A plantation can be defined as an organized system of agricultural production in which large amounts of land are brought under cultivation for the purpose of attaining economic gain. In most cases, plantation owners grow a single crop, commonly referred to as a staple or cash crop, which they then sell on both the local and global markets.
In colonial North America, plantation agriculture played a critical role in the economic, political, social, and cultural development of five Southern colonies Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia where plantation owners concentrated their efforts on the production of three main crops: rice, tobacco, and cotton. The type of crop a planter grew depended on local climate, soil conditions, available labor, and market conditions. Planters in Maryland, Virginia, and most of North Carolina grew tobacco, while those located on the coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia grew rice. As more and more planters migrated inland, cotton production became increasingly important, especially in Georgia and the Carolinas.
The first plantations were located in Virginia. John Rolfe’s introduction of tobacco to Virginia in 1613 and the creation of the headright system shortly thereafter led to a flood of newcomers to the colony. Under this new system, prospective landowners were promised 50 acres of land for every person whose passage to the New World they financed. The result, at least in part, was the emergence of a small group of wealthy planters who owned large tracts of land that were cultivated by a continuous stream of indentured servants.
The length of one’s servitude was limited, however; by the mid-seventeenth century, agricultural production in Virginia was increasingly influenced by a burgeoning group of newly freed servants. Although a small group of wealthy planters continued to dominate Virginia society, most Southern planters were actually poor farmers, who owned approximately 100 acres of land each and lived in modest wooden houses. They had no servants or slaves, and their crops were usually laid out in haphazard fashion. This would all change by the beginning of the eighteenth century.
During the last half of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth century, the influx of indentured servants to the colonies declined dramatically, while the importation of slaves from Africa increased. The amount of land under cultivation also increased. The founding of Maryland (1632), the Carolina colonies (1663), and Georgia (1732) greatly expanded the amount of land available for plantation agriculture and, in turn, generated a tremendous demand for laborers.
In an effort to shore up their position atop the social and political hierarchy and create a seemingly endless labor supply, Southern colonial leaders institutionalized a system of chattel slavery based on race, permanently altering plantation agriculture. By 1700, slave owners dominated Southern society. Masters, Slaves, and Plantation Architecture Slave owners’ domination of Southern society permeated every aspect of plantation agriculture, including the layout and design of the plantation itself. By the mid-seventeenth century, wealthy planters began building very large, well-ordered plantations with carefully constructed homes and outbuildings that reflected their own tastes, values, and attitudes. Many wealthy slave owners modeled their plantations after English manorial estates, complete with formal gardens and extensive stretches of fenced, neatly cultivated land.
In many ways, a neat, well-ordered plantation became symbolic of a planter’s dominance over nature and society. By maintaining a strict hierarchical order, slave owners were able to bolster their power and authority over a labor force that continually resisted domination. Over the course of the colonial period, the plantation became a site where complex social relations were played out on a daily basis and often were manifested in the physical appearance of the plantation. Orton Plantation, built about 1725 on the Cape Fear River in coastal North Carolina, was a leading producer of rice. Plantation farming was vital to the development of Southern colonies. (Library of Congress, LC-G602-CT-)
The central focus of a large plantation was the master’s home, commonly referred to as the Big House. Situated atop the highest land available to the planter, the Big House loomed over the other buildings and the outlying fields, and it was the center of activity for the master and his family. It was a showplace, where the master and his family displayed their wealth and power and entertained guests.
Situated on lower ground, either behind or beside the Big House, were quarters for those slaves who worked in and around the house. Slave quarters stood in neat rows and the individual buildings usually were nothing more than a single-room cottage with a chimney and a couple of small windows. Made of wood or stone, with tile or shingle roofs, some slave cottages also had a small front porch. Slave quarters for field hands generally were of the same type, but these were located farther away from the Big House, near the fields.
In between the slave quarters and the Big House was the yard. Elderly slaves and certain slave women and men those who were pregnant, nursing, injured, or disabled performed most of the household chores in the yard. They used large cast-iron kettles and washtubs to make soap and do the wash. They also watched over slave children, who were kept in the yard while their parents worked the fields. Surrounding the yard were numerous outbuildings, including the kitchen, poultry shed, dairy, smokehouse, icehouse, and various other storage sheds. As the eighteenth century progressed, it became increasingly common for plantation owners to build separate kitchens, not only to avoid unpleasant heat, odor, noise, and the danger of fire, but also to maintain a sense of physical space between the slaves and their masters.
Most plantation owners raised chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, and pigeons, which they kept in small coops or houses located near the kitchen. Other Scattered throughout the plantation were other important outbuildings, such as craft shops, barns, and stables. In most cases, very large plantations had slaves who were skilled artisans carpenters, coopers, blacksmiths, tanners, shoemakers, spinners, and distillers who required their own shops. Perhaps the most important items on the plantation were the equipment and buildings used to produce the crop. Tobacco plantations in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina used tobacco presses, while plantations located in coastal South Carolina and Georgia had winnowing houses. A tobacco press was nothing more than a screw-operated bolt set in a heavy wooden frame. Slaves inserted dried tobacco leaves into the press and turned the bolt to compress them. Most tobacco presses were large enough to accommodate a hogshead of tobacco, which was a barrel 4 feet tall and 2½ feet in diameter. A single hogshead held between 1,000 and 1,300 pounds of tobacco.
Winnowing houses, used in the production of rice, were slightly more complex. A winnowing house was a small, square room raised approximately 10 feet off the ground. After the rice was dried, threshed, and pounded, it was passed through a grate built into the floor of the winnowing house, which would filter out the grain. The process of pounding and winnowing was repeated until the rice was clean.
American Plantations Photo Gallery