2016 Sunset Report

OLG & DCRT Strategic Plan
2020-21 through 2024-25


Did you know?
Introduction Native Americans Colonial Louisiana The Louisiana Purchase Territory to Statehood Battle of New Orleans
Antebellum Louisiana I Antebellum Louisiana II Antebellum Louisiana III The Civil War Reconstruction I Reconstruction II


Going to the Gin with Cotton
George François Mugnier
c. 1890

The picking of cotton did not change after the Civil War and the end of slavery.

Authorities granted large pieces of land, called concessions, to very influential people, many of whom never even visited Louisiana. Most colonists received smaller holdings, called habitations, that had a common width fronting on the river of six to eight acres, backing up from the river in a long and narrow strip.

As time went by in the colonial period, habitations became increasingly narrower. When sugar and cotton became profitable in the nineteenth century, planters and real estate speculators purchased several adjacent small holdings and consolidated them into large plantations.

The Lousiana countryside was dotted with a variety of landholdings ranging from several-hundred-acre sugar plantations to one- or two-acre vegetable farms. In between were cotton and a few tobacco plantations, livestock ranches, and grain farms. In the piney woods and hill country of northern Louisiana and on the prairies of the southwest were small subsistence farms, on which families produced only enough for their own needs.

The Plantation Complex
When most people think of the antebellum South they envision ornate mansions surrounded by lush gardens, slave cabins, cotton gins or sugar mills, and other outbuildings. Louisiana had many of these plantation complexes, although few were as grand as fiction has portrayed them. The largest complexes were mainly self-sufficient, in that slaves produced and manufactured most of the food, clothing, and goods needed on the plantation. Even smaller holdings usually had at least one slave carpenter or blacksmith. Most plantations also reserved one field for growing corn, the basis of the diet for both slaves and livestock.

Bois de Fleche Plantation
Adrien Persac

This view of a plantation in St. Martin Parish shows the main house, kitchen, and other outbuildings needed for the operation of the complex. Of special note are the cotton presses at the left and the vegetable garden in the foreground.
Gift of Olga Delhomme Wagner

Belle Alliance Plantation
Robert Tebbs
c. 1927

The design of this plantation house, called a "raised cottage," is frequently found in south Louisiana. The principal living space is on the second floor, the ground floor consisting primarily of storage areas. By raising the living areas, inhabitants could take advantage of any available breezes and seek protection from floods.

Slave housing was usually separate from the main plantation house, although servants and nurses often lived with their masters. Slaves lived in long barracks that housed several families and individuals, or in small huts.

Cotton was king in Louisiana and most of the Deep South during the antebellum period. Between 1840 and 1860 Louisiana's annual cotton crop rose from about 375,000 bales to nearly 800,000 bales. In 1860 Louisiana produced about one-sixth of all cotton grown in the United States and almost one-third of all cotton exported from the United States, most of which went to Britain and France.

Although Louisianians grew some cotton in the colonial period, they, like other producers, did not find it profitable until Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793. Prior to the cotton gin, laborers had to separate cotton seeds from fiber by hand, a long and tedious process. Because gins were fairly simple machines that many firms could manufacture, cotton production increased rapidly throughout the South.

Cotton was fairly easy to grow, although bad weather and insects could destroy the crop. Producers could grow cotton just as profitably on small farms with few laborers as they could on large plantations with many slaves. Thus, many Louisianians raised cotton.

Picking Cotton
George François Mugnier
c. 1895

Cotton picking was hard, back-breaking, finger-splitting work. Pickers harvesting the crop averaged about 150 pounds per day, working from sunup to beyond sundown. Freed blacks often commented that slaves who did not meet an established quota were commonly whipped.

Almost all of the sugar grown in the United States during the antebellum period came from Louisiana. Louisiana produced from one-quarter to one-half of all sugar consumed in the United States. In any given year the combined crop of other sugar-producing states in the South was less than five percent of that of Louisiana.

Louisiana's sugar harvest rose from 5,000 hogsheads (a large barrel that held an average of 1,000 pounds of sugar) in 1802 to a high of 449,000 hogsheads in 1853, peaking at an average price of $69 each in 1858, bringing the total value of Louisiana's sugar crop to $25 million.

Most Louisiana sugar was exported by sea to Atlantic ports and upriver to western states. Louisianians refined very little white sugar prior to the Civil War. They consumed some of the local crop in its brown-sugar or molasses form and distilled it into rum and taffia, a cheap grade of rum.

