Plantation complexes in the Southern United States

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Stratford Hall is a classic example of Southern plantation architecture, built on an H-plan and completed in 1738 near Lerty, Virginia. It was the childhood home of two American patriots and signers of the Declaration of Independence: Richard Lee and Francis Lee.

A plantation complex in the Southern United States is the built environment (or complex) that was common on agricultural plantations in the American South from the 17th into the 20th century. The complex included everything from the main residence down to the pens for livestock. Southern plantations were generally self-sufficient settlements that relied on the forced labor of slaves, similar to the way that a medieval manorial estate relied upon the forced labor of serfs.[1]

A cotton plantation on the Mississippi, Currier & Ives lithograph, 1884

Plantations are an important aspect of the History of the Southern United States, particularly the antebellum era (pre-American Civil War) era. The mild temperate climate, plentiful rainfall, and fertile soils of the southeastern United States allowed the flourishing of large plantations, where large numbers of enslaved Africans were held captive as slave labor and forced to produce crops to create wealth for a white elite.

The Seward Plantation is a historic Southern plantation-turned-ranch in Independence, Texas, United States.

Today, as was also true in the past, there is a wide range of opinion as to what differentiated a plantation from a farm. Typically, the focus of a farm was subsistence agriculture. In contrast, the primary focus of a plantation was the production of cash crops, with enough staple food crops produced to feed the population of the estate and the livestock.[2] A common definition of what constituted a plantation is that it typically had 500 to 1,000 acres (2.0 to 4.0 km2) or more of land and produced one or two cash crops for sale.[3] Other scholars have attempted to define it by the number of slaves that were owned.[4]

The plantation complex[edit]

The whimsical Gothic Revival-style Afton Villa in St. Francisville, Louisiana. Built from 1848 to 1856, the masonry structure burned in 1963.

The vast majority of plantations did not have grand mansions centered on a huge acreage. These large estates did exist, but represented only a small percentage of the plantations that once existed in the South.[2] Although many Southern farmers did own slaves prior to emancipation, few owned more than five. These farmers tended to work the fields alongside their slaves.[5] Of the estimated 46,200 plantations known to exist in 1860, 20,700 had 20 to 30 slaves and only 2,300 had a workforce of a hundred or more, with the rest somewhere in between.[4]

Many plantations were operated by absentee-landowners and never had a main house on site. Just as vital and arguably more important to the complex were the many structures built for the processing and storage of crops, food preparation and storage, sheltering equipment and animals, and various other domestic and agricultural purposes. The value of the plantation came from its land and the slaves who toiled on it to produce crops for sale. These same people produced the built environment: the main house for the plantation owner, the slave cabins, barns, and other structures of the complex.[6]

1862 photograph of the slave quarter at Smiths Plantation in Port Royal, South Carolina. The slave house shown is of the saddlebag type.

The materials for a plantation's buildings, for the most part, came from the lands of the estate. Lumber was obtained from the forested areas of the property.[6] Depending on its intended use, it was either split, hewn, or sawn.[7] Bricks were most often produced onsite from sand and clay that was molded, dried, and then fired in a kiln. If a suitable stone was available, it was used. Tabby was often used on the southern Sea Islands.[6]

Freeman Plantation House in Jefferson, Texas.

Few plantation structures have survived into the modern era, with the vast majority destroyed through natural disaster, neglect, or fire over the centuries. With the collapse of the plantation economy and subsequent Southern transition from a largely agrarian to an industrial society, plantations and their building complexes became obsolete. Although the majority have been destroyed, the most common structures to have survived are the plantation houses. As is true of buildings in general, the more substantially built and architecturally interesting buildings have tended to be the ones that survived into the modern age and are better documented than many of the smaller and simpler ones. Several plantation homes of important persons, including Mount Vernon, Monticello, and The Hermitage have also been preserved. Less common are intact examples of slave housing. The rarest survivors of all are the agricultural and lesser domestic structures, especially those dating from the pre-Civil War era.[6][8]

Plantation house[edit]

The Palladian-inspired main house at Drayton Hall near Charleston, South Carolina, built in 1738. Its planned side-wings and linking arcades were executed but demolished in the late 19th century.

Most historical research has focused on the main houses of plantations, primarily because they were the most likely to survive and usually the most elaborate structures in the complex. Also, until fairly recent times, scholars and local historians usually focused on the life of the plantation owner, that is, the planter, and his or her family rather than the people they held as slaves.[6] All romanticized notions aside, the plantation house was, at its most basic, a functioning farmhouse. Although some plantation houses were planned as grand mansions and were built all at once from the ground up, many more began as fairly rudimentary structures that either stayed that way, were replaced, or were enlarged and improved over time as fortunes improved.[8] In most areas of the South the earliest settlers constructed houses to provide basic shelter suited to their local climate, not to establish permanence or demonstrate wealth or power.[9]

Montpelier near Laurel, Maryland, built 1783. A Georgian-style mansion with Palladian-inspired side wings.
Pleasant Prospect, built c. 1798 in Bowie, Maryland is an excellent example of the more restrained Federal style architecture that was popular following American independence.

