Thursday, October 11, 2012

Alabama the Cotton State

For 130 Years, Alabama was a leading producer of cotton. But the crop was hard on the soil
and hard on the people who grew it.  King Cotton, as it turned out, was a tyrant. --Thomas W. Oliver

The plant begins to bloom in June. The bud—called a "square" because its tight leaves are arranged in a square pattern—opens into a white bloom in early morning. Pollenization takes place by noon. The flower slowly turns pink, then purple, and is shed, leaving a tiny boll, which begins to open in early August, exposing its snowy white locks of downy cotton. Because this beautiful, delicate plant thrived in Alabama, pioneers poured into the state in search of the riches they hoped the "fleecy white staple" would bring. The plant would not disappoint them. In time, it would ascend to the throne of Southern agriculture and become monarch of the Cotton Belt, producing untold wealth for the state. But as the years progressed, the king became a tyrant, and cotton, once the undisputed producer of wealth in Alabama, became the undisputed producer of poverty. The rise and fall of King Cotton spanned some 130 years, from the 1830's to the 1960's. (source: Thomas W. Oliver)

Cotton Docks, Mobile, Alabama


Cotton, perhaps more than anything else, was the driving economic force in the creation of Alabama. The search for land to grow cotton attracted the first settlers into the state's river valleys. Cotton also created the two dominant labor systems, slavery in the Old South and sharecropping in the New South. The cotton-based economy also produced cycles of boom and bust resulting from the Civil War, the boll weevil infestation, government crop controls (such as acreage allotments and yield quotas), competition from foreign growers, and other factors. In the early days of cotton production, it was used primarily for fabric, but today cotton has a wide range of uses. Cotton lint is still used for textiles, but the fuzz left on the cotton seed after ginning (referred to as linter) is used in a variety of products: explosives, upholstery, writing paper, U.S. currency, and film and videotape. The oil extracted from cottonseed is used in cooking, cosmetics, soap, and many other items. The seed husk and the material that remains after oil extraction is used for fertilizer and livestock feed. Although cotton is no longer "king" in Alabama agriculture, it is still an important part of the state's economy. Of the 17 states which produce cotton, Alabama ranks about eleventh. (source: The Encyclopedia of Alabama)
Cotton Docks, Mobile, Alabama 

It is uncertain when European settlers first cultivated cotton in Alabama, but one early historian believed it was in production by 1772. One of the first cotton planters in Alabama was Joseph Collins, a surveyor for the Spanish government at Mobile. In 1795, Collins imported 10 enslaved African Americans from Kentucky and established a cotton plantation near Mobile. Collins may have set the pattern for future development of the Alabama plantation system, but the great northern river valleys of Alabama soon overshadowed Mobile's agricultural successes. Collins's importation of African slaves also demonstrated the importance of slave labor for the cultivation of cotton, and wherever cotton went slavery followed. (source: The Encyclopedia of Alabama)

Cotton Market in Montgomery, Alabama
Early Cotton Production

Farmers began to push into present-day Alabama's fertile river valleys when the state was still part of the Mississippi Territory. These rivers provided natural highways into the interior of the territory and broad fertile plains for growing cotton. Prior to the Civil War, the two most important areas for cotton cultivation were the Tennessee River Valley and the Black Belt, a swath of rich black soil that ranges from the west-central counties into the upper-southeast counties. These two regions, and to a lesser extent the Coosa Valley and the Chattahoochee basin, helped turn Alabama from a region of virgin forest and canebrakes dotted with Indian towns and cornfields into one of the most productive agricultural regions in America. It is estimated that as much as 90 percent of the farmers engaged in the production of cotton and corn. (source: The Encyclopedia of Alabama)

As of 1820, Alabama produced an estimated 25,390 bales of cotton (at about 225 pounds per bale), or 3.7 percent of the national total. (Today the average bale weighs about 500 pounds). In 1830 Alabama exported goods, including cotton, which were valued at $2.2 million through the port of Mobile, and north Alabama, mainly the Tennessee Valley, exported cotton through New Orleans valued at almost $2 million. Within two decades the economics of cotton production had changed dramatically. By 1849, Alabama led the nation in cotton production, and with 22.9 percent of the national total 10 years later, the "Cotton Kingdom" was firmly established in the state. Great fortunes were made and Alabama soon became one of the 10 wealthiest states in the nation. That wealth was made possible, however, only by the work of enslaved people. (source: The Encyclopedia of Alabama)

Steamboat in Montgomery, Alabama: The port at Montgomery on the Alabama River was a key avenue for delivering Alabama cotton to Mobile for export.