Cane Loading
George François Mugnier
c. 1890

Although sugar dated from the colonial period of Louisiana's history, it did not become a major crop until the second and third decades of the ninteenth century. Colonists first cultivated sugar cane in the 1750s, using a variety called Creole cane that was not well-suited to Louisiana. Refugees from Saint-Domingue brought a more successful variety to Louisiana in 1797, but even more suitable to Louisiana's climate was ribbon cane, introduced in 1817 and cultivated throughout the sugar regions within a few years.

Etienne de Boré was the first Louisianian to risk his resources successfully in an enterprise to turn Creole cane into sugar. Boré's breakthrough came when he converted cane juice into granules that could be stored and shipped easily. To do so Boré employed the technology and skills of experienced Saint-Domingue sugar-makers, who had come to Louisiana when warfare erupted between slaves and masters in 1791. Boré's plans paid off, and he died a rich man.

Cane Loading
Rudolph Bohunek
c. 1910
Loaned by the Louisiana Sugar Planters Association

Upon seeing Boré's success, numerous other south Louisiana planters turned their fields to sugar, erected expensive sugar mills, and consolidated the lands of many small plantations into the large holdings necessary to grow sugar profitably. Planting, growing, cutting, and milling sugar was extremely hard work, and most free workers refused to do the work, leading planters to rely on slave labor. In addition, sugar growing and processing took up an entire year, keeping slaves busy all year round.

Compared to cotton, sugar growing involved greater risks but also greater profits. According to an old Louisiana saying, "it took a rich cotton planter to make a poor sugar planter." In antebellum Louisiana the average sugar plantation had a value of $200,000, whereas even the largest cotton plantations were worth only half that.

The making of sugar was very industrial in nature and required more machinery than any other type of agricultural production in the antebellum period. Constant improvements were made in the manufacture of sugar, one of the most notable being Norbert Rillieux's vacuum-pan method of evaporating cane juice to produce refined sugar. Rillieux was a free black man born in New Orleans who went to Paris for his education and became an engineer, scientist, and inventor. Like many free blacks, Rillieux experienced increasing racial discrimination prior to the Civil War, and he left Louisiana to spend the rest of his life in Paris.

Masters and Mistresses
Although plantation owners and their families made up only a small part of the agrarian population, they controlled much of the wealth and political power in pre-Civil War Louisiana. Nevertheless, very few realized the myth of the planter family later idealized in novels and movies. Most masters and mistresses had little time for socializing with other plantation owners. Management of large landholdings, labor forces, and other investments required a lot of time, talent, and luck, and fortunes were hard to come by and easily lost.

Louisiana's planters, both white and free black, were among the wealthiest in the South. Many planters were good businessmen, buying and selling crops and slaves at the best price. They poured profits back into their plantations, while spending at least some of their earnings on luxurious consumer goods. Fine furniture, tableware, artwork, clothes, and jewelry added to the planter family's comfort and allowed them to show off their wealth to friends and business associates. The wealthiest planters also kept houses in New Orleans, where they stayed during the winter cultural season.

Although men owned and controlled most large holdings in Louisiana and throughout the South, women contributed significantly to the daily operation of plantations and frequently ran them in their husbands' absences. While the master supervised the slaves in the fields, the plantation mistress managed the domestic labor force for the entire household, directing the upkeep of all plantation buildings and the production, purchase, and distribution of food and clothing. In her spare time, the mistress bore and cared for numerous children, heirs to her husband's cotton or sugar estate.

Because plantation homes were so far apart, their mistresses so busy, and their masters so protective of white women, planter women lived in relative isolation from one another. Their letters reveal that they tried to maintain ties with friends and family, visiting other plantations or venturing to New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and other towns, where they attended balls, concerts, operas, and plays.

The Davidson Family
William Rumpler

This painting depicts the Davidson children and their nurse at Poydras Plantation in St. Bernard Parish.
Gift of Mrs. Davidson

Some of Louisiana's most prosperous planters and farmers were free African Americans, the owners of more property than free blacks in any other state. In 1860 there were 472 free black Louisianians whose average real estate holdings were worth over $10,000. Far behind Louisiana in second place was South Carolina, whose 162 free blacks in the same category had an average real estate holding of less than $5,000 in 1860. In addition, three out of every ten free black estate owners in Louisiana were women.

The free black Metoyer family lived in the Natchitoches area and acquired vast holdings of land and slaves during the antebellum period. In 1830, at the height of their affluence, the Metoyers owned more slaves than any other free black family in the United States. This family traced its beginnings to Marie-Thérèze, also known by her African name of Coincoin, who created an empire with her fourteen children on the small plot of land that her white common-law husband, Pierre Metoyer, left her in 1778.