In colonial Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia, the earliest plantation houses tended to follow British-derived folk forms such as the hall and parlor house-type and central-passage house-type.[10]

Grander structures during the later colonial period usually conformed to the neoclassically-influenced Georgian and Palladian styles, although some very early and rare Jacobean structures survive in Virginia. Following the Revolutionary War, Federal and Jeffersonian-type neoclassicism became dominant in formal plantation architecture.[11]

Large portions of the South outside of the original British colonies, such as in Kentucky and Tennessee, did not see extensive settlement until the early 1800s. Although large portions of Alabama and Mississippi were settled at roughly the same time, there were areas of these states, along with portions of western Georgia and southeastern Tennessee, that did not see wide-scale settlement until after the Indian removal in the 1830s. Very little formal architecture existed within these newly settled areas, with most dwellings being of hewn logs into the 1840s. The dogtrot-type plan was common for many of these log houses.[8]

The main house at the Destrehan sugar plantation in Destrehan, Louisiana, built 1787–1790. Built in the French Colonial style, the original slender wooden gallery posts were replaced with monumental Doric columns when the Greek Revival-style was popular.

Rough vernacular architecture for early plantations was also true in Arkansas and Missouri although in their river regions, and in the southern portion of what became the state of Louisiana, the plantations reflected French Colonial architectural types, often with Spanish influences, well after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Admitted to the Union in the mid-1840s, early architecture in Florida and Texas generally showed a stronger Spanish Colonial architectural influence, blended with French and British forms.[6]

Some of the wealthiest planters never built grand residences. One example was noted by Albert J. Pickett, an early Alabama historian. In 1850 he visited Nicholas Davis, the owner of the prosperous Walnut Grove Plantation. Despite owning more than 100 slaves, he was still living in the large log house he had built after his migration from Virginia in 1817. He told Pickett that he "would not exchange (it) for a palace." Even Gaineswood, now a National Historic Landmark due to it being considered a lavish example of a plantation house, began as a two-story hewn-log dogtrot that was eventually enveloped within the brick mass of the house.[8][12]

Moss Hill near Pine Apple, Alabama, completed in 1845. An example of a simple I-house or Plantation Plain-style house. This folk house style, along with similarly proportioned log and frame houses, were once the most common types of plantation houses.

After the period of initial settlement, more refined folk house types came from the older portions of the South, especially the I-house, thought by architectural scholars to be a descendant of the hall and parlor and the central-passage house-types.[13] The central-passage house continued to be popular and could be either single-pile (one room deep) or double-pile (two rooms deep).[13] If it had a porch, it was under a separate roof attached to the main house.[14]

I-houses were always two stories high, always single-pile, with side gables or a hipped roof. They were at least two rooms wide, with latter examples usually having a central hall dividing them. In the South, they usually had full-width one-story shed extensions to the front and rear. These sheds could manifest as open porches, enclosed rooms, or a combination of the two. This I-house with sheds came to be commonly referred to as "Plantation Plain." It also proved to be one of the most adaptable folk house types to changing architectural tastes, with some even having neoclassical porticoes and other high-style elements added to them at a later date.[14]

Millford Plantation in South Carolina. Regarded as one of the finest examples of Greek Revival residential architecture in the United States.

[15]

Another house type, the Creole cottage, came from the areas along the Gulf Coast and its associated rivers that were formerly part of New France. It was always one-and-a-half stories, with a side-gabled roof, and often had upper floor dormer windows. However, it accommodated a full-width front porch under the main roof, with doors or jib-windows opening from all of the rooms onto the porch, and was usually raised high above the ground on a full raised basement or piers. It was a common form for many early plantation houses and town houses alike in the lower reaches of Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi.[14]

Gaineswood in Demopolis, Alabama, built from 1843 to 1861. Designed by its owner from pattern books, it is a Greek Revival with Italianate-influenced asymmetrical massing.

When the cotton boom years began in the 1830s, the United States was entering its second neoclassical phase, with Greek Revival architecture being the dominant style. By this point trained architects were also becoming more common, and several introduced the style to the South. Whereas the earlier Federal and Jeffersonian neoclassicism displayed an almost feminine lightness, academic Greek Revival was very masculine, with a heaviness not seen in the earlier styles.[16]

Annandale Plantation in Mannsdale, Mississippi, built from 1857 to 1859. It replaced a log house that the family lived in for almost 20 years. Their new Italianate-style mansion was derived from plans published by Minard Lafever in 1856. It was destroyed by fire in 1924.

