Cotton along the Mississippi

The work that awaited slaves sold and forced into labor in the new South was different in scale, intensity, and practice than the tobacco and grain fields that many left in Virginia, Maryland and the Carolinas. Land needed to be cleared of forest and often drained with miles of ditches and protected from flood by more miles of dykes. Once fields were cleared cotton cultivation was literally a year round job. Disposing of slash from the previous year's crop began in January and fields were prepared and seeded shortly thereafter. New plants required repeated hoeing throughout the summer to keep down competing weeds. Picking and processing the cotton itself typically ran through fall and often into December and early January. As you will read, these were all jobs that were done by gangs of slaves working in a way that often resembled industrial assembly lines.

The seasonal work of slaves on cotton plantations outlined above is characterized in these drawings:

Hoeing Picking

Contemporary writers varied in their interpretation of the nature and extent of the slave's work experience, the penalties for not performing, and the general severity of life as a slave in the cotton fields of the new South. Several different points of view are presented here in the documents listed. Study each and complete a copy of the Document Analysis note sheet for each one. Share your thoughts and refine your notes as you discuss the reading with others. Be prepared to share a summary of your work.

To Start You Thinking

1) Create a bubble diagram similar to the example at right. Group the documents together in 2-4 groups. Put those together that seem to go together in terms of the author's attitude about slavery and the work of slaves in the cotton fields of Mississippi. Include brief notes in each bubble explaining why you grouped the documents the way you did.


2) Compare and contrast  George Fitzhugh's defense of slavery with the letter from Amos Dresser in terms of both content and tone. What are the major points of disagreement? Are they in agreement in any way?

3) Picking cotton is not dependent on strength. Select five women and five men at random from the picking record sheets in the Eustatia Plantationrecords. Compare the average number of pounds picked by each group. Compare your results with the results of others who selected different individuals.

4) The ex-slaves Henry Watson and Solomon Northup tell similar stories about their experiences working in the cotton fields on the "plantations" on which they were enslaved. What image does the word "plantation" bring to mind when you see or hear it?

The historian Edward Baptist recently published a book on slavery and American capitalism entitled The Half Has Never Been Told. In it he refers to "slave labor camps," not to "plantations." Why do you suppose he made this choice of words?

5) Based on your reading from the Travel Journal of Frederick Law Olmstead, do you think that Olmstead was more in favor of slavery or its abolition? Explain.


images from T. B. Thorpe, "Cotton and Its Cultivation," in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Volume 8 Issue 46 (March 1854), ppĀ 447-463. Downloaded Dec 3, 2016 courtesy of Cornell University Library, Making of America Digital Collection.

Last modified in July, 2019 by Rick Thomas