SLAVE PLANTATIONS IN THE UNITED STATES
Slave plantations in the United States existed from the time of the 17th century until the 19th century. In general, a slave plantation was an agricultural and livestock estate that was large enough to contain the house of the master or slave owner and the residences of the slaves. On the slave plantation, slaves were used to harvest cash crops and complete other related agricultural work. The slave plantations were significant to the life and economics of the United States in the time before the outbreak of the American Civil War. This was especially true in the Southern states of the United States, where slave plantations were most common. Therefore, the development of slave plantations was important to the history of slavery in the United States.
HISTORY OF SLAVERY IN THE UNITED STATES
Slavery in the United States existed from the period of Colonial America in the early 17th century until the events of the American Civil War, which lasted from 1861 until 1865. Throughout this timeframe, many slaves were brought from Africa to the territory of the United States via the Atlantic Slave Trade. The Atlantic Slave Trade began in the 16th century, reached its peak in the 18th century and concluded near the end of the 19th century. During the time of the Atlantic Slave Trade, approximately 12 million Africans were put on slave ships, sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and sold into slavery. In fact, approximately 600,000 African slaves were brought to the United States as part of the Atlantic Slave Trade, which amounts to about 5% of the total number of slaves from the time. Many of these slaves ended up working on plantations and households across the United States, and played a significant role in the production of certain goods. Click here to read a more detailed article on the history of slavery in the United States.
ECONOMICS OF SLAVE PLANTATIONS IN THE UNITED STATES
Slave plantations in the United States were common throughout the United States during the timeframe of slavery, which occurred from the 17th century until the mid-19th century. With that said, slave plantations were most common in the Southern states. In fact, in the 19th century, the practise of slavery began to lessen in the Northern states due to the emergence of the American Abolitionist Movement. In fact, the timeframe of slave plantations in the Southern states is often referred to as the ‘Antebellum Period’ and is considered to have lasted until the end of slavery during the American Civil War.
During the Antebellum Period, the Southern states developed economically around the practise of slavery and gained relative strength in the American political system. This was due to several reasons, but mainly because of the climate of the American South. For instance, the Southern states proved to have ideal conditions for several different types of cash crops. Throughout the timeframe of slavery in the United States, the most common crops that were harvested on the plantations were cotton, rice, indigo and tobacco. These crops were especially labor intensive and as such, African slave labor made the most economical sense for many of the plantation owners. As well, these crops were ‘cash crops’. This means that they were focused on producing crops for sale instead of for consumption. As such, the slave plantations of the United States played an important role in the economic development of the Southern states at the time.
Throughout the period of the 1830s, the demand for slaves grew due to the introduction of the cotton industry in states such as: Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. Cotton became an important crop in the Southern states and was heavily reliant on the practise of slavery. In fact, the harvesting of cotton was extremely labor-intensive, and the use of slaves allowed it to be a profitable industry by keeping labor costs low for plantation owners. Furthermore, the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 by Eli Whitney helped advance the cotton industry in the United States. The cotton gin was a machine that could quickly separate cotton fibers from seeds in order to create cotton items such as clothing and linens. Before the invention of the cotton gin, cotton production and processing was a very slow process, requiring lots of hard manual work. As such, slave plantations began to emerge that focused heavily on the production of cotton.
Due to this situation, the Southern states became economically dependent on the practise of slavery. In fact, the potential economic losses that would result from ending slavery was one of the main aspects that pushed the country towards the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861.
STRUCTURE OF SLAVE PLANTATIONS IN THE UNITED STATES
As stated previously, slave plantations in the United States were agricultural and livestock estates wherein slaves lived and worked to harvest different types cash crops. In reality, slave plantations in the United States varied quite dramatically. For instance, while some were large complexes and had many slaves, the vast majority were quite small with only a few slaves. Furthermore, most slave plantations in the United States did not have a large main house on the property for the slave owner. Instead, they usually contained a smaller and more modest slave owner house. Regardless, many slave plantations in the United States often shared many similar aspects, including: slave housing, crops, agriculture structures, etc.