Earlier neoclassicism had often used ancient Roman models and the Tuscan order, along with the Roman versions of the original three Greek orders. The original Greek orders were Doric, Ionic, and the Corinthian. The academic version of Greek Revival embraced the pure form of ancient Grecian architecture. Due to its popularity during a time of great wealth for many southern plantations, it was the Greek Revival that became permanently linked to the plantation legend. Though some houses were architect-designed, many, if not most, were designed by the owners or their carpenters from pattern books published by Asher Benjamin, Minard Lafever, John Haviland, and others. Greek Revival proved to very adaptable to the hot and humid climate of the South, with colloquial adaptations of the style seen from one region, and sometimes from one town, to another.[16][17]

The Samuel Sloan-designed "Oriental Villa" mansion, Longwood, in Natchez, Mississippi. It was started in 1859 and never completed.

Greek Revival would remain a favorite architectural style in the agrarian South until well after the Civil War, but other styles had appeared in the nation about the same time as Greek Revival or soon afterward. These were primarily the Italianate and Gothic Revival.[18] They were slower to be adopted in whole for domestic plantation architecture, but they can be seen in a fusion of stylistic influences. Houses that were basically Greek Revival in character sprouted Italianate towers, bracketed eaves, or adopted the asymmetrical massing characteristic of that style.[16]

Although never as popular as Greek Revival, fully Gothic Revival and Italianate plantation houses began to appear by the 1850s, after being popularized by the books of men such as Alexander Jackson Davis, Andrew Jackson Downing, and Samuel Sloan. The Gothic Revival was usually expressed in wood as Carpenter Gothic. Italianate was the most popular of the two styles. It was also most commonly built using wood construction when used for plantation houses, although a few brick examples, such as Kenworthy Hall, have survived.[19]

The outbreak of war in 1861 put an abrupt end to the building of grand mansions. Following the war and the end of Reconstruction, the economy was drastically altered.[19] Planters often did not have the funds for upkeep of their existing houses and new construction virtually ceased on most plantations. The new sharecropping method kept many plantations going, but the days of extravagance were over.[6]

Slave quarters[edit]

1870s photo of the brick slave quarters at Hermitage Plantation (now destroyed) near Savannah, Georgia.

Slave housing, although once one of the most common and distinctive features of the plantation landscape, has largely disappeared from most of the South. Many were insubstantial to begin with.[20] Only the better-built examples tended to survive, and then usually only if they were re-purposed for other uses after emancipation. Slave quarters could be adjacent to the main house, well away from it, or both. On large plantations they were often arranged in a village-like grouping along an avenue away from the main house, but sometimes were scattered around the plantation on the edges of the fields where the slaves toiled, like most of the sharecropper cabins that were to come later.[21]

Slave house with a sugar kettle in the foreground at Woodland Plantation in West Pointe a la Hache, Louisiana.

Slave houses were often one of the most basic construction. Meant for little more than sleeping, they were usually rough log or frame one-room cabins; early examples often had chimneys made of clay and sticks.[20][22] Hall and parlor houses (two rooms) were also represented on the plantation landscape, offering a separate room for eating and sleeping. Sometimes dormitories and two-story dwellings were also used as slave housing. Earlier examples rested on the ground with a dirt floor, but later examples were usually raised on piers for ventilation. Most of these represent the dwellings constructed for field slaves. Rarely though, such as at the former Hermitage Plantation in Georgia and Boone Hall in South Carolina, even field slaves were provided with brick cabins.[23]

More fortunate in their accommodations were the house servants or skilled laborers. They usually resided either in a part of the main house or in their own houses, which were normally more comfortable dwellings than those of their counterparts who worked in the fields.[22][23] A few slave owners went even further to provide housing for their household servants. When Waldwic in Alabama was remodeled in the Gothic Revival style in the 1852, the household servants were provided with large accommodations that matched the architecture of the main house. This model, however, was exceedingly rare.[8]

Remnants of the slave quarter at Faunsdale Plantation near Faunsdale, Alabama.

Famous landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted had this recollection of a visit to plantations along the Georgia coast in 1855:

In the afternoon, I left the main road, and, towards night, reached a much more cultivated district. The forest of pines extended uninterruptedly on one side of the way, but on the other was a continued succession of very large fields, or rich dark soil – evidently reclaimed swamp-land – which had been cultivated the previous year, in Sea Island cotton, or maize. Beyond them, a flat surface of still lower land, with a silver thread of water curling through it, extended, Holland-like, to the horizon. Usually at as great a distance as a quarter of a mile from the road, and from a half mile to a mile apart, were the residences of the planters – large white houses, with groves of evergreen trees about them; and between these and the road were little villages of slave-cabins ... The cottages were framed buildings, boarded on the outside, with shingle roofs and brick chimneys; they stood fifty feet apart, with gardens and pig-yards ... At the head of the settlement, in a garden looking down the street, was an overseer's house, and here the road divided, running each way at right angles; on one side to barns and a landing on the river, on the other toward the mansion ...

