HumanitiesWeb HumanitiesWeb
Sort By Author Sort By Title

Sort By Author
Sort By Title


Get Your Degree!

Find schools and get information on the program that’s right for you.

Powered by Campus Explorer

& etc

All Rights Reserved.

Site last updated
28 October, 2012
Real Time Analytics
American Negro Slavery
The Cotton Régime
by Phillips, Ulrich Bonnell

It would be hard to overestimate the predominance of the special crops in the industry and interest of the Southern community. For good or ill they have shaped its development from the seventeenth to the twentieth century. Each characteristic area had its own staple, and those districts which had none were scorned by all typical Southern men. The several areas expanded and contracted in response to fluctuations in the relative prices of their products. Thus when cotton was exceptionally high in the early 'twenties many Virginians discarded tobacco in its favor for a few years,[1] and on the Louisiana lands from Baton Rouge to Alexandria, the planters from time to time changed from sugar to cotton and back again.[2] There were local variations also in scale and intensity; but in general the system in each area tended to be steady and fairly uniform. The methods in the several staples, furthermore, while necessarily differing in their details, were so similar in their emphasis upon routine that each reinforced the influence of the others in shaping the industrial organization of the South as a whole.
[Footnote 1: Richmond Compiler, Nov. 25, 1825, and Alexandria Gazette, Feb. 11, 1826, quoted in the Charleston City Gazette, Dec. 1, 1825 and Feb. 20, 1826; The American Farmer (Baltimore, Dec. 29, 1825), VII, 299.]

[Footnote 2: Hunt's Merchant's Magazine, IX, 149.]
At the height of the plantation system's career, from 1815 to 1860, indigo production was a thing of the past; hemp was of negligible importance; tobacco was losing in the east what it gained in the west; rice and sea-island cotton were stationary; but sugar was growing in local intensity, and upland cotton was "king" of a rapidly expanding realm. The culture of sugar, tobacco and rice has been described in preceding chapters; that of the fleecy staple requires our present attention.

The outstanding features of the landscape on a short-staple cotton plantation were the gin house and its attendant baling press. The former was commonly a weatherboarded structure some forty feet square, raised about eight feet from the ground by wooden pillars. In the middle of the space on the ground level, a great upright hub bore an iron-cogged pinion and was pierced by a long horizontal beam some three feet from the ground. Draught animals hitched to the ends of this and driven in a circular path would revolve the hub and furnish power for transmission by cogs and belts to the gin on the floor above. At the front of the house were a stair and a platform for unloading seed cotton from the wagons; inside there were bins for storage, as well as a space for operating the gin; and in the rear a lean-to room extending to the ground level received the flying lint and let it settle on the floor. The press, a skeleton structure nearby, had in the center a stout wooden box whose interior length and width determined the height and thickness of the bales but whose depth was more than twice as great as the intended bale's width. The floor, the ends and the upper halves of the sides of the box were built rigidly, but the lower sides were hinged at the bottom, and the lid was a block sliding up and down according as a great screw from above was turned to left or right. The screw, sometimes of cast iron but preferably of wood as being less liable to break under strain without warning, worked through a block mortised into a timber frame above the box, and at its upper end it supported two gaunt beams which sloped downward and outward to a horse path encircling the whole. A cupola roof was generally built on the revolving apex to give a slight shelter to the apparatus; and in some cases a second roof, with the screw penetrating its peak, was built near enough the ground to escape the whirl of the arms. When the contents of the lint room were sufficient for a bale, a strip of bagging was laid upon the floor of the press and another was attached to the face of the raised lid; the sides of the press were then made fast, and the box was filled with cotton. The draught animals at the beam ends were then driven round the path until the descent of the lid packed the lint firmly; whereupon the sides were lowered, the edges of the bagging drawn into place, ropes were passed through transverse slots in the lid and floor and tied round the bale in its bagging, the pressure was released, and the bale was ready for market. Between 1820 and 1860 improvements in the apparatus promoted an increase in the average weight of the bales from 250 to 400 pounds; while in still more recent times the replacement of horse power by steam and the substitution of iron ties for rope have caused the average bale to be yet another hundredweight heavier. The only other distinctive equipment for cotton harvesting comprised cloth bags with shoulder straps, and baskets of three or four bushels capacity woven of white-oak splits to contain the contents of the pickers' bags until carried to the gin house to be weighed at the day's end.

Whether on a one-horse farm or a hundred-hand plantation, the essentials in cotton growing were the same. In an average year a given force of laborers could plant and cultivate about twice as much cotton as it could pick. The acreage to be seeded in the staple was accordingly fixed by a calculation of the harvesting capacity, and enough more land was put into other crops to fill out the spare time of the hands in spring and summer. To this effect it was customary to plant in corn, which required less than half as much work, an acreage at least equal to that in cotton, and to devote the remaining energy to sweet potatoes, peanuts, cow peas and small grain. In 1820 the usual crop in middle Georgia for each full hand was reported at six acres of cotton and eight of corn;[3] but in the following decades during which mules were advantageously substituted for horses and oxen, and the implements of tillage were improved and the harvesters grew more expert, the annual stint was increased to ten acres in cotton and ten in corn.
[Footnote 3: The American Farmer (Baltimore), II, 359.]
At the Christmas holiday when the old year's harvest was nearly or quite completed, well managed plantations had their preliminaries for the new crop already in progress. The winter months were devoted to burning canebrakes, clearing underbrush and rolling logs in the new grounds, splitting rails and mending fences, cleaning ditches, spreading manure, knocking down the old cotton and corn stalks, and breaking the soil of the fields to be planted. Some planters broke the fields completely each year and then laid off new rows. Others merely "listed" the fields by first running a furrow with a shovel plow where each cotton or corn row was to be and filling it with a single furrow of a turn plow from either side; then when planting time approached they would break out the remaining balks with plows, turning the soil to the lists and broadening them into rounded plant beds. This latter plan was advocated as giving a firm seed bed while making the field clean of all grass at the planting. The spacing of the cotton rows varied from three to five feet according to the richness of the soil. The policy was to put them at such distance that the plants when full grown would lightly interlace their branches across the middles.

