Agricultural Production--Plantations



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 being popular in Georgia and South Carolina along the Atlantic coast, tobacco being an early cash crop in Virginia, and then—after the invention of the cotton gin at the end of the eighteenth century which quickly separated seeds from the cotton fibers—the boom in cotton growing across the Deep South.

By 1860, there were approximately 46,200 plantations across the south. More than 20,000 had twenty to thirty slaves. Only about 2,300, or five percent, had one hundred or more slaves. The enslaved African Americans carried out most of the farming, construction, and domestic work. The plantations were their home. The same was not always true for the plantation owners. The very large operations frequently had wealthy absentee owners, who resided in cities or other states, leaving 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. Slave cabins, or slave quarters, were a ubiquitous part of a plantation. They represented the heart of the laborers’ community on the property, but were usually of basic construction and few amenities.

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. (Wikipedia)

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