— Frederick Law Olmsted, A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States[24]

Other residential structures[edit]

Overseer's house at Oakland Plantation near Natchitoches, Louisiana.

A crucial residential structure on larger plantations was an overseer's house. The overseer was largely responsible for the success or failure of an estate, making sure that quotas were met and sometimes meting out punishment for infractions by the enslaved. The overseer was responsible for healthcare, with slaves and slave houses inspected routinely. He was also the record keeper of most crop inventories and held the keys to various storehouses.[25]

A garçonnière (bachelor's quarters) at The Houmas, near Burnside, Louisiana.

The overseer's house was usually a modest dwelling, not far from the slave cabins. The overseer and his family, even when white and southern, did not freely mingle with the planter and his family. They were in a different social stratum than that of the owner and were expected to know their place. In village-type slave quarters on plantations with overseers, his house was usually at the head of the slave village rather than near the main house, at least partially due to his social position. It was also part of an effort to keep the slave population compliant and prevent the beginnings of a slave rebellion, a very real fear in the minds of most plantation owners.[25]

Economic studies indicate that fewer than 30 percent of planters employed white supervisors for their slave labor.[26] Some planters appointed a trusted slave as the overseer, and in Louisiana free black overseers were also used.[25]

Another residential structure largely unique to plantation complexes was the garconnière or bachelors' quarters. Mostly built by Louisiana Creole people, but occasionally found in other parts of the Deep South formerly under the dominion of New France, they were structures that housed the adolescent or unmarried sons of plantation owners. At some plantations it was a free-standing structure and at others it was attached to the main house by side-wings. It developed from the Acadian tradition of using the loft of the house as a bedroom for young men.[27]

Kitchen yard[edit]

The detached brick kitchen building at the former Lowry Plantation outside of Marion, Alabama. The main house is wood-frame with brick columns and piers.

A variety of domestic and lesser agricultural structures surrounded the main house on all plantations. Most plantations possessed some, if not all, of these outbuildings, often called dependencies, commonly arranged around a courtyard to the rear of the main house known as the kitchen yard. They included a cookhouse (separate kitchen building), pantry, washhouse (laundry), smokehouse, chicken house, spring house or ice house, milkhouse (dairy), covered well, and cistern. The privies would have been located some distance away from the plantation house and kitchen yard.[28]

The cookhouse or kitchen was almost always in a separate building in the South until modern times, sometimes connected to the main house by a covered walkway. This separation was partially due to the cooking fire generating heat all day long in an already hot and humid climate. It also reduced the risk of fire. Indeed, on many plantations the cookhouse was built of brick while when the main house was of wood-frame construction. Another reason for the separation was to prevent the noise and smells of cooking activities from reaching the main house. Sometimes the cookhouse contained two rooms, one for the actual kitchen and the other to serve as the residence for the cook. Still other arrangements had the kitchen in one room, a laundry in the other, and a second story for servant quarters.[8][28] The pantry could be in its own structure or in a cool part of the cookhouse or a storehouse and would have secured items such as barrels of salt, sugar, flour, cornmeal and the like.[29]

1940 photograph of the washhouse (laundry) at Melrose Plantation in Melrose, Louisiana.

The washhouse is where clothes, tablecloths, and bed-covers were cleaned and ironed. It also sometimes had living quarters for the laundrywoman. Cleaning laundry in this period was labor-intensive for the domestic slaves that performed it. It required various gadgets to accomplish the task. The wash boiler was a cast iron or copper cauldron in which clothes or other fabrics and soapy water were heated over an open fire. The wash-stick was a wooden stick with a handle at its uppermost part and four to five prongs at its base. It was simultaneously pounded up and down and rotated in the washing tub to aerate the wash solution and loosen any dirt. The items would then be vigorously rubbed on a corrugated wash board until clean. By the 1850s, they would be passed through a mangle. Prior to that time, wringing out the items was done by hand. The items would then be ready to be hung out to dry or, in inclement weather, placed on a drying rack. Ironing would have been done with a metal flat iron, often heated in the fireplace, and various other devices.[30]

Smokehouse at Wheatlands near Sevierville, Tennessee.

The milkhouse would have been used by slaves to make milk into cream, butter, and buttermilk. The process started with separating the milk into skim milk and cream. It was done by pouring the whole milk into a container and allowing the cream to naturally rise to the top. This was collected into another container daily until several gallons had accumulated. During this time the cream would sour slightly through naturally occurring bacteria. This increased the efficiency of the churning to come. Churning was an arduous task performed with a butter churn. Once firm enough to separate out, but soft enough to stick together, the butter was taken out of the churn, washed in very cold water, and salted. The churning process also produced buttermilk as a by-product. It was the remaining liquid after the butter was removed from the churn.[31] All of the products of this process would have been stored in the spring house or ice house.[28]

1937 photograph of one of two identical pigeonniers at Uncle Sam Plantation in Convent, Louisiana. One of the most ornate and complete plantation complexes left at that time, it was bulldozed in 1940 for levee construction.