In March the corn fields were commonly planted, not so much because this forehandedness was better for the crop as for the sake of freeing the choicer month of April for the more important planting of cotton. In this operation a narrow plow lightly opened the crests of the beds; cotton seed were drilled somewhat thickly therein; and a shallow covering of earth was given by means of a concave board on a plow stock, or by a harrow, a roller or a small shallow plow.

Within two or three weeks, as soon as the young plants had put forth three or four leaves, thinning and cultivation was begun. Hoe hands, under orders to chop carefully, stirred the crust along the rows and reduced the seedlings to a "double stand," leaving only two plants to grow at each interval of twelve or eighteen inches. The plows then followed, stirring the soil somewhat deeply near the rows. In another fortnight the hoes gave another chopping, cutting down the weaker of each pair of plants, thus reducing the crop to a "single stand"; and where plants were missing they planted fresh seed to fill the gaps. The plows followed again, with broad wings to their shares, to break the crust and kill the grass throughout the middles. Similar alternations of chipping and plowing then ensued until near the end of July, each cultivation shallower than the last in order that the roots of the cotton should not be cut.[4]
[Footnote 4: Cotton Culture is described by M.W. Philips in the American Agriculturist, II (New York, 1843), 51, 81, 117, 149; by various writers in J.A. Turner, ed., The Cotton Planter's Manual (New York, 1856), chap. I; Harry Hammond, The Cotton Plant (U.S. Department of Agriculture, Experiment Station, Bulletin 33, 1896); and in the U.S. Census, 1880, vols. V and VI.]
When the blossoms were giving place to bolls in midsummer, "lay-by time" was at hand. Cultivation was ended, and the labor was diverted to other tasks until in late August or early September the harvest began. The corn, which had been worked at spare times previously, now had its blades stripped and bundled for fodder; the roads were mended, the gin house and press put in order, the premises in general cleaned up, and perhaps a few spare days given to recreation.

The cotton bolls ripened and opened in series, those near the center of the plant first, then the outer ones on the lower branches, and finally the top crop. If subjected unduly to wind and rain the cotton, drooping in the bolls, would be blown to the ground or tangled with dead leaves or stained with mildew. It was expedient accordingly to send the pickers through the fields as early and as often as there was crop enough open to reward the labor.

Four or five compartments held the contents of each boll; from sixty to eighty bolls were required to yield a pound in the seed; and three or four pounds of seed cotton furnished one pound of lint. When a boll was wide open a deft picker could empty all of its compartments by one snatch of the fingers; and a specially skilled one could keep both hands flying independently, and still exercise the small degree of care necessary to keep the lint fairly free from the trash of the brittle dead calyxes. As to the day's work, a Georgia planter wrote in 1830: "A hand will pick or gather sixty to a hundred pounds of cotton in the seed, with ease, per day. I have heard of some hands gathering a hundred and twenty pounds in a day. The hands on a plantation ought to average sixty-five pounds," [5] But actual records in the following decades made these early pickers appear very inept. On Levin Covington's plantation near Natchez in 1844, in a typical week of October, Bill averaged 220 pounds a day, Dred 205 pounds, Aggy 215, and Delia 185; and on Saturday of that week all the twenty-eight men and boys together picked an average of 160 pounds, and all the eighteen women and girls an average of 125.[6] But these were dwarfed in turn by the pickings on J.W. Fowler's Prairie plantation, Coahoma County, Mississippi, at the close of the ante-bellum period. In the week of September 12 to 17, 1859, Sandy, Carver and Gilmore each averaged about three hundred pounds a day, and twelve other men and five women ranged above two hundred, while the whole gang of fifty-one men and women, boys and girls average 157 pounds each.[7]
[Footnote 5: American Farmer, II, 359.]

[Footnote 6: MS. in the Mississippi Department of History and Archives, Jackson, Miss.]

[Footnote 7: MS. in the possession of W.H. Stovall, Stovall, Miss.]
The picking required more perseverance than strength. Dexterity was at a premium, but the labors of the slow, the youthful and the aged were all called into requisition. When the fields were white with their fleece and each day might bring a storm to stop the harvesting, every boll picked might well be a boll saved from destruction. Even the blacksmith was called from his forge and the farmer's children from school to bend their backs in the cotton rows. The women and children picked steadily unless rains drove them in; the men picked as constantly except when the crop was fairly under control and some other task, such as breaking in the corn, called the whole gang for a day to another field or when the gin house crew had to clear the bins by working up their contents to make room for more seed cotton.

