to be sent to nearest town or port. The average weight of a bale varied from 250 to 500 pounds, depending on the size and quality of the press.

Cotton plantations and slave labor dominated the lives of people living in the South during the nineteenth century. Yet only one-quarter of slaves in the South lived on plantations with fifty slaves or more. Half of the black population in the South lived on small farms with less than twenty slaves (Genovese 1976, p. 7). Most slaveholders owned fewer than five slaves. The majority of blacks lived in the countryside, although some free blacks labored in shipping centers such as Natchez. In 1850, De Bow's Review estimated that of the 3.2 million slaves in the United States, 2.5 million were directly employed in agriculture (Hammond 1897, p. 60). Almost 73 percent of slaves labored in cotton fields. Indeed, the emergence of the cotton plantation in the South forever altered the history of the United States.


Channing, Joyce E. An Anxious Pursuit: Agricultural Innovation and Modernity in the Lower South, 1730–1815. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Genovese, Eugene. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Vintage Books, 1976.

Grandy, Moses. Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy: Formerly a Slave in the United States of America. Boston, 1844.

Hammond, M. B. The Cotton Industry: An Essay in American Economic History. New York: Macmillan, 1897.

Johnson, Walter. Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Phillips, Ulrich Bonnell. American Negro Slavery: A Survey of the Supply, Employment and Control of Negro Labor as Determined by the Plantation Regime. New York: Peter Smith, 1952.

Williams, James. Narrative of James Williams: An American Slave Who Was for Several Years a Driver on a Cotton Plantation in Alabama. New York: 1838. Available online in Sources in U.S. History Online: Slavery in America. Gale. Available from

                                         James F. Dator