Plantations in the American South

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A cotton plantation on the Mississippi, 1884 lithograph Cotton plantation on the Mississippi, 1884 (cropped).jpg
A cotton plantation on the Mississippi, 1884 lithograph

Plantations are an important aspect of the history of the American South, particularly the antebellum (pre-American Civil War) era. The mild subtropical climate, plentiful rainfall, and fertile soils of the southeastern United States allowed the flourishing of large plantations, where large numbers of workers, usually Africans held captive for slave labor, were required for agricultural production.

Plantation long artificially established forest, farm or estate, where crops are grown for sale

A plantation is the large-scale estate meant for farming that specializes in cash crops. The crops that are grown include cotton, coffee, tea, cocoa, sugar cane, sisal, oil seeds, oil palms, rubber trees, and fruits. Protectionist policies and natural comparative advantage have sometimes contributed to determining where plantations were located.

History of the Southern United States

The history of the Southern United States reaches back hundreds of years and includes the Mississippian people, well known for their mound building. European history in the region began in the very earliest days of the exploration and colonization of North America. Spain, France, and England eventually explored and claimed parts of what is now the Southern United States, and the cultural influences of each can still be seen in the region today. In the centuries since, the history of the Southern United States has recorded a large number of important events, including the American Revolution, the American Civil War, the ending of slavery, and the American Civil Rights Movement.

Southern United States Cultural region of the United States

The southern United States, also known as the American South, Dixie, Dixieland, or simply the South, is a region of the United States of America. It is located between the Atlantic Ocean and the western United States, with the midwestern United States and northeastern United States to its north and the Gulf of Mexico and Mexico to its south.



Plantation owner

Three planters, after 1845, The Metropolitan Museum of Art -Three Planters- MET DP338158.jpg
Three planters, after 1845, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Old Plantation: How We Lived in Great House and Cabin before the War by Confederate chaplain and planter James Battle Avirett The Old Plantation title page.png
The Old Plantation: How We Lived in Great House and Cabin before the War by Confederate chaplain and planter James Battle Avirett

An individual who owned a plantation was known as a planter. Historians of the antebellum South have generally defined "planter" most precisely as a person owning property (real estate) and 20 or more slaves. [1] The wealthiest planters, such as the Virginia elite with plantations near the James River, owned more land and slaves than other farmers. Tobacco was the major cash crop in the Upper South (in the original Chesapeake Bay Colonies of Virginia and Maryland, and in parts of the Carolinas).

Slavery in the United States Form of slave labor which existed as a legal institution from the early years of the United States

Slavery in the United States was the legal institution of human chattel enslavement, primarily of Africans and African Americans, that existed in the United States of America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Slavery had been practiced in British America from early colonial days, and was legal in all Thirteen Colonies at the time of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It lasted in about half the states until 1865, when it was prohibited nationally by the Thirteenth Amendment. As an economic system, slavery was largely replaced by sharecropping.

First Families of Virginia

First Families of Virginia (FFV) were those families in Colonial Virginia who were socially prominent and wealthy, but not necessarily the earliest settlers. They descended from English colonists who primarily settled at Jamestown, Williamsburg, The Northern Neck and along the James River and other navigable waters in Virginia during the 17th century. These elite families generally married within their social class for many generations and, as a result, most surnames of First Families date to the colonial period.

James River river in Virginia, United States

The James River is a river in the U.S. state of Virginia that begins in the Appalachian Mountains and flows 348 miles (560 km) to Chesapeake Bay. The river length extends to 444 miles (715 km) if one includes the Jackson River, the longer of its two source tributaries. It is the longest river in Virginia and the 12th longest river in the United States that remains entirely within a single state. Jamestown and Williamsburg, Virginia’s first colonial capitals, and Richmond, Virginia's current capital, lie on the James River.

The later development of cotton and sugar cultivation in the Deep South in the early 18th century led to the establishment of large plantations which had hundreds of slaves. The great majority of Southern farmers owned no slaves or owned fewer than five slaves. Slaves were much more expensive than land.

Cotton Plant fiber from the genus Gossypium

Cotton is a soft, fluffy staple fiber that grows in a boll, or protective case, around the seeds of the cotton plants of the genus Gossypium in the mallow family Malvaceae. The fiber is almost pure cellulose. Under natural conditions, the cotton bolls will increase the dispersal of the seeds.

Deep South cultural and geographic subregion in the Southern United States

The Deep South is a cultural and geographic subregion in the Southern United States. Historically, it was differentiated as those states most dependent on plantations and slave societies during the pre-Civil War period. The Deep South is commonly referred to as the Cotton States, given that the production of cotton was a primary cash crop.

