Antebellum Cotton Period

From the late colonial period through the early years of the New Republic, the backcountry grew in population and in prosperity. Yet, while backcountry planters did not grow rice, they did learn to grow another staple crop for world markets—cotton. With Eli Whitney’s 1793 Cotton Gin, backcountry farmers could grow short staple cotton for sale to British textile operators. Growing and harvesting cotton cost much less than growing rice, giving backcountry farmers the chance to “produce a staple for cash.” Profits from cotton sales were used to purchase slaves. Further, cotton production gave landless white tenants the chance to become landowners. During South Carolina’s antebellum years, production of short-staple cotton increased greatly compared to the relatively small amounts of sea island cotton grown off the coast of Charleston. In the economic boom year of 1850 farmers harvested 300,091 bales of cotton (15,450,000 lbs.). Sold at 10 cents per pound, many cotton planters grew exceptionally wealthy. Wade Hampton, for example, earned $75,000 ($920,000 in today’s dollars) with his first cotton crop in 1799. Ten years later, Hampton earned $150,000 ($1,840,000 in today’s dollars). By 1835, Wade Hampton ranked as one of the wealthiest planters in the South (Edgar 1998, 270-271). While cotton created much wealth for South Carolinians, the crop also had devastating effects: 1) Cotton destroyed the land. 2) As soil eroded many planters migrated out of the state to grow cotton in Alabama, Mississippi, and the western territories. 3) Lastly, as farmers grew more cotton for cash, they grew less crops for subsistence farming. In the 1850s, for example, Richland County farmers grew 50% less corn, 27% less cattle, and 40% less sheep and swine than in the years leading up to the 1850s cotton boom (Edgar 1998, 273-276).

 

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