The smokehouse was utilized to preserve meat, usually pork, beef, and mutton. It was commonly built of hewn logs or brick. Following the slaughter in the fall or early winter, salt and sugar were applied to the meat at the beginning of the curing process, and then the meat was slowly dried and smoked in the smokehouse by a fire that did not add any heat to the smokehouse itself.[32] If it was cool enough, the meat could also be stored there until it was consumed.[28]

The chicken house was a building where chickens were kept. Its design could vary, depending on whether the chickens were kept for egg production, meat, or both. If for eggs, there were often nest boxes for egg laying and perches on which the birds to sleep. Eggs were collected daily.[28] Some plantations also had pigeonniers (dovecotes) that, in Louisiana, sometimes took the form of monumental towers set near the main house. The pigeons were raised to be eaten as a delicacy and their droppings were used as fertilizer.[33]

Few functions could take place on a plantation without a reliable water supply. Every plantation had at least one, and sometimes several, wells. These were usually roofed and often partially enclosed by latticework to keep out animals. Since the well water in many areas was distasteful due to mineral content, the potable water on many plantations came from cisterns that were supplied with rainwater by a pipe from a rooftop catchment. These could be huge aboveground wooden barrels capped by metal domes, such as was often seen in Louisiana and coastal areas of Mississippi, or underground brick masonry domes or vaults, common in other areas.[8][34]

Ancillary structures[edit]

Schoolhouse for the owner's children at Thornhill near Forkland, Alabama.

Some structures on plantations provided subsidiary functions; again, the term dependency can be applied to these buildings. A few were common, such as the carriage house and blacksmith shop; but most varied widely among plantations and were largely a function of what the planter wanted, needed, or could afford to add to the complex. These buildings might include schoolhouses, offices, churches, commissary stores, gristmills, and sawmills.[8][35]

Found on some plantations in every Southern state, plantation schoolhouses served as a place for the hired tutor or governess to educate the planter's children, and sometimes even those of other planters in the area.[8] On most plantations, however, a room in the main house was sufficient for schooling, rather than a separate dedicated building. Paper was precious, so the children often recited their lessons until they memorized them. The usual texts in the beginning were the Bible, a primer, and a hornbook. As the children grew older their schooling began to prepare them for their adult roles on the plantation. Boys studied academic subjects, proper social etiquette, and plantation management, while girls learned art, music, French, and the domestic skills suited to the mistress of a plantation.[36]

Plantation office at Waverley near West Point, Mississippi.

Most plantation owners maintained an office for keeping records, transacting business, writing correspondence, and the like.[8] Although it, like the schoolroom, was most often within the main house or another structure, it was not at all rare for a complex to have a separate plantation office. John C. Calhoun used his plantation office at his Fort Hill plantation in Clemson, South Carolina as a private sanctuary of sorts, with it utilized as both study and library during his twenty-five year residency.[37]

The "Negro Baptist Church" at Friendfield Plantation near Georgetown, South Carolina.

Another structure found on some estates was a plantation chapel or church. These were built for a variety of reasons. In many cases the planter built a church or chapel for the use of the plantation slaves, although they usually recruited a white minister to conduct the services.[38] Some were built to exclusively serve the plantation family, but many more were built to serve the family and others in the area who shared the same faith. This seems to be especially true with planters within the Episcopal denomination. Early records indicate that at Faunsdale Plantation the mistress of the estate, Louisa Harrison, gave regular instruction to her slaves by reading the services of the church and teaching the Episcopal catechism to their children. Following the death of her first husband, she had a large Carpenter Gothic church built, St. Michael's Church. She latter remarried to Rev. William A. Stickney, who served as the Episcopal minister of St. Michael's and was later appointed by Bishop Richard Wilmer as a "Missionary to the Negroes," after which Louisa joined him as an unofficial fellow minister among the African Americans of the Black Belt.[39]

The Chapel of the Cross at Annandale Plantation near Madison, Mississippi.

Most plantation churches were of wood-frame construction, although some were built in brick, often stuccoed. Early examples tended towards the vernacular or neoclassicism, but later examples were almost always in the Gothic Revival style. A few rivaled those built by southern town congregations. Two of the most elaborate extant examples in the Deep South are the Chapel of the Cross at Annandale Plantation and St. Mary's Chapel at Laurel Hill Plantation, both Episcopalian structures in Mississippi. In both cases the original plantation houses have been destroyed, but the quality and design of the churches can give some insight into how elaborate some plantation complexes and their buildings could be. St. Mary Chapel, in Natchez, dates to 1839, built in stuccoed brick with large Gothic and Tudor arch windows, hood mouldings over the doors and windows, buttresses, a crenelated roof-line, and a small Gothic spire crowning the whole.[40] Although construction records are very sketchy, the Chapel of the Cross, built from 1850 to 1852 near Madison, may be attributable to Frank Wills or Richard Upjohn, both of whom designed almost identical churches in the North during the same time period that the Chapel of the Cross was built.[41][42]

Plantation store at Oakland Plantation near Natchitoches, Louisiana.