In the Piedmont where the yield was lighter the harvest was generally ended by December; but in the western belt, particularly when rains interrupted the work, it often extended far into the new year. Lucien Minor, for example, wrote when traveling through the plantations of northern Alabama, near Huntsville, in December, 1823: "These fields are still white with cotton, which frequently remains unpicked until March or April, when the ground is wanted to plant the next crop."[8] Planters occasionally noted in their journals that for want of pickers the top crop was lost.
[Footnote 8: Atlantic Monthly, XXVI, 175.]
As to the yield, an adage was current, that cotton would promise more and do less and promise less and do more than any other green thing that grew. The plants in the earlier stages were very delicate. Rough stirring of the clods would kill them; excess of rain or drought would be likewise fatal; and a choking growth of grass would altogether devastate the field. Improvement of conditions would bring quick recuperation to the surviving stalks, which upon attaining their full growth became quite hardy; but undue moisture would then cause a shedding of the bolls, and the first frost of autumn would stop the further fruiting. The plants, furthermore, were liable to many diseases and insect ravages. In infancy cut-worms might sever the stalks at the base, and lice might sap the vitality; in the full flush of blooming luxuriance, wilt and rust, the latter particularly on older lands, might blight the leaves, or caterpillars in huge armies reduce them to skeletons and blast the prospect; and even when the fruit was formed, boll-worms might consume the substance within, or dry-rot prevent the top crop from ripening. The ante-bellum planters, however, were exempt from the Mexican boll-weevil, the great pest of the cotton belt in the twentieth century.

While every planter had his fat years and lean, and the yield of the belt as a whole alternated between bumper crops and short ones, the industry was in general of such profit as to maintain a continued expansion of its area and a never ending though sometimes hesitating increase of its product. The crop rose from eighty-five million pounds in 1810 to twice as much in 1820; it doubled again by 1830 and more than doubled once more by 1840. Extremely low prices for the staple in the early 'forties and again in 1849 prompted a campaign for crop reduction; and in that decade the increase was only from 830,000,000 to 1,000,000,000 pounds. But the return of good prices in the 'fifties caused a fresh and huge enlargement to 2,300,000,000 pounds in the final census year of the ante-bellum period. While this was little more than one fourth as great as the crops of sixteen million bales in 1912 and 1915, it was justly reckoned in its time, at home and abroad, a prodigious output. All the rest of the world then produced barely one third as much. The cotton sent abroad made up nearly two thirds of the value of the gross export trade of the United States, while the tobacco export had hardly a tenth of the cotton's worth. In competition with all the other staples, cotton engaged the services of some three fourths of all the country's plantation labor, in addition to the labor of many thousands of white farmers and their families.

The production and sale of the staple engrossed no less of the people's thought than of their work. A traveler who made a zig-zag journey from Charleston to St. Louis in the early months of 1827, found cotton "a plague." At Charleston, said he, the wharves were stacked and the stores and ships packed with the bales, and the four daily papers and all the patrons of the hotel were "teeming with cotton." At Augusta the thoroughfares were thronged with groaning wagons, the warehouses were glutted, the open places were stacked, and the steamboats and barges hidden by their loads. On the road beyond, migrating planters and slaves bound for the west, "'where the cotton land is not worn out,'" met cotton-laden wagons townward bound, whereupon the price of the staple was the chief theme of roadside conversation. Occasionally a wag would have his jest. The traveler reported a tilt between two wagoners: "'What's cotton in Augusta?' says the one with a load.... 'It's cotton,' says the other. 'I know that,' says the first, 'but what is it?' 'Why,' says the other, 'I tell you it's cotton. Cotton is cotton in Augusta and everywhere else that I ever heard of,' 'I know that as well as you,' says the first, 'but what does cotton bring in Augusta?' 'Why, it brings nothing there, but everybody brings cotton,'" Whereupon the baffled inquirer appropriately relieved his feelings and drove on. At his crossing of the Oconee River the traveler saw pole-boats laden with bales twelve tiers high; at Milledgeville and Macon cotton was the absorbing theme; in the newly opened lands beyond he "found cotton land speculators thicker than locusts in Egypt"; in the neighborhood of Montgomery cotton fields adjoined one another in a solid stretch for fourteen miles along the road; Montgomery was congested beyond the capacity of the boats; and journeying thence to Mobile he "met and overtook nearly one hundred cotton waggons travelling over a road so bad that a state prisoner could hardly walk through it to make his escape." As to Mobile, it was "a receptacle monstrous for the article. Look which way you will you see it, and see it moving; keel boats, steamboats, ships, brigs, schooners, wharves, stores, and press-houses, all appeared to be full; and I believe that in the three days I was there, boarding with about one hundred cotton factors, cotton merchants and cotton planters, I must have heard the word cotton pronounced more than three thousand times." New Orleans had a similar glut.