In the "Black Belt" counties of Alabama and Mississippi, the terms "planter" and "farmer" were often synonymous; [2] a "planter" was generally a farmer who owned many slaves. While most Southerners were not slave-owners, and while the majority of slaveholders held ten or fewer slaves, planters were those who held a significant number of slaves, mostly as agricultural labor. Planters are often spoken of as belonging to the planter elite or to the planter aristocracy in the antebellum South.

Black Belt (U.S. region) Region of the Southeastern United States

The Black Belt is a region of the Southern United States. The term originally described the prairies and dark fertile soil of central Alabama and northeast Mississippi. Because this area in the 19th century was historically developed for cotton plantations based on enslaved African American labor, the term became associated with these conditions. It was generally applied to a much larger agricultural region in the Southern US characterized by a history of cotton plantation agriculture in the 19th century and a high percentage of African Americans outside metropolitan areas. The enslaved peoples were freed after the American Civil War, and many continued to work in agriculture afterward. Their descendants make up much of the African-American population of the United States.

Alabama State of the United States of America

Alabama is a state in the southeastern region of the United States. It is bordered by Tennessee to the north, Georgia to the east, Florida and the Gulf of Mexico to the south, and Mississippi to the west. Alabama is the 30th largest by area and the 24th-most populous of the U.S. states. With a total of 1,500 miles (2,400 km) of inland waterways, Alabama has among the most of any state.

Mississippi State of the United States of America

Mississippi is a state in the Deep South region of the southeastern United States. Mississippi is the 32nd most extensive and 34th most populous of the 50 U.S. states. It is bordered by Tennessee to the north, Alabama to the east, the Gulf of Mexico and Louisiana to the south, and Arkansas and Louisiana to the west. The state's western boundary is largely defined by the Mississippi River. Jackson, with a population of approximately 167,000 people, is both the state's capital and largest city.

The historians Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman define large planters as those owning over 50 slaves, and medium planters as those owning between 16 and 50 slaves. [3] Historian David Williams, in A People's History of the Civil War: Struggles for the Meaning of Freedom, suggests that the minimum requirement for planter status was twenty negroes, especially since a southern planter could exempt Confederate duty for one white male per twenty slaves owned. [4] In his study of Black Belt counties in Alabama, Jonathan Weiner defines planters by ownership of real property, rather than of slaves. A planter, for Weiner, owned at least $10,000 worth of real estate in 1850 and $32,000 worth in 1860, equivalent to about the top 8 percent of landowners. [5] In his study of southwest Georgia, Lee Formwalt defines planters in terms of size of land holdings rather than in terms of numbers of slaves. Formwalt's planters are in the top 4.5 percent of landowners, translating into real estate worth six thousand dollars or more in 1850, 24,000 dollars or more in 1860, and eleven thousand dollars or more in 1870. [6] In his study of Harrison County, Texas, Randolph B. Campbell classifies large planters as owners of 20 slaves, and small planters as owners of between 10 and 19 slaves. [7] In Chicot and Phillips Counties, Arkansas, Carl H. Moneyhon defines large planters as owners of twenty or more slaves, and of six hundred or more acres. [8]

Robert Fogel American economist, historian

Robert William Fogel was an American economic historian and scientist, and winner of the 1993 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. As of his death, he was the Charles R. Walgreen Distinguished Service Professor of American Institutions and director of the Center for Population Economics (CPE) at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. He is best known as an advocate of new economic history (cliometrics) – the use of quantitative methods in history.

Stanley Lewis Engerman is an economist and economic historian at the University of Rochester. He received his Ph.D. in economics in 1962 from Johns Hopkins University. Engerman is known for his quantitative historical work along with Nobel Prize–winning economist Robert Fogel. His first major book, co-authored with Robert Fogel in 1974, was Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery. This significant work, winner of the Bancroft Prize in American history, challenged readers to think critically about the economics of slavery. Engerman has also published over 100 articles and has authored, co-authored or edited 16 book-length studies.

Jonathan Weiner is a writer of non-fiction books on his biology observations, in particular evolution in the Galápagos Islands, genetics, and the environment.

