Plantation agriculture Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A combination of favorable geographic conditions, climate, and world demand for the staple crops of the South led to the growth of these large-scale agricultural operations beginning during the early seventeenth century. Before the U.S. Civil War, the agricultural products of southern plantations, especially cotton, played a major role in American exports and the balance-of-trade equation.

During the early seventeenth century, English colonists in the southern part of the East Coast found a land with a warm climate and adequate soils. Much of this land was near rivers or coastal waters that provided economical transportation. Few places north of Maryland had this combination of conditions, which the colonists recognized as suitable for large-scale agriculture.Agriculture;plantation

Early Plantations

The word “plantation” originally meant simply a piece of cleared, farmable land. Over time, southern plantations came to specialize in the production of a few staple crops: tobacco, cotton, sugar, and rice. In the colonial period, indigo, a plant grown to make a rich deep-blue dye, was also significant, but its production ended around the time of the American Revolution. Hemp, which was grown for its fiber for making rope and burlap, later became an important staple in the upper areas of the South.

Early colonial plantations favored indentured servants and slaves because, in a region where land could be obtained easily, hired laborers tended to migrate to their own farmsteads. The majority of the laborers during the early colonial period were white Indentured laborindentured servants. An indentured servant sold the right to his or her labor for a period of time (usually five to seven years) in return for transportation to America and sometimes the payment of other debts. Until the early eighteenth century, indentured servitude was much more common on southern plantations than black Slaveryslavery. By 1725, this had changed, and black slaves predominated, primarily because plantation owners had become wealthy enough to afford the extra cost of slaves.

The Antebellum South

A cotton plantation in Richmond, Mississippi, in 1890.

(Library of Congress)

In the nineteenth century South, the term “plantation” came to refer to a farm with twenty or more slaves. The status of a plantation depended on the number of slaves owned, not the number of acres farmed. Although many variables make it difficult to generalize about plantations, a “typical” plantation was probably around one thousand acres and had sixty to one hundred slaves.

Large plantations could take advantage of economies of scale to cut production costs. With the gang system, in which many slaves worked under the direction of an overseer, the rhythm of work could be controlled and a large number of workers kept focused on a particular task. Plantation owners were generally convinced that slave labor was not highly efficient; therefore, to produce crops profitably, they believed the slaves had to be worked long hours per day and many days per year.

Many people associate plantation agriculture with the production of Cotton industrycotton. However, the cotton boom was a relatively late occurrence. Before the invention of the cotton gin, the difficulty of removing the seed from short-fiber cotton meant it was not very profitable to grow–but this was the only type of cotton that would grow in much of the South. Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1793 was a timely innovation, for it allowed a vast expansion in the production of short-fiber cotton precisely when English factories were creating unprecedented demands. In 1793, the United States produced 5 million pounds of cotton. By 1800, this had increased to 40 million pounds. During the early nineteenth century, cotton production doubled every decade, and by 1860, the South produced 2 billion pounds of cotton, more than two-thirds the total world supply. Cotton achieved a dominant position in the U.S. export market. In 1860, earnings from cotton exports totaled $190 billion. The export of cotton was one of the principal ways that Americans earned foreign currency to purchase foreign goods.

Besides the major staple crops, most plantations also produced food crops: livestock, vegetable crops, and corn, wheat, and other grains. Much of this production was consumed by the people on the plantation, and some of the grains were fed to livestock. Some planters, however, followed the model of the English West Indies plantations by putting all of their land into one cash crop and buying the food and livestock fodder they needed from other producers.

Historians have debated the economic viability of slavery. Many early scholars argued that by 1860 slavery was unprofitable and likely to be discontinued in the near future. However, later scholars have rejected this view, arguing that slavery, for all its moral evils, was economically viable, and therefore it was unlikely that southern planters would have abandoned this labor system voluntarily.

After the U.S. Civil War, plantation owners often subdivided their lands into thirty- to forty-acre units that were farmed by sharecroppers. Because each sharecropping family operated somewhat independently, there was less sense of the plantation as a single, large entity. In the twentieth century, all forms of commercial farming became larger and more mechanized, and this also contributed to the disappearance of the distinctive character of the old-style plantation.

Further Reading
  • Fogel, Robert W., and Stanley Engerman. Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery. 2 vols. Boston: Little, Brown, 1974. This work prompted major debates over many issues involving slavery, especially concerning the extent to which slaves were exploited.
  • Genovese, Eugene G. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Pantheon Books, 1974. A major study of the daily lives of slaves in the antebellum South.
  • Hughes, Jonathan, and Louis P. Cain. American Economic History. 6th ed. Boston: Addison-Wesley, 2003. Especially valuable for putting slavery and the plantation system into the overall context of the American economy.
  • Otto, John Solomon. The Southern Frontiers, 1607-1860: The Agricultural Evolution of the Colonial and Antebellum South. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1989. Provides many details about farming practices, something surprisingly absent in many works about the antebellum South.
  • Phillips, Ulrich Bonnell. American Negro Slavery: A Survey of the Supply, Employment, and Control of Negro Labor as Determined by the Plantation Regime. 1918. Reprint. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1966. Phillips created a whole school of historical interpretation, which later was criticized for having an overly benign view of slavery and the plantation system.
  • Stampp, Kenneth. The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South. New York: Vintage Books, 1956. One of the first major revisionist works to challenge the Phillips school of interpretation.


Colonial economic systems

Cotton gin

Cotton industry

Farm labor

Indentured labor


Slave era

Slave trading

George Washington

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