On the journey up the Mississippi the plaint heard by this traveler from fellow passengers who lived at Natchitoches, was that they could not get enough boats to bring the cotton down the Red. The descending steamers and barges on the great river itself were half of them heavy laden with cotton and at the head of navigation on the Tennessee, in northwestern Alabama, bales enough were waiting to fill a dozen boats. "The Tennesseeans," said he, "think that no state is of any account but their own; Kentucky, they say, would be if it could grow cotton, but as it is, it is good for nothing. They count on forty or fifty thousand bales going from Nashville this season; that is, if they can get boats to carry it all." The fleet on the Cumberland River was doing its utmost, to the discomfort of the passengers; and it was not until the traveler boarded a steamer for St. Louis at the middle of March, that he escaped the plague which had surrounded him for seventy days and seventy nights. This boat, at last, "had not a bale of cotton on board, nor did I hear it named more than twice in thirty-six hours...I had a pretty tolerable night's sleep, though I dreamed of cotton."[9]
[Footnote 9: Georgia Courier (Augusta, Ga.), Oct. 11, 1827, reprinted in Plantation and Frontier, I, 283-289.]
This obsession was not without its undertone of disquiet. Foresighted men were apprehensive lest the one-crop system bring distress to the cotton belt as it had to Virginia. As early as 1818 a few newspaper editors[10] began to decry the régime; and one of them in 1821 rejoiced in a widespread prevalence of rot in the crop of the preceding year as a blessing, in that it staved off the rapidly nearing time when the staple's price would fall below the cost of production.[11] A marked rise of the price to above twenty cents a pound at the middle of the decade, however, silenced these prophets until a severe decline in the later twenties prompted the sons of Jeremiah to raise their voices again, and the political crisis procured them a partial hearing. Politicians were advocating the home production of cloth and foodstuffs as a demonstration against the protective tariff, while the economists pleaded for diversification for the sake of permanent prosperity, regardless of tariff rates. One of them wrote in 1827: "That we have cultivated cotton, cotton, cotton and bought everything else, has long been our opprobrium. It is time that we should be aroused by some means or other to see that such a course of conduct will inevitably terminate in our ultimate poverty and ruin. Let us manufacture, because it is our best policy. Let us go more on provision crops and less on cotton, because we have had everything about us poor and impoverished long enough.... We have good land, unlimited water powers, capital in plenty, and a patriotism which is running over in some places. If the tariff drives us to this, we say, let the name be sacred in all future generations."[12] Next year William Ellison of the South Carolina uplands welcomed even the low price of cotton as a lever[13] which might pry the planters out of the cotton rut and shift them into industries less exhausting to the soil.
[Footnote 10: Augusta Chronicle, Dec. 23, 1818.]

[Footnote 11: Georgia Journal (Milledgeville), June 5, 1821.]

[Footnote 12: Georgia Courier (Augusta), June 21, 1827.]

[Footnote 13: Southern Agriculturist, II, 13.]
But in the breast of the lowlander, William Elliott, the depression of the cotton market produced merely a querulous complaint that the Virginians, by rushing into the industry several years before when the prices were high, had spoiled the market. Each region, said he, ought to devote itself to the staples best suited to its climate and soil; this was the basis of profitable commerce. The proper policy for Virginia and most of North Carolina was to give all their labor spared from tobacco to the growing of corn which South Carolina would gladly buy of them if undisturbed in her peaceful concentration upon cotton.[14] The advance of cotton prices throughout most of the thirties suspended the discussion, and the régime went on virtually unchanged. As an evidence of the specialization of the Piedmont in cotton, it was reported in 1836 that in the town of Columbia alone the purchases of bacon during the preceding year had amounted to three and a half million pounds.[15]
[Footnote 14: Southern Agriculturist, I, 61.]

[Footnote 15: Niles' Register, LI, 46.]
The world-wide panic of 1837 began to send prices down, and the specially intense cotton crisis of 1839 broke the market so thoroughly that for five years afterward the producers had to take from five to seven cents a pound for their crops. Planters by thousands were bankrupted, most numerously in the inflated southwest; and thoughtful men everywhere set themselves afresh to study the means of salvation. Edmund Ruffin, the Virginian enthusiast for fertilizers, was employed by the authority of the South Carolina legislature to make an agricultural survey of that state with a view to recommending improvements. Private citizens made experiments on their estates; and the newspapers and the multiplying agricultural journals published their reports and advice. Most prominent among the cotton belt planters who labored in the cause of reform were ex-Governor James H. Hammond of South Carolina, Jethro V. Jones of Georgia, Dr. N.B. Cloud of Alabama, and Dr. Martin W. Philips of Mississippi. Of these, Hammond was chiefly concerned in swamp drainage, hillside terracing, forage increase, and livestock improvement; Jones was a promoter of the breeding of improved strains of cotton; Cloud was a specialist in fertilizing; and Philips was an all-round experimenter and propagandist. Hammond and Philips, who were both spurred to experiments by financial stress, have left voluminous records in print and manuscript. Their careers illustrate the handicaps under which innovators labored.