Slaves made up slightly less than half of Louisiana's total population but almost three-fifths of those living outside New Orleans in 1850, topping out at a high of 332,000 in Louisiana by 1860. Nine out of ten slaves in Louisiana worked on rural farms and plantations.

Slaves performed most of the manual, skilled, and domestic tasks on Louisiana plantations. Men and women labored in the fields and houses, the men specializing in skilled work and women assuming primary care of children. Most slaves worked from sunrise to sundown and beyond, although slaves often worked around the clock during the grinding season on sugar plantations.

Through perseverance, many slaves maintained stable families, although reluctantly permitted to take on partners at other plantations and rarely allowed to marry in formal church ceremonies. Familial ties were subjected to the whims and fortunes of the plantation master, who often broke up families by selling off unneeded members. Most planters, however, encouraged family formation, both to increase their holdings and to discourage adult slaves from running away from children and spouses.

c. 1875
Gift of Ronald Levert Mimme was given to Charlie and Caroline Levert of St. Delphine Plantation in West Baton Rouge Parish as a wedding gift by a relative.

Slaves, especially on large plantations, were able to carve out some space of their own and create a sense of community, developing values, activities, and identity separate from that of white plantation society. This community also developed a hierarchy, and slaves living in the quarters often saw slaves who worked closely by their masters and mistresses as informers and did not trust them. Hunters were held in high regard, since they were trusted enough by their masters to carry arms and supplied the slave community with meat. Religious leaders and midwives were also high within the social order.

Slaves reinforced thier community ties by gathering together to eat, dance, sing, and tell stories. Through folklore and song, slaves passed down their collective historical memory from one generation to the next. Few masters allowed slaves to learn to read and write, and legislation passed in Louisiana in 1830 made teaching slaves to do so a crime. Slaves thus conveyed knowledge orally, just as their ancestors did in Africa and colonial Louisiana.

Slave Quarters
c. 1860

This slave quarter complex was located on a plantation near Bunkie, Louisiana. In the background is a large sugar house.
Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Jack Holden

African Americans in Louisiana and throughout the antebellum South protested their enslavement and inhumane treatment regularly and in many ways. Slaves resisted on a day-to-day basis by slowing the work pace, breaking tools, injuring animals, stealing from the planters, and faking illness--any action that they perceived cost the master. More violent resistance included poisoning overseers or planter family members, taking one's own life or that of a newborn slave child, and aborting a pregnancy. Others ran away, usually for short periods.

When caught doing anything that the master thought wrong, slaves were usually whipped. Twenty lashes was considered light, and even pregnant women were flogged by being made to lie face-down across a hole in the ground, where they placed their belly, so as not to hurt the valuable slave child.

Slave Collar
c. 1840

The sound of this belled collar made any slave wearing it easier to locate. Resourceful slaves silenced the bells by stuffing them with mud.

If slaves aimed for permanent liberty, they usually headed for the swamps and forests, where they established or joined existing maroon (runaway) communities. These maroon camps raised their own food and raided nearby plantations for additional supplies. Other plantation slaves, especially skilled ones, escaped to cities like New Orleans and passed as free blacks.

The 1811 Slave Revolt
The largest slave revolt in the history of the United States erupted in Louisiana in 1811. A group of slaves launched their attack from a plantation upriver from New Orleans. Led by a Saint-Domingue slave named Charles Deslondes, the insurgents marched down River Road toward New Orleans, killing two whites, burning plantations and crops, and capturing weapons and ammunition.

Planters organized militiamen and vigilantes, reinforced with United States Army troops from Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The free black militia offered its services, and one company accepted. The two sides met outside of New Orleans, and sixty-six slaves were killed in the revolt, with others missing or captured and held for trial. Only two whites were killed. Of the slaves who were tried, twenty-one of them were sentenced to death, shot, and decapitated, and their heads were placed on poles along the River Road as a warning to other potential rebel slaves.

Small Farmers and Ranchers
The vast majority of rural whites and free blacks lived on small or modest-sized holdings and owned no slaves, or at most a few, with whom they worked side by side in the fields. Many of Louisiana's farmers and ranchers were Acadians (also known as Cajuns), Germans, Isleños (Spaniards from the Canary Islands), Anglo Americans, free African Americans, and American Indians. They raised food and livestock, spun and wove, fished, and hunted game for their own consumption, selling any surplus goods and crops in neighboring towns and cities.