Agricultural Production--Plantations. Mississippi



Plantations are farms that typically grow cash crops, and often specialize in a single product, such as cotton, tobacco, or sugar cane. Plantation farming continues in various parts of the world in the twenty-first century, especially for crops like coffee beans, rubber trees, and cocoa. In American history the term plantation is most often associated with estates in the American south. Historical descriptions of plantations generate images of large farming operations. However, even moderately-sized southern farms that planted cash crops were sometimes referred to as plantations.

Southern plantations before the Civil War were strongly tied to the institution of slavery. As profit-driven agricultural operations, plantations required large numbers of laborers. This fed the demand for African slave importation to the British colonies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and bolstered the defense of slavery among southern planters in the nineteenth century. Plantation crops varied by region within the south, with rice in Georgia and South Carolina along the Atlantic coast, tobacco being an early cash crop in Virginia, sugar cane in Louisiana, and cotton across the Deep South.

By the mid-nineteenth century, Mississippi was the top cotton producing state in the Union. In 1860, it had around 37,000 farms. Almost 25,000 of them were plantations over one hundred acres in size, although only 481 were truly extravagant at over one thousand acres. Cotton production required farmers and planters to invest a great deal into labor and equipment, leading Mississippi to rank third among the slaveholding states for total value of farm machinery ($8.8 million in 1860, or $330 million today), slightly trailing Virginia ($9.4 million in 1860, or $355 million today) and well behind Louisiana ($18.6 million in 1860, or $702 million today).

Although plantations were profit-driven operations, many in Mississippi were self-sufficient, with subsistence farm plots and livestock to feed the labor force. Enslaved African Americans carried out most of the farming, construction, and domestic work on plantations. The plantations were their home. The largest plantations were like small villages, with many different buildings, including the master’s house (usually large and extravagant), barns, workshops, storage facilities, and slave quarters. Some plantation owners lived part-time on the property, or visited only occasionally, residing most of the year in cities or other states. They left plantation supervision responsibilities to hired white overseers. Smaller plantation owners usually lived on their property, but almost always in separate buildings from the enslaved laborers.

Following the abolition of slavery after the Civil War, many freed people continued to live on plantations. Sharecropping became a popular arrangement between the landowners and the laborers. The property was often divided into plots with tenants assigned to certain sections. The system involved a contract or arrangement which allowed the laborer, or tenant, to keep a portion of the crop they raised. The system was abused, and developed a negative reputation for the level of poverty many sharecroppers (mostly Black, but some white) experienced on plantations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Representatives of the Freedmen’s Bureau sought to protect Black sharecroppers by regulating contracts during Reconstruction, but the withdrawal of federal officials after 1876 left many African American tenants more subject to unfair sharecropping contracts on the old plantations. (Mississippi Encylopedia;; Wikipedia; Lauren Holt, “History of Plantations and Slavery in Mississippi,” Preserve Marshall County and Holly Springs, Inc., Behind the Big House)

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