Hammond's estate[16] lay on the Carolina side of the Savannah River, some sixteen miles below Augusta. Impressed by the depletion of his upland soils, he made a journey in 1838 through southwestern Georgia and the adjacent portion of Florida in search of a new location; but finding land prices inflated, he returned without making a purchase,[17] and for the time being sought relief at home through the improvement of his methods. He wrote in 1841: "I have tried almost all systems, and unlike most planters do not like what is old. I hardly know anything old in corn or cotton planting but what is wrong." His particular enthusiasm now was for plow cultivation as against the hoe. The best planter within his acquaintance, he said, was Major Twiggs, on the opposite bank of the Savannah, who ran thirty-four plows with but fourteen hoes. Hammond's own plowmen were now nearly as numerous as his full hoe hands, and his crops were on a scale of twenty acres of cotton, ten of corn and two of oats to the plow. He was fertilizing each year a third of his corn acreage with cotton seed, and a twentieth of his cotton with barnyard manure; and he was making a surplus of thirty or forty bushels of corn per hand for sale.[18] This would perhaps have contented him in normal times, but the severe depression of cotton prices drove him to new prognostications and plans. His confidence in the staple was destroyed, he said, and he expected the next crop to break the market forever and force virtually everyone east of the Chattahoochee to abandon the culture. "Here and there," he continued, "a plantation may be found; but to plant an acre that will not yield three hundred pounds net will be folly. I cannot make more than sixty dollars clear to the hand on my whole plantation at seven cents...The western plantations have got fairly under way; Texas is coming in, and the game is up with us." He intended to change his own activities in the main to the raising of cattle and hogs; and he thought also of sending part of his slaves to Louisiana or Texas, with a view to removing thither himself after a few years if the project should prove successful.[19] In an address of the same year before the Agricultural Society of South Carolina, he advised those to emigrate who intended to continue producing cotton, and recommended for those who would stay in the Piedmont a diversified husbandry including tobacco but with main emphasis upon cereals and livestock.[20] Again at the end of 1849, he voiced similar views at the first annual fair of the South Carolina Institute. The first phase of the cotton industry, said he, had now passed; and the price henceforward would be fixed by the cost of production, and would yield no great profits even in the most fertile areas. The rich expanses of the Southwest, he thought, could meet the whole world's demand at a cost of less than five cents a pound, for the planters there could produce two thousand pounds of lint per hand while those in the Piedmont could not exceed an average of twelve hundred pounds. This margin of difference would deprive the slaves of their value in South Carolina and cause their owners to send them West, unless the local system of industry should be successfully revolutionized. The remedies he proposed were the fertilization of the soil, the diversification of crops, the promotion of commerce, and the large development of cotton manufacturing.[21]
[Footnote 16: Described in 1846 in the American Agriculturist, VI, 113, 114.]

[Footnote 17: MS. diary, April 13 to May 14, 1838, in Hammond papers, Library of Congress.]

[Footnote 18: Letters of Hammond to William Gilmore Simms, Jan. 27 and Mch. 9, 1841. Hammond's MS. drafts are in the Library of Congress.]

[Footnote 19: Letter to Isaac W. Hayne, Jan. 21, 1841.]

[Footnote 20: MS. oration in the Library of Congress.]

[Footnote 21: James H. Hammond, An Address delivered before the South Carolina Institute, at the first annual Fair, on the 20th November, 1849 (Charleston. 1849).]
Hammond found that not only the public but his own sons also, with the exception of Harry, were cool toward his advice and example; and he himself yielded to the temptation of the higher cotton prices in the 'fifties, and while not losing interest in cattle and small grain made cotton and corn his chief reliance. He appears to have salved his conscience in this relapse by devoting part of his income to the reclamation of a great marsh on his estate. He operated two plantations, the one at his home, "Silver Bluff," the other, "Cathwood," near by. The field force on the former comprised in 1850 sixteen plow hands, thirty-four full hoe hands, six three-quarter hands, two half hands and a water boy, the whole rated at fifty-five full hands. At Cathwood the force, similarly grouped, was rated at seventy-one hands; but at either place the force was commonly subject to a deduction of some ten per cent, of its rated strength, on the score of the loss of time by the "breeders and suckers" among the women. In addition to their field strength and the children, of whom no reckoning was made in the schedule of employments, the two plantations together had five stable men, two carpenters, a miller and job worker, a keeper of the boat landing, three nurses and two overseers' cooks; and also thirty-five ditchers in the reclamation work.

At Silver Bluff, the 385 acres in cotton were expected to yield 330 bales of 400 pounds each; the 400 acres in corn had an expectation of 9850 bushels; and 10 acres of rice, 200 bushels. At Cathwood the plantings and expectations were 370 acres in cotton to yield 280 bales, 280 in corn to yield 5000 bushels, 15 in wheat to yield 100 bushels, 11 in rye to yield 50, and 2 in rice to yield 50. In financial results, after earning in 1848 only $4334.91, which met barely half of his plantation and family expenses for the year, his crop sales from 1849 to 1853 ranged from seven to twenty thousand dollars annually in cotton and from one and a half to two and a half thousand dollars in corn. His gross earnings in these five years averaged $16,217.76, while his plantation expenses averaged $5393.87, and his family outlay $6392.67, leaving an average "clear gain per annum," as he called it, of $4431.10. The accounting, however, included no reckoning of interest on the investment or of anything else but money income and outgo. In 1859 Hammond put upon the market his 5500 acres of uplands with their buildings, livestock, implements and feed supplies, together with 140 slaves including 70 full hands. His purpose, it may be surmised, was to confine his further operations to his river bottoms.[22]
[Footnote 22: Hammond MSS., Library of Congress.]
Philips, whom a dearth of patients drove early from the practice of medicine, established in the 'thirties a plantation which he named Log Hall, in Hinds County, Mississippi. After narrowly escaping the loss of his lands and slaves in 1840 through his endorsement of other men's notes, he launched into experimental farming and agricultural publication. He procured various fancy breeds of cattle and hogs, only to have most of them die on his hands. He introduced new sorts of grasses and unfamiliar vegetables and field crops, rarely with success. Meanwhile, however, he gained wide reputation through his many writings in the periodicals, and in the 'fifties he turned this to some advantage in raising fancy strains of cotton and selling their seed. His frequent attendance at fairs and conventions and his devotion to his experiments and to his pen caused him to rely too heavily upon overseers in the routine conduct of his plantation. In consequence one or more slaves occasionally took to the woods; the whole force was frequently in bad health; and his women, though remarkably fecund, lost most of their children in infancy. In some degree Philips justified the prevalent scorn of planters for "book farming."[23]
[Footnote 23: M.W. Phillips, "Diary," F.L. Riley, ed., in the Mississippi Historical Society Publications, X, 305-481; letters of Philips in the American Agriculturist, DeBow's Review, etc., and in J.A. Turner, ed., The Cotton Planter's Manual, pp. 98-123.]
The newspapers and farm journals everywhere printed arguments in the 'forties in behalf of crop diversification, and DeBow's Review, founded in 1846, joined in the campaign; but the force of habit, the dearth of marketable substitutes and the charms of speculation conspired to make all efforts of but temporary avail. The belt was as much absorbed in cotton in the 'fifties as it had ever been before.