Another secondary structure on many plantations during the height of the sharecropping-era was the plantation store or commissary. Although some antebellum plantations had a commissary that distributed food and supplies to slaves, the plantation store was essentially a postbellum addition to the plantation complex. In addition to the share of their crop already owed to the plantation owner for the use of his or her land, tenants and sharecroppers purchased, usually on credit against their next crop, the food staples and equipment that they relied on for their existence.[8][43]

Planters maintained a record of the purchases, often adding exorbitant interest rates. A 1909 estimate by the Department of Agriculture concluded that the average sharecropper cleared only about $175 from his crops before settling his accounts at the plantation store. However, afterward the tenant farmer had to pay for the coming year's staples, thereby keeping himself permanently indebted to the plantation owner.

This type of debt bondage, for blacks and poor whites, led to a populist movement in the late 19th century that began to bring blacks and whites together for a common cause. This early populist movement is largely credited with helping to cause state governments in the South, mostly controlled by the planter elite, to enact various laws that disenfranchised poor whites and blacks, through grandfather clauses, literacy tests, poll taxes, and various other laws.[43]

Agricultural structures[edit]

Carriage house (left) and stable (right) at Melrose in Natchez, Mississippi.

The agricultural structures on plantations had some basic structures in common and others that varied widely. They depended on what crops and animals were raised on the plantation. Common crops included corn, upland cotton, sea island cotton, rice, sugarcane, and tobacco. Besides those mentioned earlier, cattle, ducks, goats, hogs, and sheep were raised for their derived products and/or meat. All estates would have possessed various types of animal pens, stables, and a variety of barns. Many plantations utilized a number of specialized structures that were crop-specific and only found on that type of plantation.[44]

Plantation barns can be classified by function, depending on what type of crop and livestock were raised.[45] In the upper South, like their counterparts in the North, barns had to provide basic shelter for the animals and storage of fodder. Unlike the upper regions, most plantations in the lower South did not have to provide substantial shelter to their animals during the winter. Animals were often kept in fattening pens with a simple shed for shelter, with the main barn or barns being utilized for crop storage or processing only.[44] Stables were an essential type of barn on the plantation, used to house both horses and mules. These were usually separate, one for each type of animal. The mule stable was the most important on the vast majority of estates, since the mules did most of the work, pulling the plows and carts.[44]

Tobacco barn near Lexington, Kentucky.

Barns not involved in animal husbandry were most commonly the crib barn (corn cribs or other types of granaries), storage barns, or processing barns. Crib barns were typically built of unchinked logs, although they were sometimes covered with vertical wood siding. Storage barns often housed unprocessed crops or those awaiting consumption or transport to market. Processing barns were specialized structures that were necessary for helping to actually process the crop.[45]

Tobacco plantations were most common in certain parts of Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Virginia. The first agricultural plantations in Virginia were founded on the growing of tobacco. Tobacco production on plantations was very labor-intensive. It required the entire year to gather seeds, start them growing in cold frames, and then transplant the plants to the fields once the soil had warmed. Then the slaves had to weed the fields all summer and remove the flowers from the tobacco plants in order to force more energy into the leaves. Harvesting was done by plucking individual leaves over several weeks as they ripened. The leaves were then hung in the vented tobacco barn to cure them.[46][47]

Winnowing barn (foreground) and rice pounding mill (background) at Mansfield Plantation near Georgetown, South Carolina.

Rice plantations were common in the South Carolina Lowcountry. Until the 19th century, rice was threshed from the stalks and the husk was pounded from the grain by hand, a very labor-intensive endeavor. Steam-powered rice pounding mills had become common by the 1830s. They were used to thresh the grain from the inedible chaff. A separate chimney, required for the fires powering the steam engine, was adjacent to the pounding mill and often connected by an underground system. The winnowing barn, a building raised roughly a story off of the ground on posts, was used to separate the lighter chaff and dust from the rice.[48][49]

Ruins of a sugar mill at Laurel Valley Plantation in Thibodaux, Louisiana.