Most of the larger slave plantations had a central home or mansion that was for the slave owner and his or her family. In general, the main house of the slave owner was a farmhouse. Some were grander and elaborate than others, but they all functioned as a home for the slave owner’s family. More specifically, the majority of plantation homes that have survived into modern day were the ones that were larger and grander. Obviously, slave owners who were more profitable built themselves larger homes or made additions to their home over the years. On the other hand, almost all of the smaller slave owner’s houses have not survived into modern times. These houses were generally, basic structures made out of wood planks or logs. However, it should be noted that sometimes the owner of the planation did not live on the property and instead had a house elsewhere.
Another important building on some of the slave plantations was the house for the overseer. An overseer worked on the plantation as a manager of the agricultural operation. They oversaw the slaves and made sure the crops were harvested on time. As well, the overseer was responsible for ensuring the slaves carried out their roles and followed the rules. As such, the overseer was usually responsible for handing out punishment to slaves that had failed to meet the expectations of the plantation. The role of the overseer was given to white men, who the slave owner trusted. The house for the overseer and his family was usually located away from the main residence of the slave owner and closer to the slave’s housing area. This was so that the overseer could keep an eye on the slaves. The overseer house was usually a small structure made out of logs, but better equipped than the slave houses.
The next important set of structures on slave plantations in the United States was the housing for the slaves. While the main house of the plantation was usually well constructed, the slave living conditions were often terrible. For example, slave homes were quite small and were generally one-room shacks that were made out of wooden logs or leftover materials. Besides this, slave homes were sometimes built in different parts of the property of the plantation and away from the main residence. Due to their poor construction, the slave homes often struggled to properly heat inside, and the slaves sometimes suffered on very cold nights.
Since the slave plantations of the United States were essentially large farms, they also had many other buildings common to farms of the time. For example, the plantations generally had several different types of outbuildings, including: cookhouse, washhouse, storage sheds, chicken coop, well, barn, stable, and blacksmith shop. Depending on the type of plantation, they may have also contained other types of buildings, including: rice mill, sugar mill, sawmill and grain storage (granaries). Another aspect of some of the larger plantations was related buildings for the slaves. For example, some plantations had a schoolhouse, clinic, church and store. These types of building were usually only present on very large plantations that had many slaves. It also depended on whether the slave owner could afford or chose to build the structures for the slaves.
LIFE FOR SLAVES ON THE PLANTATIONS IN THE UNITED STATES
Life for the slaves on plantations in the United States was generally difficult. They suffered from poor living conditions and terrible abuses. The main issues of the slaves daily life consisted of: working conditions, clothing, food, and education. More specifically, slaves in the United States faced difficult and tiring working conditions. At the time, most slaves in the United States worked in agricultural work on the plantations. In fact, most of their time was spent harvest crops such as cotton, rice, indigo and tobacco. This was very labor-intensive work. As such, the slaves worked long and tiring shifts of work in very difficult conditions. In fact, it was not uncommon for slaves to work as many as 16 hours a day in hot and humid weather.
Another important item of slave daily life was their clothing. For the most part though, slaves were clothed in basic linen suits and poor-quality shoes. The image to the side of Solomon Northup shows a typical set of clothing for a slave that worked on a plantation. The regular food and diet of slaves varied between the different plantations, but there were several main similarities throughout the timeframe of slavery in the United States. For example, historians have noted that the most common diet of slaves in the Southern states consisted of pork, rice and corn. While, this diet kept the slaves fed well, it denied them of a variety of nutrients. Yet another aspect of slave daily life was their education or lack thereof. In general, most slave owners did not educate their slaves at all.
Finally, slaves on plantations in the United States experienced different types of abuse. For instance, slaves were regularly subjected to beatings, whippings and other forms of torture. Much of this abuse was carried out by the overseers on plantations. In fact, abuse towards slave was a regular occurrence and was used by slave owners and overseers as a way of maintaining order on the plantation. For example, abuses against slaves were often used as a form of punishment or to promote the authority of the slave owner.
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