Meanwhile considerable improvement had been achieved in cotton methods. Mules, mainly bred in Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri, largely replaced the less effective horses and oxen; the introduction of horizontal plowing with occasional balks and hillside ditches, checked the washing of the Piedmont soils; the use of fertilizers became fairly common; and cotton seed was better selected. These last items of manures and seed were the subject of special campaigns. The former was begun as early as 1808 by the Virginian John Taylor of Caroline in his "Arator" essays, and was furthered by the publications of Edmund Ruffin and many others. But an adequate available source of fertilizers long remained a problem without solution. Taylor stressed the virtues of dung and rotation; but the dearth of forage hampered the keeping of large stocks of cattle, and soiling crops were thought commonly to yield too little benefit for the expense in labor. Ruffin had great enthusiasm for the marl or phosphate rock of the Carolina coast; but until the introduction in much later decades of a treatment by sulphuric acid this was too little soluble to be really worth while as a plant food. Lime was also praised; but there were no local sources of it in the districts where it was most needed.

Cotton seed, in fact, proved to be the only new fertilizer generally available in moderate abundance prior to the building of the railroads. In early years the seed lay about the gins as refuse until it became a public nuisance. To abate it the village authorities of Sparta, Georgia, for example, adopted in 1807 an ordinance "that the owner of each and every cotton machine within the limits of said town shall remove before the first day of May in each year all seed and damaged cotton that may be about such machines, or dispose of such seed or cotton so as to prevent its unhealthy putrefaction."[24] Soon after this a planter in St. Stephen's Parish, South Carolina, wrote: "We find from experience our cotton seed one of the strongest manures we make use of for our Indian corn; a pint of fresh seed put around or in the corn hole makes the corn produce wonderfully",[25] but it was not until the lapse of another decade or two that such practice became widespread. In the thirties Harriet Martineau and J.S. Buckingham noted that in Alabama the seed was being strewn as manure on a large scale.[26] As an improvement of method the seed was now being given in many cases a preliminary rotting in compost heaps, with a consequent speeding of its availability as plant food;[27] and cotton seed rose to such esteem as a fertilizer for general purposes that many planters rated it to be worth from sixteen to twenty-five cents a bushel of twenty-five pounds.[28] As early as 1830, furthermore a beginning was made in extracting cottonseed oil for use both in painting and illumination, and also in utilizing the by-product of cottonseed meal as a cattle feed.[29] By the 'fifties the oil was coming to be an unheralded substitute for olive oil in table use; but the improvements which later decades were to introduce in its extraction and refining were necessary for the raising of the manufacture to the scale of a substantial industry.
[Footnote 24: Farmer's Gazette (Sparta, Ga.), Jan. 31, 1807.]

[Footnote 25: Letter of John Palmer. Dec. 3, 1808, to David Ramsay. MS. in the Charleston Library.]

[Footnote 26: Harriet Martineau, Retrospect of Western Travel, (London, 1838), I, 218; I.S. Buckingham, The Slave States of America (London, 1842), I, 257.]

[Footnote 27: D.R. Williams of South Carolina described his own practice to this effect in an essay of 1825 contributed to the American Farmer and reprinted in H.T. Cook, The Life and Legacy of David R. Williams (New York, 1916), pp. 226, 227.]

[Footnote 28: J.A. Turner, ed., Cotton Planter's Manual, p. 99; Robert Russell, North America, p. 269.]

[Footnote 29: Southern Agriculturist, II, 563; American Farmer, II, 98; H.T. Cook, Life and Legacy of David R. Williams, pp. 197-209.]
The importation of fertilizers began with guano. This material, the dried droppings of countless birds, was discovered in the early 'forties on islands off the coast of Peru;[30] and it promptly rose to such high esteem in England that, according to an American news item, Lloyd's listed for 1845 not less than a thousand British vessels as having sailed in search of guano cargoes. The use of it in the United States began about that year; and nowhere was its reception more eager than in the upland cotton belt. Its price was about fifty dollars a ton in the seaports. To stimulate the use of fertilizers, the Central of Georgia Railroad Company announced in 1858 that it would carry all manures for any distance on its line in carload lots at a flat rate of two dollars per ton; and the connecting roads concurred in this policy. In consequence the Central of Georgia carried nearly two thousand tons of guano in 1859, and more than nine thousand tons in 1860, besides lesser quantities of lime, salt and bone dust. The superintendent reported that while the rate failed to cover the cost of transportation, the effect in increasing the amount of cotton to be freighted, and in checking emigration, fully compensated the road.[31] A contributor to the North American Review in January, 1861, wrote: "The use of guano is increasing. The average return for each pound used in the cotton field is estimated to be a pound and a half of cotton; and the planter who could raise but three bales to the hand on twelve acres of exhausted soil has in some instances by this appliance realized ten bales from the same force and area. In North Carolina guano is reported to accelerate the growth of the plant, and this encourages the culture on the northern border of the cotton-field, where early frosts have proved injurious."
[Footnote 30: American Agriculturist, III, 283.]

