On A Cotton Plantation
|SCENES ON A COTTON
| These pictures were mainly taken upon the Buena Vista
plantation, in Clarke County, Alabama. The four sketches in the centre
show the principal operations of cotton culture; and around figure
other scenes appropriate to a cotton plantation.
The cotton-gin; the picturesque cotton-press, to whose long levers the mules are harnessed to
create the power which compresses the ginned staple into bales; the morning call, performed
upon a cow-horn; the owner and his overseer, figure here; as well as the weekly distribution of
rations, the dance which closes the week's labor, and the plantation burying-ground. Here the
defunct negroes are buried, a rail-fence being raised above the graves to keep off marauding
hogs, calves, etc. It is customary among the superstitious negroes to place upon each new-made grave a mattock and a spade, there to
remain for fourteen days from the date of the burial, as safeguards against the premature
resurrection of the corpse.
The operations of cotton-growing commence with bedding; the beds being from four to six
furrows wide, according to the expected growth of cotton. A small plow called a "scouter" is
then used to cut the furrows for the seed, which is usually sown by the women and younger hands,
who are in turn followed by the harrow -- a bent board which covers up the seed. The next
process is called bearing off, which consists in throwing a furrow away from the young cotton with
a scraper, leaving a ridge of four inches in width; this makes it easy to follow with the hoes and
"scrape" the cotton, which means to cut out the surplus growth to the width of the hoe,
technically called a half stand. The furrows are now thrown back toward the cotton, and every
effort made to keep the growing crop thrifty and free of weeds, especially grass, some kinds of
which are great pests in the cotton field. The cotton is now brought to a full stand, the plants
standing about two feet apart in the rows. It is not unusual to plant corn in the cotton field in
transverse rows, with the plants eight or ten feet apart -- an arrangement which does not interfere
with cotton, and is a clear gain upon the crop.
Picking commences about the latter end of August, and may continue till January. The
cotton is taken to the gin-house, and, if wet, spread out for an hour or two upon large
platforms to dry; after being ginned it is pressed and baled. Ordinary land, well cultivated, will
give half a bale to the acre, while the rich river bottoms will yield twice as much.
One man to ten acres is considered sufficient -- if they work. A good hand before the war was worth
$1500 in gold, which, at the Alabama rate of interest -- 8 per
cent -- was $120 a year, besides the clothing, taxes, doctor's bill, loss
of time during sickness, insurance, etc. The same hand can now be
hired for $10 a month in currency; pays his own doctor's bill and
taxes, clothes himself, deducts all time lost by sickness, and if he dies
is his own loss -- a consoling reflection to some planters.
Horses and mules can be purchased for less in currency than they could before the war, while
provisions are about the same when reduced to a gold basis. The
richest lands are for sale for prices one half to one third less than
before the war.
Alabama and Mississippi planters amassed large fortunes by raising cotton at from seven to nine
cents a pound; and to-day in our own markets it is selling in gold
for from two or two and a half times what it did before the war.
Putting land, labor, stock, etc., at half their gold value in 1859, and
cotton at twice, or more, the gold value of that year, it follows that
to raise it is a profitable investment. The present year is no
criterion as to the cotton crop, for it has been certainly the most
unfavorable season since 1846.
As Alfred Waud’s illustrations of both the
rice and the cotton plantations suggest, the labor
opportunities and patterns for Southern blacks did
not change greatly after the Civil War, especially
with the retreat from Reconstruction policies in
the late 1860s and early 1870s. Most freedpeople
had agricultural skills and little or no money to
buy their own land or to invest in a business.
Consequently, they continued to work on the
plantations of their former masters. Some
freedpeople were eventually able to rent land from
white landowners (tenancy) or to share the crop
costs and profits with the white landowners
The South had been economically devastated by
the Civil War and it took a long time to recover.
The general privation of the South combined with
the legal and social restrictions based on race,
the lack of economic resources available to
blacks, and the economic arrangements of tenancy
and sharecropping to keep most Southern blacks in
a state of economic dependence and poverty.