Scenes On A Cotton Plantation

February 2, 1867, pages 72, 73

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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 (sharecropping).

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.


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