Many nostalgic memoirs about plantation life were published in the post-bellum South. [9] For example, James Battle Avirett, who grew up on the Avirett-Stephens Plantation in Onslow County, North Carolina and served as an Episcopal chaplain in the Confederate States Army, published The Old Plantation: How We Lived in Great House and Cabin before the War in 1901. [9] Such memoirs often included descriptions of Christmas as the epitome of anti-modern order exemplified by the "great house" and extended family. [10]

James Battle Avirett

James Battle Avirett was an American Confederate chaplain and author. He was the first chaplain commissioned to serve in the Confederate States Army in 1861. His The Old Plantation: How We Lived in Great House and Cabin before the War, published in 1901 was a nostalgic description of life on a plantation in the Antebellum South. By the time of his death, he was "the last surviving Confederate chaplain."

Onslow County, North Carolina County in the United States

Onslow County is a county located in the U.S. state of North Carolina. As of the 2010 census, the population was 177,772. Its county seat is Jacksonville. The county was created in 1734 as Onslow Precinct and gained county status in 1739.

Confederate States Army Army of the Confederate States

The Confederate States Army (C.S.A.) was the military land force of the Confederate States of America (Confederacy) during the American Civil War (1861–1865), fighting against the United States forces. On February 28, 1861, the Provisional Confederate Congress established a provisional volunteer army and gave control over military operations and authority for mustering state forces and volunteers to the newly chosen Confederate president, Jefferson Davis. Davis was a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, and colonel of a volunteer regiment during the Mexican–American War. He had also been a United States Senator from Mississippi and U.S. Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. On March 1, 1861, on behalf of the Confederate government, Davis assumed control of the military situation at Charleston, South Carolina, where South Carolina state militia besieged Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, held by a small U.S. Army garrison. By March 1861, the Provisional Confederate Congress expanded the provisional forces and established a more permanent Confederate States Army.


On larger plantations an overseer represented the planter in matters of daily management. Usually portrayed as uncouth, ill-educated and low-class, he had the difficult and often despised task of middleman and the often contradictory goals of fostering both productivity and the enslaved work-force. [11]


Plantation crops

Crops cultivated on antebellum plantations included cotton, tobacco, sugar, indigo, rice, and to a lesser extent okra, yam, sweet potato, peanuts, and watermelon. By the late 18th century, most planters in the Upper South had switched from exclusive tobacco cultivation to mixed-crop production.

In the Lowcountry of South Carolina, even before the American Revolution, planters in South Carolina typically owned hundreds of slaves. (In towns and cities, families held slaves to work as household servants.) The 19th-century development of the Deep South for cotton cultivation depended on large tracts of land with much more acreage than was typical of the Chesapeake Bay area, and for labor, planters held dozens, or sometimes hundreds, of slaves.

Plantation architecture and landscape

Antebellum architecture can be seen in many extant "plantation houses", the large residences of planters and their families. Over time in each region of the plantation south a regional architecture emerged inspired by those who settled the area. Most early plantation architecture was constructed to mitigate the hot subtropical climate and provide natural cooling.

Some of earliest plantation architecture occurred in southern Louisiana by the French. Using styles and building concepts they had learned in the Caribbean, the French created many of the grand plantation homes around New Orleans. French Creole architecture began around 1699, and lasted well into the 1800s. In the Lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia, the Dogtrot style house was built with a large center breezeway running through the house to mitigate the subtropical heat. The wealthiest planters in colonial Virginia constructed their manor houses in the Georgian style, e.g. the mansion of Shirley Plantation. In the 19th century, Greek Revival architecture also became popular on some of the plantation homes of the deep south.

Common plants and trees incorporated in the landscape of Southern plantation manors included Southern live oak and Southern magnolia. Both of these large trees are native to the Southern United States and were classic symbols of the old south. Southern live oaks, classically draped in Spanish moss, were planted along long paths or walkways leading to the plantation to create a grand, imposing, and majestic theme. Plantation landscapes were very well maintained and trimmed, usually, the landscape work was managed by the planter, with assistance from slaves or workers. Planters themselves also usually maintained a small flower or vegetable garden. Cash crops were not grown in these small garden plots, but rather garden plants and vegetables for enjoyment.

See also

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Sharecropping form of agriculture in which a landowner allows a tenant to use the land in return for a share of the crops produced on their portion of land

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Black Codes (United States)

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The domestic slave trade, also known as the Second Middle Passage and the interregional slave trade, was the term for the domestic trade of slaves within the United States that reallocated slaves across states during the antebellum period. It was most significant in the early to mid-19th century, when historians estimate one million slaves were taken in a forced migration from the Upper South: Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, and the District of Columbia, to the territories and newly admitted states of the Deep South and the West Territories: Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas.

