Plantations in British West Florida
Don’t think Tara, Stanton Hall, or Rosalie. In the middle- to late-eighteenth century Deep South, plantation owners gave no more thought to building structures of such grandeur than they did to raising cotton as a cash crop.
The houses of the period were modest, one or two rooms with weatherboard walls, plank floors, a shingled roof, brick fireplace, and sometimes an upstairs loft. An exceptionally large house for the period might boast two stories—the second built over a downstairs dining room and bedroom with two “piazza” rooms (verandas), one on the front and one on the back—we’re talking porches here. The “dogtrot,” a two-room structure separated by a wide, open hall was another popular British-style home. (Remember, many of the inhabitants in the region were leftovers from French Louisiana.) Owners built their homes off the ground to keep the air circulating underneath and the house cooler.
The kitchen, dairy, store and work (probably ‘wash’) rooms, and slave quarters were all separate from the “main” house. I can remember growing up, my mother always said the Southern kitchen was separate to prevent a fire burning down the main house—a concept that made little sense to me since the “main” houses had fireplaces. We might have long hot summers, but the winters do get cold. A better explanation was to prevent the odors of cooking (and cooked) foods from lingering in the house, particularly during those long hot summers. My own personal opinion is that during the summer—and hot months well outnumber the cool ones down here—cooking simply would keep the entire house too darn hot—so they did it somewhere else, oh duh! I know that in later years—and perhaps during these earliest days—the old cookhouse joined the main house via a covered breezeway.
Inventories from the British period indicate these modest homes contained items such as spinets; fiddles; history books in several languages, including Greek and Latin; carpets (this term probably refers to bed coverlets); quilts; curtains; silver-handled knives and forks; wallpaper; and China ornaments (dare we suppose whatnots and/or bric-a-brac?). I tend to believe homes that had “inventories” attached to them were not the most “modest” homes around.
Despite the lack of visible wealth that would one day represent the agricultural society of the Old South, nine-tenths of the immigrants coming to British West Florida toiled the rich soil and took advantage of the long growing season. Farmers cultivated the land not so much as to make a living off of it, but to provide food for their families, and, if they owned them, their slaves. To turn a profit, farm owners developed other sources of income—drawn from the resources of their West Florida plantations, to be sure, but not from the cultivation of food crops; there simply was no market for them. The sparse population could not support it. With the exception of New Orleans, and perhaps Pensacola, towns such as Manchac, Baton Rouge, and Natchez were mere hamlets.
Surviving records, legal claims, wills, inventories, and even letters indicate plantation owners held cattle herds as large as 1,000 head. Another estate boasted 600 cattle and 80 horses. Keep in mind the land was mostly wooded, and there were no fences. The beasts wandered wherever they would. Remember, too, from my earlier articles, many land grants provided by the crown were huge—sometimes thousands of acres. The vastness of the farm might have kept the animals on the owner’s land, but I doubt it kept Indians, trappers, or squatters from pilfering stock.
In addition to cattle and horses, farms also had goats, sheep, poultry, and swine (Desoto’s lost hogs, yes, but immigrants brought hogs with them, too). In addition to meat and eggs, these farms raised cabbages, carrots, turnips, radishes, onions, asparagus, artichokes, beans, and peas. Corn was a (if not the) staple crop. Peaches, oranges, and other orchard fruits were abundant, particularly on plantations along the Mississippi River. Beehives were common, and the plantations had dairies that provided milk and butter. My source didn’t reference cheese, but I’m thinking cheese was a possibility. Another item my source didn’t mention, which I question, is sugarcane. I’m sure it was raised and processed. My grandfather, long dead, but still well after the eighteenth century, raised and processed sugar cane on his farm in Simpson County.
Flour was apparently rare and expensive—remember that in an earlier article, I made reference to its high demand in New Orleans and its ability to turn a sweet profit for those merchant traders/smugglers who could provide it. My source indicates that instead of providing this expensive item to their slaves, plantation owners cultivated, or purchased, rice as a substitute. Personally, I doubt that slaves were the only ones to eat it. Additionally, I would think corn meal would be a more comparable substitute for flour, and I know we all ate that. I’m telling you—corn fed this continent for millennia.
Flour and corn aside, rice had some potential for the plantations of British West Florida, though that potential was never realized. Unlike many food products, it was in demand. In addition to feeding the slaves (and anyone else who cared to eat it), its husks made good animal and chicken feed. It was, however, labor-intensive to grow and process and Georgia and South Carolina were already “tooled up” to produce it—the mill required to remove the husks from the grain was apparently a pricey item—and beating the husks off by hand was time consuming. So, though some plantations dallied with it, rice never developed into a cash crop.
