Hidden History: The 19th Century Slave Rebellions that Rocked the Southern Economy

Gabriel's Rebellion Marker, E-115

Episode 7: The Birth of the Cotton South

A New History of the American South

Dr Edward Ayers (2018)

Film Review

This lecture mainly highlights the slave rebellions of the late 18th and early 19th century,  the western migration patterns of Southern colonists and the development of the South’s cotton economy.

During and after the Revolutionary War large numbers of slave rebellions were devastating to the Southern economy. In some cases entire plantations defected to the British, who promised slaves their freedom. Anticipating Britain’s prohibition on the North Atlantic slave trade*, after 1800 American slave traders steeply increased their import of African slaves. As slaves began to outnumber white settlers, rebellions also increased. Inspired by the 1791 revolution that ended slavery in Haiti, Gabriel’s Rebellion in 1800 was the largest Virginia  rebellion. The uprising was delayed by bad weather and ultimately put down by the Virginia militia.

Westward expansion was driven mainly by soil depletion in the coastal states, a growing population of settlers and the lure of easy profits. Daniel Boone led one of the first organized westward migrations in 1769, through a Native American trail the settlers renamed the Cumberland Gap. After Native Americans drove them back several times, settlers formed the first permanent Kentucky settlement in 1775.

Kentucky (1792) and Tennessee (1796) would be the first new states west of the Appalachians, with most new settlers migrating from the North via the Shenandoah Valley. Simultaneously, Louisiana’s Natchez District, formed by British loyalists in the 1770s, was also thriving. Both Virginia and South Carolina lost more than half their population after 1800 to western settlements, when the loss of British markets after the Revolutionary War caused their tobacco, indigo and rice economies to collapse.

With traditional Southern exports to Britain curtailed, new settlements were forced to find new crops. According to Ayers, cotton cultivation dates back to ancient Egypt, where it was produced for the priestly class. Although the Jamestown colony (1607) tried to grow cotton, there was a British embargo on cotton imports to protect their wool producers.

The great success of cotton in the South after 1800 stemmed in part from the discovery of a new rot resistant strain and Eli Whitney’s invention of a cotton gin to automate the labor intensive chore of separating cotton seed and fibers.**

Large cotton plantations originally appeared in central Georgia, after Native Americans signed treaties in 1783 and 1796 opening this land up to European farmers, as well as  Natchez Mississippi. Prior to 1800, vast areas of Mississippi, Alabama and western Georgia were still occupied by Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Creek tribes; Florida was still controlled by the Seminoles and Spanish; and Texas was still part of Mexico.

The 1790s also gave rise to the mass production of sugar in the South. Although Jesuit priests first introduced sugar to Louisiana in in 1751, the growing season there  was too short prior to the development of a new technology enabling growers to crystalize sugar from immature cane. Following the Haitian Revolution, thousands of European sugar planters fled to Louisiana. By 1830, the region had 691 sugar plantations. Northern speculators also flocked to the state, and by 1850 the number had reached 1500.

All these new plantations needed slaves, and with the end of the North Atlantic Slave trade in 1808, profiteers made fortunes “harvesting” existing states from failed farms in coastal states. Originally planters force marched their slaves into the western territories.  With the advent of the commercial steam engine, they traveled by steam boat or train.

*Taking effect in 1808.

**Whitney’s invention was an improvement on the “roller gin,” originally invented by Native Americans in the 16th century

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.


The Middle Ages: More Hidden History

Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages

By Frances and Joseph Gies

Harper Collins (1994)

Book Review

This book debunks the prevailing misconception that the Middle Ages was a Dark Ages and that all knowledge and technology was lost when “barbarian tribes” caused the collapse of the Roman Empire. The authors do this very convincingly by identifying a number of key medieval technologies (most from the Far East) without which the 15th century Renaissance would have been impossible.

These include

  • the heavy plow
  • open field agriculture, water powered machinery
  • Hindu-Arab numerals
  • double entry bookkeeping
  • the compass and navigational charts
  • clockwork
  • firearms
  • moveable type
  • stirrups
  • the horse collar harness
  • paper
  • canal locks
  • underground mining

The barbarians themselves (ie Germanic tribes) also provided European civilization with several key inventions:

  • soap (the Greeks and Romans never used it)
  • socks
  • laced boots
  • clothing made from multiple pieces of cloth sewn together
  • wooden barrels (replacing fragile clay jars and animal skins previously used for food storage).

The book maintains that China was far more important than Rome as a source of medieval technologies. In most cases, technological innovations filtered into Europe along Arab trade routes. It devotes specific attention to the horizontal loom (the Romans used a vertical loom), moveable type (adopted by Gutenberg for his printing press), the water wheel, the wheelbarrow, the odometer, mechanical clocks, gunpowder and the crossbow.

Europeans gained access to Hindu-Arab numbers, the cotton gin and the windmill via India and Persia.

Given the extremely Eurocentric education I received in school, I was extremely surprised to learn about all the inventions Europeans take credit for which originated elsewhere.




Sharecropping: The Hidden History


And Their Children After Them: The Legacy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men – James, Agee, Walker Evans and the Rise and Fall of Cotton in the South

By Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson

Random House (1990)

Book Review

This book is meant as a sequel to James Agee’s 1941 classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In the original, Agee and Evans documented – though photos and biographical narrative – the profound poverty of white and black sharecroppers in the Cotton Belt. The sequel also provides historical background about the invention of the Cotton Gin* in 1794,  which first made cotton a viable crop in the southern US, and of cotton picking machines, gradually introduced in the 1950s, which ultimately put nine million sharecroppers out of work.

Between 1985-88, Maharidge and Williams revisited the same families that Agee and Evans had interviewed, compiling a coherent account of significant life events befalling children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of the original subjects. Sacramento Bee journalist Dale Marahidge, also provides a detailed analysis of various sharecropping schemes that were deliberately designed set up to keep families in debt. Typically the landlord advanced credit, based on a crop-lien agreement, and charged so high interest (as much as 200%) that families became virtual slaves when they couldn’t pay it. The end result was excruciating poverty, extreme malnutrition and chronic illnesses associated with malnutrition (mainly hookworm and pellagra**).

Despite contributing approximately one billion annually to the global economy, most tenant cotton farmers ended up owing money to the landlord. Maharidge maintains that without slavery and the sharecropping system that replaced it, there would have been no way the South could have produced cotton economically.

The book finishes by exploring develops that would end cotton cultivation in the Cotton Belt. In addition to the total mechanization of cotton farming that occurred after World War II, Maharidge blames the invention of and other synthetics, competition with other countries for cotton export markets and depletion of Cotton Belt soil due to the slash and burn mentality of large landholders.

At present, nearly all US cotton cultivation occurs in Texas and California and is totally mechanized. White tenant farmers displaced by the death of King Cotton could find work in southern factories that sprang up in the fifties and sixties. Owing to racial discrimination they faced from factory owners, former black tenant farmers mainly migrated to northern cities. Many, however, failed to find work, even after five years and longer.

Maharidge subscribes to the role played by massive unemployment of former black sharecroppers in triggering the early sixties civil rights movement.

*The cotton gin is a machine that quickly and easily separates cotton fibers from their seeds, allowing for much greater productivity than manual cotton separation.

**Hookworm is an intestinal parasite and pellagra is a deficiency disease stemming from absence of Vitamin B3 in the diet.