[Footnote 31: Central of Georgia Railroad Company Reports, 1858-1860.]
Widespread interest in agricultural improvement was reported by DeBow's Review in the 'fifties, taking the form partly of local and general fairs, partly of efforts at invention. A citizen of Alabama, for example, announced success in devising a cotton picking machine; but as in many subsequent cases in the same premises, the proclamation was premature.

As to improved breeds of cotton, public interest appears to have begun about 1820 in consequence of surprisingly good results from seed newly procured from Mexico. These were in a few years widely distributed under the name of Petit Gulf cotton. Colonel Vick of Mississippi then began to breed strains from selected seed; and others here and there followed his example, most of them apparently using the Mexican type. The more dignified of the planters who prided themselves on selling nothing but cotton, would distribute among their friends parcels of seed from any specially fine plants they might encounter in their fields, and make little ado about it. Men of a more flamboyant sort, such as M.W. Philips, contemning such "ruffle-shirt cant," would christen their strains with attractive names, publish their virtues as best they might, and offer their fancy seed for sale at fancy prices. Thus in 1837 the Twin-seed or Okra cotton was in vogue, selling at many places for five dollars a quart. In 1839 this was eclipsed by the Alvarado strain, which its sponsors computed from an instance of one heavily fruited stalk nine feet high and others not so prodigious, might yield three thousand pounds per acre.[32] Single Alvarado seeds were sold at fifty cents each, or a bushel might be had at $160. In the succeeding years Vick's Hundred Seed, Brown's, Pitt's, Prolific, Sugar Loaf, Guatemala, Cluster, Hogan's, Banana, Pomegranate, Dean, Multibolus, Mammoth, Mastodon and many others competed for attention and sale. Some proved worth while either in increasing the yield, or in producing larger bolls and thereby speeding the harvest, or in reducing the proportionate weight of the seed and increasing that of the lint; but the test of planting proved most of them to be merely commonplace and not worth the cost of carriage. Extreme prices for seed of any strain were of course obtainable only for the first year or two; and the temptation to make fraudulent announcement of a wonder-working new type was not always resisted. Honest breeders improved the yield considerably; but the succession of hoaxes roused abundant skepticism. In 1853 a certain Miller of Mississippi confided to the public the fact that he had discovered by chance a strain which would yield three hundred pounds more of seed cotton per acre than any other sort within his knowledge, and he alluringly named it Accidental Poor Land Cotton. John Farrar of the new railroad town Atlanta was thereby moved to irony. "This kind of cotton," he wrote in a public letter, "would run a three million bale crop up to more than four millions; and this would reduce the price probably to four or five cents. Don't you see, Mr. Miller, that we had better let you keep and plant your seed? You say that you had rather plant your crop with them than take a dollar a pint.... Let us alone, friend, we are doing pretty well--we might do worse."[33]
[Footnote 32: Southern Banner( Athens, Ga.), Sept. 20, 1839.]

[Footnote 33: J.A. Turner, ed., Cotton Planter's Manual, p. 98-128.]
In the sea-island branch of the cotton industry the methods differed considerably from those in producing the shorter staple. Seed selection was much more commonly practiced, and extraordinary care was taken in ginning and packing the harvest. The earliest and favorite lands for this crop were those of exceedingly light soil on the islands fringing the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. At first the tangle of live-oak and palmetto roots discouraged the use of the plow; and afterward the need of heavy fertilization with swamp mud and seaweed kept the acreage so small in proportion to the laborers that hoes continued to be the prevalent means of tillage. Operations were commonly on the basis of six or seven acres to the hand, half in cotton and the rest in corn and sweet potatoes. In the swamps on the mainland into which this crop was afterwards extended, the use of the plow permitted the doubling of the area per hand; but the product of the swamp lands was apparently never of the first grade.