Primary plantation industries during the period included indigo production. Farmers raised and processed the plant from which they derived a blue dye used in the textile industry. Records indicated it was a profitable crop marketed directly to Great Britain as well as to other European nations via New Orleans’ markets. I know from other sources it was unhealthy to process and its production, over the long-term, was short-lived.
Tobacco was another lucrative crop raised and processed for export. From various sources, I have gathered contradictory claims that Mississippi tobacco was both superior to as well as inferior to Virginia tobacco. I deduce from those assessments that it was, at least, in the running. Tobacco could produce two or even three crops a year along the Mississippi—depending on the length of the summer—new stalks sprouted on the roots of the cut plants.
Another profitable product from the plantation was cochineal, the crushed bodies of the female insects bearing the same name. The product was used for food coloring as well as a wool dye.
Then as now, Mississippi’s (here in its context as part of British West Florida) number one crop is timber. As farmers cleared the land to plant food crops, they made good use of the “deadwood” that resulted. Given the limited need for tillable soil, and the value of wood products and its byproducts, I can’t help but believe excess land was cleared for the timber alone. Plantation owners often got work crews together and traipsed along the river felling timber from which they built rafts. They then floated the rafts down the Mississippi to saw mills—my source says in New Orleans, but there were other sawmills. Bruinsburgh, a trading town north of Natchez on the river, was building prefabricated house trusses before the end of the 18th century, but I’m not sure how long before. Nevertheless, though sawmills may have been sparse, they did exist, and though the Mississippi was a big river, there were other rivers wide enough and deep enough to float a raft and along whose banks virgin timber grew. My guess is that a lot of “lumberjacking” and “saw milling” was going on outside of New Orleans.
Forests of massive long-leaf (yellow) pine blanketed the southern third of British West Florida. Builders used the wood for clapboards and scantlings (uprights to doorframes). Cypress they shaped into shingles and planks. Boat builders also used cypress.
White and black (red) oak were used to construct staves (the curved pieces) and headings (the round ends) of barrels. William Dunbar, a British settler, apparently amassed a fortune producing staves and headings. Wooden barrels were a popular item.
Cedar posts and logs as well as pine and oak boards, used for roof shingles and siding, were all in high demand in England. With the outbreak of the Revolution, British West Florida turned to markets in the West Indies.
A significant byproduct of deciduous trees is potash, which is used in cleaning and bleaching. Numerous plantation owners invested in the steepers, vats, and tubs needed to process wood ash into potash.
Tar and pitch are byproducts of conifers. Both were classified as naval stores and as such qualified for a government subsidy, making their production “securely” profitable. A number of plantations—of note, the handful of families located on Lake Pontchartrain’s British North Shore at and around Manchac—invested in the six-foot deep pits and the pipe and cauldron system used to produce tar and process tar into pitch. As an aside, history records that in 1770 West Florida Governor Peter Chester requested information via London on how the Swedes manufactured superior tar and pitch. London directed the British envoy to Sweden to gather the information. Since one would not think it in Sweden’s best interest (economically, if not militarily) to lessen the Admiralty’s dependence on other European nations, it would be interesting to know if the acquisition of the information is an example of covert 18th Century tech transfer. Whatever the Swedes take on the matter, Chester was, within a year (a relatively quick response, atypical of the period), delivered twelve copies of an illustrated booklet, in both French and English, on the Swedish methodologies for manufacturing tar and pitch.
And on this high note of “lucrative” enterprises on the old plantation, “What,” you ask, “of that legendary crop that would be king?” Well, cotton was but an infant prince, its destiny not even imagined, much less realized. Farmers did grow it alongside the rest of the plantation’s subsistence crops. The soil and the climate were perfect for its cultivation; however, the climate for its processing was not. Even in the 1770s rare, crude gins existed to expedite the removal of the seed from the boll, but for the most part, the work was done by hand, night work, perhaps before a quiet fire in that modest one-room plantation house or within the confines of a very similar slave cabin. Regardless, the cleaned cotton was spun into cloth for use by the members of the plantation.
My primary source for this article is Robin Fabel’s The Economy of British West Florida, 1763-1783 (University of Alabama Press, 1988). Another good source for this period is Christopher Morris’ Becoming Southern (Oxford University Press, 1995). And if you don’t believe me about the corn, try Nicholas Hardeman’s Shucks, Shocks, and Hominy Blocks (Louisiana State University Press, 1981).
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