Sugar plantations were most commonly found in Louisiana. In fact, Louisiana produced almost all of the sugar grown in the United States during the antebellum period. From one-quarter to one-half of all sugar consumed in the United States came from Louisiana sugar plantations. Plantations grew sugarcane from Louisiana's colonial era onward, but large scale production did not begin until the 1810s and 1820s. A successful sugar plantation required a skilled retinue of hired labor and slaves.[50]

The most specialized structure on a sugar plantation was the sugar mill (sugar house), where, by the 1830s, the steam-powered mill crushed the sugarcane stalks between rollers. This squeezed the juice from the stalks and the cane juice would run out the bottom of the mill through a strainer to be collected into a tank. From there the juice went through a process that removed impurities from the liquid and thickened it through evaporation. It was steam-heated in vats where additional impurities were removed by adding lime to the syrup and then the mixture was strained. At this point the liquid had been transformed into molasses. It was then placed into a closed vessel known as a vacuum pan, where it was boiled until the sugar in the syrup was crystallized. The crystallized sugar was then cooled and separated from any remaining molasses in a process known as purging. The final step was packing the sugar into hogshead barrels for transport to market.[51]

Cotton press from the Norfleet Plantation, now relocated to Tarboro, North Carolina.

Cotton plantations, the most common type of plantation in the South prior to the Civil War, were the last type of plantation to fully develop. Cotton production was a very labor-intensive crop to harvest, with the fibers having to be hand-picked from the bolls. This was coupled with the equally laborious removal of seeds from fiber by hand.[52]

Following the invention of the cotton gin, cotton plantations sprang up all over the South and cotton production soared, along with the expansion of slavery. Cotton also caused plantations to grow in size. During the financial panics of 1819 and 1837, when demand by British mills for cotton dropped, many small planters went bankrupt and their land and slaves were bought by larger plantations. As cotton-producing estates grew in size, so did the number of slaveholders and the average number of slaves held.[1][52]

A cotton plantation normally had a cotton gin house, where the cotton gin was used to remove the seeds from raw cotton. After ginning, the cotton had to be baled before it could be warehoused and transported to market. This was accomplished with a cotton press, an early type of baler that was usually powered by two mules walking in a circle with each attached to an overhead arm that turned a huge wooden screw. The downward action of this screw compressed the processed cotton into a uniform bale-shaped wooden enclosure, where the bale was secured with twine.[53]

Plantation complexes in the 21st century[edit]

While large farms still exist, they are largely mechanized, and the need for a laboring community of slaves or sharecroppers has disappeared. Owners no longer want or need to live on the plantation.

Many manor houses survive, and in some cases former slave dwellings have been rebuilt or renovated. To pay for the upkeep, some, like the Monmouth Plantation in Natchez, Mississippi, have become small luxury hotels or bed and breakfasts. Not only Monticello and Mt. Vernon but some 375 former plantation houses are museums that can be visited. There are examples in every Southern state except Georgia, where all antebellum plantations were razed.[by whom?] Centers of plantation life such as Natchez run plantation tours. Traditionally the museum houses presented an idyllic, dignified "lost cause" vision of the antebellum South. Recently, and to different degrees, some have begun to acknowledge the "horrors of slavery" which made that life possible.[54]

In late 2019, after contact initiated by Color of Change, "five major websites often used for wedding planning have pledged to cut back on promoting and romanticizing weddings at former slave plantations." The New York Times, earlier in 2019, "decided...to exclude couples who were being married on plantations from wedding announcements and other wedding coverage."[55]

Personnel[edit]

Plantation owner[edit]

Three planters, after 1845, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Old Plantation: How We Lived in Great House and Cabin before the War, 1901, by Confederate chaplain and planter James Battle Avirett

An individual who owned a plantation was known as a planter. Historians of the antebellum South have generally defined "planter" most precisely as a person owning property (real estate) and 20 or more slaves.[56] The wealthiest planters, such as the Virginia elite with plantations near the James River, owned more land and slaves than other farmers. Tobacco was the major cash crop in the Upper South (in the original Chesapeake Bay Colonies of Virginia and Maryland, and in parts of the Carolinas).

The later development of cotton and sugar cultivation in the Deep South in the early 18th century led to the establishment of large plantations which had hundreds of slaves. The great majority of Southern farmers owned no slaves or owned fewer than five slaves. Slaves were much more expensive than land.

In the "Black Belt" counties of Alabama and Mississippi, the terms "planter" and "farmer" were often synonymous;[57] a "planter" was generally a farmer who owned many slaves. While most Southerners were not slave-owners, and while the majority of slaveholders held ten or fewer slaves, planters were those who held a significant number of slaves, mostly as agricultural labor. Planters are often spoken of as belonging to the planter elite or to the planter aristocracy in the antebellum South.