The plantations of Leon County were numerous and vast. Leon County, in the U.S. state of Florida, was a true cotton kingdom. From the 1820s through 1850s Leon County attracted cotton planters from Georgia, Virginia, Maryland, North, South Carolina, plus other states and abroad to its fertile red clay soils and long growing season.

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Antebellum architecture

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<i>Cotton Plantation Record and Account Book</i> book by Thomas Affleck

The Cotton Plantation Record and Account Book is a best-selling and pioneering guide to farm accounting in the antebellum cotton-producing regions of the United States. It was first published in 1847 or 1848 by Thomas Affleck (1812-1868), a Scottish immigrant and owner of the Glenblythe Plantation in Gay Hill, Washington County, Texas. The book contains a detailed system, including blank tables to be filled in, that allowed plantation owners to track the efficiency of their production. It also includes essays on various aspects of plantation management, such as the proper care and discipline of slaves.

Isaac H. Hilliard (1811-1868) was an American planter and cotton factor in the Antebellum South. He was an advocate of the Confederate States of America. During the American Civil War of 1861-1865, he moved his family slaves to Texas and later Louisiana. In the postbellum years, he was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson and liquidated his cotton-factoring business. His Arkansas plantation was inherited by his sons.

Planter class

The planter class, known alternatively in the United States as the Southern aristocracy, was a socio-economic caste of Pan-American society that dominated seventeenth- and eighteenth-century agricultural markets through the forced labor of enslaved Africans. The Atlantic slave trade permitted planters access to inexpensive labor for the planting and harvesting of crops such as tobacco, cotton, indigo, coffee, tea, cocoa, sugar cane, sisal, oil seeds, oil palms,hemp, rubber trees, and fruits.


  1. Peter Kolchin, American Slavery 1619–1877, New York: Hill and Wang, 1993, xiii
  2. Oakes, Ruling Race, 52.
  3. Fogel, Robert William; Engerman, Stanley L. (1974). Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery. Boston: Little, Brown. OCLC   311437227.
  4. David Williams, "A People's History of the Civil War: Struggles for the Meaning of Freedom", New York: The New Press, 2005.
  5. Wiener, Jonathan M. (Autumn 1976). "Planter Persistence and Social Change: Alabama, 1850–1870". Journal of Interdisciplinary History . 7 (2): 235–60. JSTOR   202735.
  6. Formwalt, Lee W. (October 1981). "Antebellum Planter Persistence: Southwest Georgia—A Case Study". Plantation Society in the Americas. 1 (3): 410–29. ISSN   0192-5059. OCLC   571605035.
  7. Campbell, Randolph B (May 1982). "Population Persistence and Social Change in Nineteenth-Century Texas: Harrison County, 1850–1880". Journal of Southern History . 48 (2): 185–204. JSTOR   2207106.
  8. Moneyhon, Carl H. (1992). "The Impact of the Civil War in Arkansas: The Mississippi River Plantation Counties". Arkansas Historical Quarterly . 51 (2): 105–18. JSTOR   40025847.
  9. 1 2 Anderson, David (February 2005). "Down Memory Lane: Nostalgia for the Old South in Post-Civil War Plantation Reminiscences". The Journal of Southern History. 71 (1): 105–136. JSTOR   27648653.
  10. Anderson, David J. (Fall 2014). "Nostalgia for Christmas in Postbellum Plantation Reminiscences". Southern Studies: an Interdisciplinary Journal of the South. 21 (2): 39–73.
  11. Richter:, William L. (August 20, 2009). "Overseers". The A to Z of the Old South. The A to Z Guide Series. 51. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press (published 2009). p. 258. ISBN   9780810870000 . Retrieved November 29, 2016. On larger plantations, the planter's direct representative in day-to-day management of the crops, care of the land, livestock, farm implements, and slaves was the white overseer. It was his job to work the labor force to produce a profitable crop. He was an indispensable cog in the plantation machinery. [...] The overseer has usually been portrayed as an uncouth, uneducated character of low class whose main purpose was to harass the slaves and get in the way of the planter's progressive goals of production. More than that, the overseer had a position between master and slave in which it was hard to win. Directing slave labor was looked down upon by a large number of people, North and South. He was faced with planter demands that were at times unreasonable. He was forbidden to fraternize with the slaves. He had no chance of advancement unless he left the profession. He was bombarded with incessant complaints from masters, who did not appreciate the task he faced, and slaves, who sought to play off master and overseer against each other to avoid work and gain privileges. [...] The very nature of the job was difficult. The overseer had to care for the slaves and gain the largest crop possible. These were often contradictory goals.

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