Plantations were an important aspect of the history of the American South, particularly the antebellum (pre-American Civil War) South. A plantation economy is based on agricultural mass production, usually of a few staple products grown on large farms called plantations. Plantation economies rely on the export of cash crops as a source of income. Prominent plantation crops included cotton, rubber, sugar cane, tobacco, figs, rice, kapok, sisal, and indigo. The longer a crop's harvest period, the more efficient plantations are. Scale economies are also achieved by long distances to markets and reduction in the crop's size. Plantation crops differ because they need processing immediately after harvesting. Sugar, tea sisal, and palm oil are most suited to plantations. Crops such as coconuts, rubber, and cotton are to a lesser extent.
Crops cultivated on antebellum plantations included cotton, tobacco, indigo, and rice. By the late 18th century, most planters in the Upper South had switched from exclusive tobacco cultivation to mixed-crop production.
Tobacco production is labor intensive and required thousands of slaves. The wealth and influence of the so-called "tuckahoe" Virginia settlers depended on tobacco. The production of tobacco spread down the James, York, Rappahannock, and the Potomac rivers . Over the years, tobacco became important to Virginia's economy, even acting as currency at times. An independent currency allowed the colonies to gain power and slowly break away from the British economically and culturally. In the year 1758, Virginia exported 70,000 hogsheads of tobacco. Many of the wealthy and influential men in Colonial Virginia were tobacco plantation owners. A number of America's first presidents owned slaves, each owning numerous plantations with large numbers of slaves.
Sugar also has a long history as a plantation crop. Growing had to follow a precise, scientific system to profit from the production. The slaves working the sugar plantation were caught in an unceasing rhythm of arduous labor year after year. Sugarcane is harvested about 18 months after planting, and the plantations usually divided their land for efficiency. One plot was lying fallow, one plot was growing cane, and the final plot was being harvested. During the December - May rainy season, slaves planted, fertilized with animal dung, and weeded. From January to June, they harvested the cane by chopping the plants off close to the ground, stripping the leaves, then cutting them into shorter strips to be bundled off to be sent to the mill.
In the mill, the cane was crushed using a three roller mill. The juice from the crushing of the cane was then boiled or clarified until it crystallized into sugar. Some plantations also went a step further and distilled the molasses, the liquid left after the sugar is boiled or clarified, to make rum. The sugar was then shipped back to Europe, and for the slave laborer the routine started all over again. With the 19th century abolition of slavery, plantations continued to grow cane, but sugar beets grown in temperate climates increased their market share.
Indigofera was a major crop of cultivation during the colonial period, in Haiti until the slave rebellion against France that left them embargoed by Europe, Guatemala in the 18th century, and India in the 19th and 20th centuries. The indigo crop was grown for making blue indigo dye in the pre-industrial age. Mahatma Gandhi's investigation of indigo workers' claims of exploitation led to the passage of the Champaran Agrarian Bill in 1917 by the British colonial government.
Antebellum architecture is seen in many plantations, especially in the "plantation house," the stately residences of planters and their families. The largest and wealthiest planter families, for instance, those with estates fronting on the James River in Virginia, constructed mansions in brick and Georgian style, e.g. Shirley Plantation. Common or smaller planters in the late 18th and 19th century had more modest wood frame buildings, such as Southall Plantation in Charles City County.
Planter (Plantation Owner)
The owner of a plantation was called a planter. While the term "planter" has no universally accepted definition, historians of the antebellum South have generally defined it in the strictest definition as a person owning property and 20 or more slaves, as noted by Peter Kolchin in his 1993 survey of American slavery. The wealthiest planters, such as the Virginia elite with plantations on the James River, had more land and slaves. This was particularly true of what evolved as the Upper South, the original Chesapeake Bay Colonies of Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware, and the Carolinas. The later development of cotton and sugar cultivation in the Deep South had different characteristics, in which planters typically owned greater amounts of land and hundreds of slaves.
In the "Black Belt" counties of Alabama and Mississippi, the terms "planter" and "farmer" were often synonymous. A "planter" was generally a farmer who owned many slaves. While most Southerners were not slave-owners, and while the majority of slaveholders held 10 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 planter aristocracy in the antebellum South.