The historians Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman define large planters as those owning over 50 slaves, and medium planters as those owning between 16 and 50 slaves.[58] Historian David Williams, in A People's History of the Civil War: Struggles for the Meaning of Freedom, suggests that the minimum requirement for planter status was twenty negroes, especially since a Southern planter could exempt Confederate duty for one white male per twenty slaves owned.[59] In his study of Black Belt counties in Alabama, Jonathan Weiner defines planters by ownership of real property, rather than of slaves. A planter, for Weiner, owned at least $10,000 worth of real estate in 1850 and $32,000 worth in 1860, equivalent to about the top eight percent of landowners.[60] In his study of southwest Georgia, Lee Formwalt defines planters in terms of size of land holdings rather than in terms of numbers of slaves. Formwalt's planters are in the top 4.5% of landowners, translating into real estate worth $6,000 or more in 1850, $24,000 or more in 1860, and $11,000 or more in 1870.[61] In his study of Harrison County, Texas, Randolph B. Campbell classifies large planters as owners of 20 slaves, and small planters as owners of between 10 and 19 slaves.[62] In Chicot and Phillips Counties, Arkansas, Carl H. Moneyhon defines large planters as owners of 20 or more slaves, and of 600 acres (240 ha) or more.[63]

Many nostalgic memoirs about plantation life were published in the post-bellum South.[64] For example, James Battle Avirett, who grew up on the Avirett-Stephens Plantation in Onslow County, North Carolina, and served as an Episcopal chaplain in the Confederate States Army, published The Old Plantation: How We Lived in Great House and Cabin before the War in 1901.[64] Such memoirs often included descriptions of Christmas as the epitome of anti-modern order exemplified by the "great house" and extended family.[65]

Novels, often adapted into films, presented a romantic, sanitized view of plantation life. The most popular of these were The Birth of a Nation (1916), based on Thomas Dixon Jr.,'s best-selling novel The Clansman (1905), and Gone with the Wind (1939), based on the best-selling novel of the same name (1936) by Margaret Mitchell.

Overseer[edit]

On larger plantations an overseer represented the planter in matters of daily management. Usually perceived as uncouth, ill-educated, and low-class, he had the difficult and often despised task of middleman and the often contradictory goals of fostering both productivity and the wellfare of the enslaved work-force.[66]

Slavery[edit]

Southern plantations depended upon slaves to do the agricultural work. "Honestly, 'plantation' and 'slavery' is one and the same," said an employee of the Whitney Plantation in 2019.[67]

"Many plantations, including George Washington's Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, are working to present a more accurate image of what life was like for slaves and slave owners."[68] "The changes have begun to draw people long alienated by the sites' whitewashing of the past and to satisfy what staff call a hunger for real history, as plantations add slavery-focused tours, rebuild cabins and reconstruct the lives of the enslaved with help from their descendants."[67]

McLeod Plantation, focuses primarily on slavery. "McLeod focuses on bondage, talking bluntly about “slave labor camps” and shunning the big white house for the fields."[67] "'I was depressed by the time I left and questioned why anyone would want to live in South Carolina,' read one review [of a tour] posted to Twitter."[68]

Plantation crops[edit]

Crops cultivated on antebellum plantations included cotton, tobacco, sugar, indigo, rice, and to a lesser extent okra, yam, sweet potato, peanuts, and watermelon. By the late 18th century, most planters in the Upper South had switched from exclusive tobacco cultivation to mixed-crop production.

In the Lowcountry of South Carolina, even before the American Revolution, planters typically owned hundreds of slaves. (In towns and cities, families held slaves to work as household servants.) The 19th-century development of the Deep South for cotton cultivation depended on large tracts of land with much more acreage than was typical of the Chesapeake Bay area, and for labor, planters held dozens, or sometimes hundreds, of slaves.

Plantation architecture and landscape[edit]

Antebellum architecture can be seen in many extant "plantation houses", the large residences of planters and their families. Over time in each region of the plantation south a regional architecture emerged inspired by those who settled the area. Most early plantation architecture was constructed to mitigate the hot subtropical climate and provide natural cooling.

Some of earliest plantation architecture occurred in southern Louisiana by the French. Using styles and building concepts they had learned in the Caribbean, the French created many of the grand plantation homes around New Orleans. French Creole architecture began around 1699, and lasted well into the 1800s. In the Lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia, the Dogtrot style house was built with a large center breezeway running through the house to mitigate the subtropical heat. The wealthiest planters in colonial Virginia constructed their manor houses in the Georgian style, e.g. the mansion of Shirley Plantation. In the 19th century, Greek Revival architecture also became popular on some of the plantation homes of the deep south.

Common plants and trees incorporated in the landscape of Southern plantation manors included Southern live oak and Southern magnolia. Both of these large trees are native to the Southern United States and were classic symbols of the old south. Southern live oaks, classically draped in Spanish moss, were planted along long paths or walkways leading to the plantation to create a grand, imposing, and majestic theme. Plantation landscapes were very well maintained and trimmed, usually, the landscape work was managed by the planter, with assistance from slaves or workers. Planters themselves also usually maintained a small flower or vegetable garden. Cash crops were not grown in these small garden plots, but rather garden plants and vegetables for enjoyment.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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Further reading[edit]