The principle reason for slavery in the United States was the need for labor. Africans were first brought to America for the purposes of clearing the wilderness and establishing farms. As American slavery developed into an institution, the southern economy rested on the production levels of black slaves to provide their commercial strengths and give them a competitive edge against the heavy industrial market of the North. Although the labor cycle depended upon the crop, the harvest for any agricultural product was the most taxing time of the year for slaves. The plantations of the South produced three staple crops—cotton, sugar, and tobacco—each with distinct harvests. Southern plantations cultivated other crops, such as indigo, rice and wheat (especially during the colonial era), but not to a widespread extent overall.
The most widely cultivated crop in the antebellum South was cotton. From eastern Texas to the shores of North Carolina, cotton was commercially grown and shipped worldwide. The burdensome duty of harvesting cotton, however, was left to plantation slaves. The harvest for cotton typically began in late summer, depending on the bloom of the cotton "bulbs." At that time, planters sent all hands (slaves) to their fields to pick cotton from dawn until dusk. Even children worked, carrying buckets of water. Organized into gangs, the slaves were given a sack and put on a "row" of cotton plants. The slave driver, usually on horseback, followed the slaves as they picked, whipping any slave who lagged behind. Indeed, as one ex-slave notes, "the lash [was] flying from morning until night" (Blassingame 1977, p. 522).
Historians agree that a seasoned plantation slave picked around 125 to 150 pounds of cotton per day. The length of the harvest season depended on the size of the plantation, with some large plantations having seasons that stretched from late summer to the early spring. On a daily basis, the sacks of picked cotton were taken to the gin house and weighed. As one ex-slave stated, "No matter how fatigued and weary he may be—no matter how much he longs for sleep and rest—a slave never approaches the gin house with his basket of cotton but with fear. If it falls short in weight—if he has not performed the full task appointed him, he knows that he must suffer" (Blassingame 1977, p. 522). Indeed, as one planter noted, "I think my hands have Picked cotton worse this year than in several years … intend Whipping them straght [sic]" (Davis 1967, p. 219).
On some plantations in the Louisiana, slave owners cultivated sugarcane. During the nineteenth century, sugarcane became an important cash crop for the southern economy. Cane planting was popular in Louisiana because of its warm, humid climate and easily arable soil. Slaves planted sugarcane in early spring and it grew for approximately nine months. The larger the cane grew, the more sucrose juice it contained (the chief ingredient in making sugar). The harvest or "grinding" season began in October, when the cane reached its maximum maturity, and lasted until December. The short harvest season forced slaves to work intensively, with sugar mill shifts running twenty-four hours per day.
During the harvest, cane was cut from the fields and transported by cart to the sugar house. There, the cane was crushed in giant rollers, or "grinders," which extracted the juice before it was sent to a series of large kettles for boiling. Once the juice was boiled down to thick syrup, it was set in pans to crystallize. The crystallized sugar was then packed in large barrels, called hogsheads, for shipping. All the slaves who labored in the highly organized process of grinding had specific jobs, such as fire tenders, cart loaders, grinders, and packers. Orchestrated with efficiency, the sugar houses produced a lucrative product for the planters, which in turn, bought more slaves.
Male slaves were usually preferred over females on sugar plantations, due to the brutal nature of the work. Injuries, such as being burned or receiving a slash from a cane knife, were common during the harvest season. All hands labored seven days per week until the harvesting ended. As an ex-slave noted, "On the cane plantations in sugar time, there is no distinction as to the days of the week" (Osofsky 1969, p. 331). When the harvesting finally ended, slave owners occasionally had a party for their slaves, before the next planting cycle began.
As of 1854, tobacco was the third most cultivated crop on the plantations of the South. Grown in most southern states, tobacco's main concentration was in Virginia and the Carolinas. Beginning in the mid-seventeenth century, newly imported African slaves began working tobacco farms and small plantations, creating an economic legacy that would last until emancipation. Slaves typically planted tobacco in the early spring after the cold weather abated. Harvest time varied due to climactic conditions, but usually fell in the late summer when the tobacco leaves were at their fullest. During the harvest, gangs of slaves delicately cut the tobacco plants from the ground and loaded them onto carts. The tobacco leaves were then dried or cured by the air or by a process called flue-curing. After the tobacco cured, it was put in bushels and shipped to a refinery.
Unlike sugar production, the harvest season for tobacco lasted only during the daylight hours. One ex-slave wrote that on her tobacco plantation "we commenced work as soon as we could see in the morning, and worked from that time until 12 o'clock before breakfast, and then until dark, when we had our dinner, then hastened to our [personal] night work for ourselves." Nonetheless, slave drivers used their whips to insure that that the field hands worked to their full potential. Looking upon his former tobacco field, one slave stated, "I have never seen blood flow anywhere as I've seen it flow on that field" (Blassingame 1977, p. 134).
Effective sugar, cotton, and tobacco harvesting were crucial to the labor cycle on antebellum plantations. Slaves worked their hardest during these time periods, laboring in schemes characterized by monotony, injury, and toil. The South became an economic powerhouse because of its plantation labor, owing its strength to systems of seasonal crop cultivation.
Blassingame, John W. Slave Testimony. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977.
Davis, Edwin Adams. Plantation Life in the Florida Parishes, 1836–1846, as Reflected in the Diary of Bennet H. Barrow. New York: AMS Press, 1967.
Follett, Richard. The Sugar Masters. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.
Kulikoff, Alan. "The Origins of Afro-American Society in Tidewater Maryland and Virginia, 1700 to 1790." The William and Mary Quarterly 35 (1978): 226-259.
Landon, Charles E. "Tobacco Manufacturing in the South." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 153 (1931): 43-53.
Osofsky, Gilbert, ed. Puttin' On Ole Massa: The Slave Narratives of Henry Bibb, William Wells Brown, and Solomon Northrup. New York: Harper and Row, 1969.
Rothman, Adam. Slave Country. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.
Taylor, Joe Gray. "Louisiana Slaves at Work." In The Louisiana Purchase Bicentennial Series in Louisiana History, Vol. 4: Antebellum Louisiana, 1830–1860, ed. Carolyn E. DeLatte. Lafayette: University of Louisiana at Lafayette, 2004.