The United States is one of the most productive agricultural nations in the world, and its ability to produce food and other cash crops has been a direct function of the labor available and its relationship to the means of production. The southern states in particular have found themselves at various points dependent on slavery and other forms of labor to continue the agricultural productivity underlying their traditional way of life.
The use of some kind of farm labor other than farm owners themselves to help plant and harvest crops has been a part of the agricultural history of the United States from colonial times. Various sources provided that help, which can be divided into at least six categories: indentured servants, both black and white; African slave labor; sharecroppers; immigrant Asian laborers; braceros; and undocumented immigrants.
The involuntary laborers generally fell into one of four groups. Some British convicts were allowed transportation to the colonies to avoid a death penalty. Between 1655 and 1699, forty-five hundred such servants entered the colonies, and between 1700 and 1750, around ten thousand came to Maryland alone, with many others going to Virginia or the West Indies. Convicted criminals, especially those charged with larceny or debt, and victims of kidnapping by overzealous recruiters also became involuntary indentured servants.
Throughout the first half of the seventeenth century, these white indentured servants performed most of the arduous labor of clearing the land and cultivating tobacco crops in Virginia in particular. Thanks to this cheap labor, tobacco quickly became a cash crop, with over 500,000 pounds being exported by 1627. Indeed, it was said that indentured servants’ contributions in the raising of tobacco saved the Virginia colony. The golden age for the indentured servant ended during the mid-seventeenth century, however.
In South Carolina, the decline was due largely to the nature of the work involved in rice production. Rice cultivation is well suited to gang labor, and the hard work in the hot summers in the colonies may have been an important deterrent to those considering migration to South Carolina. The Restoration of King Charles II and the subsequent passage of the Navigations Acts deprived Virginia and Maryland of the free world market they had enjoyed for tobacco, and this, along with other conditions, led to an irreversible decline in the number of indentured laborers.
A new wave of indentured migrants began to arrive in the United States around the 1830’s. These were largely Asian, and, unlike the earlier European laborers, the nineteenth century arrivals received wages, housing, medical care, and clothing. Although these new indentured laborers resembled members of the earlier European labor trade in some ways, there was no historical connection; instead, they replaced African slavery. By the 1850’s, however, holding laborers in indentured servitude came to be perceived as equivalent to slavery, and the
Few would have dared to believe that all sectors of the national economy would be transformed by cotton during the early years of the nineteenth century. It quickly became clear that large numbers of slave laborers would be needed to clear the land and plant
Although cotton was the dominant cash crop under cultivation by slave labor, the slaves raised other profitable crops: sugarcane in southeastern Louisiana; tobacco in Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky; rice in South Carolina and Georgia; and corn and wheat in the Shenandoah Valley, the “breadbasket” of the Confederacy during the U.S. Civil War. All contributed to the nation’s economic viability and prosperity. However, Reconstruction laws, specifically the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, would bring slave labor to an end, as the rights of citizenship and the vote were enacted for all natural-born Americans.
After slavery fell into disrepute, free-labor plantations came into use. In the aftermath of the Civil War, planters often had to borrow money at high interest rates to produce crops.
During the Dust Bowl era of the 1930’s, the number of white tenant farmers and sharecroppers increased, because so many sold their own farms and began migrating to harvest crops on other farmers’ farms. The system had benefits and costs for both the landlords and the tenants. It assured that the tenant would remain on the land throughout the harvest season, but because the tenant paid in shares of the harvest, the owner was not immune from the effects of a bad harvest. Because sharecroppers benefited from large harvests, they had more incentive to work hard and use better farming methods than did plantation slaves.
Between the 1860’s and the 1920’s, farming, especially in California, developed into a large-scale industry that resulted in a series of importations of Asian labor. The first wave of imported workers were Asian Indians, followed by
A Mexican farmworker holding carrots in Edinburg, Texas, in 1939.
Between 1942 and 1964, because of labor shortages arising from World War II, the
Between the 1970’s and 1990’s, many African American workers moved into other industries, and Latin American immigrants became the primary source of labor in agriculture. In 1994, the
Buss, Fran Leeper, ed. Forged Under the Sun/Forjada Bajo el Sol: The Life of Maria Elena Lucas. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993. The autobiography of a migrant farmworker who endured the struggles and the injustices of such a life, and who grew up to become a champion for farmworkers through organized labor groups. Also a writer, she incorporates some of her poems and a play into the text. Photographs. Eaton, Clement. A History of the Old South: The Emergence of a Reluctant Nation. 3d ed. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1987. Traces the colonial origins of southerners, the evolution of the plantation, the rise of a native aristocracy, and the southern Federalists. Discusses slave labor and later changing attitudes toward slavery. Bibliography and index. Kiser, George C., and Martha Woody Kiser, eds. Mexican Workers in the United States. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1979. A collection of essays and brief commentary, organized chronologically, traces the use of Mexican labor from the World War I era through the bracero era of 1942 to 1964. Addresses the illegal Mexican worker and the Mexican commuter situations. Reports on the Mexican Border Industry Program enacted by the United States government. Lewis, Sasha G. Slave Trade Today: American Exploitation of Illegal Aliens. Boston: Beacon Press, 1979. Analyses the reality of slave trade in contemporary times in the United States, pointing out that it is international in scope. Discusses the problems inherent in the undocumented alien labor situation, with employers wanting to reap the financial benefits of hiring illegal aliens, leaving the law-enforcement sector feeling helpless. Suggests ways to addresses the broken system. Extensive list of sources and resources. Northrup, David. Indentured Labor in the Age of Imperialism, 1834-1922. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Compares the different indentured migrations of the nineteenth century and relates their experiences to those of more contemporary migrant groups. Presents indentured labor as a distinct historical phenomenon, not as a continuation of slavery.
United Farm Workers of America