The fields were furrowed at five-foot intervals during the winter, bedded in early spring, planted in late April or early May, cultivated until the end of July, and harvested from September to December. The bolls opened but narrowly and the fields had to be reaped frequently to save the precious lint from damage by the weather. Accordingly the pickers are said to have averaged no more than twenty-five pounds a day. The preparation for market required the greatest painstaking of all. First the seed cotton was dried on a scaffold; next it was whipped for the removal of trash and sand; then it was carefully sorted into grades by color and fineness; then it went to the roller gins, whence the lint was spread upon tables where women picked out every stained or matted bit of the fiber; and finally when gently packed into sewn bags it was ready for market. A few gin houses were equipped in the later decades with steam power; but most planters retained the system of a treadle for each pair of rollers as the surest safeguard of the delicate filaments. A plantation gin house was accordingly a simple barn with perhaps a dozen or two foot-power gins, a separate room for the whipping, a number of tables for the sorting and moting, and a round hole in the floor to hold open the mouth of the long bag suspended for the packing.[34] In preparing a standard bale of three hundred pounds, it was reckoned that the work required of the laborers at the gin house was as follows: the dryer, one day; the whipper, two days; the sorters, at fifty pounds of seed cotton per day for each, thirty days; the ginners, each taking 125 pounds in the seed per day and delivering therefrom 25 pounds of lint, twelve days; the moters, at 43 pounds, seven days; the inspector and packer, two days; total fifty-four days.
[Footnote 34: The culture and apparatus are described by W.B. Seabrook, Memoir on Cotton, pp. 23-25; Thomas Spaulding in the American Agriculturist, III, 244-246; R.F.W. Allston, Essay on Sea Coast Crops (Charleston, 1854), reprinted in DeBow's Review, XVI, 589-615; J.A. Turner, ed., Cotton Planter's Manual, pp. 131-136. The routine of operations is illustrated in the diary of Thomas P. Ravenel, of Woodboo plantation, 1847-1850, printed in Plantation and Frontier, I, 195-208.]
The roller gin was described in a most untechnical manner by Basil Hall: "It consists of two little wooden rollers, each about as thick as a man's thumb, placed horizontally and touching each other. On these being put into rapid motion, handfulls of the cotton are cast upon them, which of course are immediately sucked in.... A sort of comb fitted with iron teeth ... is made to wag up and down with considerable velocity in front of the rollers. This rugged comb, which is equal in length to the rollers, lies parallel to them, with the sharp ends of its teeth almost in contact with them. By the quick wagging motion given to this comb by the machinery, the buds of cotton cast upon the rollers are torn open just as they are beginning to be sucked in. The seeds, now released ... fly off like sparks to the right and left, while the cotton itself passes between the rollers."[35]
[Footnote 35: Basil Hall, Travels in North America (Edinburgh, 1829), III, 221, 222.]
As to yields and proceeds, a planter on the Georgia seaboard analyzed his experience from 1830 to 1847 as follows: the harvest average per acre ranged from 68 pounds of lint in 1846 to 223 pounds in 1842, with a general average for the whole period of 137 pounds; the crop's average price per pound ranged from 14 cents in 1847 to 41 cents in 1838, with a general average of 23 1/2 cents; and the net proceeds per hand were highest at $137 in 1835, lowest at $41 in 1836, and averaged $83 for the eighteen years.[36]
[Footnote 36: J.A. Turner, ed., Cotton Planter's Manual, pp. 128, 129.]
In the cotton belt as a whole the census takers of 1850 enumerated 74,031 farms and plantations each producing five bales or more,[37] and they reckoned the crop at 2,445,793 bales of four hundred pounds each. Assuming that five bales were commonly the product of one full hand, and leaving aside a tenth of the gross output as grown perhaps on farms where the cotton was not the main product, it appears that the cotton farms and plantations averaged some thirty bales each, and employed on the average about six full hands. That is to say, there were very many more small farms than large plantations devoted to cotton; and among the plantations, furthermore, it appears that very few were upon a scale entitling them to be called great, for the nature of the industry did not encourage the engrossment of more than sixty laborers under a single manager.[38] It is true that some proprietors operated on a much larger scale than this. It was reported in 1859, for example, that Joseph Bond of Georgia had marketed 2199 bales of his produce, that numerous Louisiana planters, particularly about Concordia Parish, commonly exceeded that output; that Dr. Duncan of Mississippi had a crop of 3000 bales; and that L.R. Marshall, who lived at Natchez and had plantations in Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas, was accustomed to make more than four thousand bales.[39] The explanation lies of course in the possession by such men of several more or less independent plantations of manageable size. Bond's estate, for example, comprised not less than six plantations in and about Lee County in southwestern Georgia, while his home was in the town of Macon. The areas of these, whether cleared or in forest, ranged from 1305 to 4756 acres.[40] But however large may have been the outputs of exceptionally great planters, the fact remains on the other hand that virtually half of the total cotton crop each year was made by farmers whose slaves were on the average hardly more numerous than the white members of their own families. The plantation system nevertheless dominated the régime.
[Footnote 37: Compendium of the Seventh Census, p. 178]

[Footnote 38: DeBow's Review, VIII, 16.]

[Footnote 39: Ibid., XXVI, 581.]

[Footnote 40: Advertisement of Bond's executors offering the plantations for sale in the Federal Union (Milledgeville, Ga.), Nov. 8, 1859.]
The British and French spinners, solicitous for their supply of material, attempted at various times and places during the ante-bellum period to enlarge the production of cotton where it was already established and to introduce it into new regions. The result was a complete failure to lessen the predominance of the United States as a source. India, Egypt and Brazil might enlarge their outputs considerably if the rates in the market were raised to twice or thrice their wonted levels; but so long as the price held a moderate range the leadership of the American cotton belt could not be impaired, for its facilities were unequaled. Its long growing season, hot in summer by day and night, was perfectly congenial to the plant, its dry autumns permitted the reaping of full harvests, and its frosty winters decimated the insect pests. Its soil was abundant, its skilled managers were in full supply, its culture was well systematized, and its labor adequate for the demand. To these facilities there was added in the Southern thought of the time, as no less essential for the permanence of the cotton belt's primacy, the plantation system and the institution of slavery.


Terms Defined

Referenced Works