Cotton is a very labor-intensive crop and requires abundant labor, thus African slaves were indispensable to plantation agriculture. As the white population of Alabama grew, so did the enslaved population and in certain areas of the state at a higher rate. Between 1810 and 1820, Alabama's white population grew by about 1,000 percent, reaching 127,901 by 1820. The enslaved population grew by about the same rate in southwest Alabama, the Black Belt region, and the Tennessee Valley. Between 1810 and 1860, the enslaved population of the Tennessee River Valley grew from about 20 percent of the total population to almost 53 percent. The slave presence in the Black Belt was even higher. Slaves made up only 30 percent of the total population in 1819, but 40 years later the ratio in many areas had risen to well over 50 percent of the region's total population. (source: The Encyclopedia of Alabama)

Just before the Civil War, cotton made up about 60 percent of all U.S. exports, prompting southerners to believe that "King Cotton" would shield them from political domination by the northern states and serve as a viable economic force in the creation of the Confederate States of America. Neither belief proved true. As the Civil War unfolded in 1861, southern ports were blockaded and cotton piled up on the docks, but production continued. The price of cotton in 1861 was $0.13 a pound; and three years later prices had risen to $1.01 a pound, making it hard for the state government to convince Alabama farmers to plow under their cotton fields to plant corn and other food crops. As early as September 1861, Governor Andrew B. Moore urged farmers to switch from cotton to food crops, and the state legislature even placed a $0.10 per pound tax on all seed cotton over 2,500 pounds per laborer in order to limit production. Thus, if cotton was bringing $0.13 per pound on the market, the tax reduced the value of all cotton over 2,500 pounds per worker to a mere $0.03. But Alabama farmers were slow to respond and continued to produce more cotton than they could sell. (source: The Encyclopedia of Alabama)
Cotton Production Map, 1860

In 1861 the Confederate government had passed an act requiring Confederate forces to destroy all cotton that might fall into Union hands. By 1865, this act was rigorously enforced. The Federal Captured and Abandoned Property Act of 1863 required Union forces to transport confiscated cotton back behind Union lines when possible. When it could not be moved, the cotton was to be destroyed. Despite the confiscation and destruction of cotton and the reduction of acreage, Alabama had more cotton on hand than any other southern state at the end of the war at a time when virtually all foreign and domestic markets for American cotton had dried up. During the war, England and France had shifted to Egyptian cotton but had returned to the cheaper American cotton as of 1866. (source: The Encyclopedia of Alabama)

Alabama Cotton Pickers, Anniston, Ala.., 1880's

Rise of Sharecropping and Tenant Farming: The Civil War devastated Alabama's economy. Wartime destruction of property and losses due to the emancipation of slaves reached into millions of dollars. Emancipation also meant that Alabama farmers had to produce cotton with a new system of labor. The most viable cash crop was still cotton, and the most viable labor source was the emancipated slave population. (source: The Encyclopedia of Alabama)

Uncle Charles Lee and His Home in the BLACKBELT of Alabama

Various labor solutions were proposed in Alabama, including importing German immigrants from northern states and workers from China. Neither of these proved to be practical, and some other form of labor had to be found. At the prompting of the Freedman's Bureau, the system that eventually evolved was based on sharecropping and tenancy. Although these two terms are sometimes viewed as synonymous, they are not. Tenant farmers typically rent land for cash, whereas sharecroppers are laborers who keep a portion of the crop they produce. Sharecropping, which came to be the most dominant labor system throughout Alabama, was designed for freedpeople who had nothing to bring into a rental agreement except their ability to work.  (source: The Encyclopedia of Alabama)

Alabama Cotton Pickers, 1920's

Whites from the hill county also came down into the river valleys to sharecrop, but they generally were restricted to marginal land until the latter part of the nineteenth century. This system was in full operation by the 1870's, and although it shared many of the harsh aspects of slavery, it gave freed people a certain degree of independence. By 1920, some 78 percent of Alabamians still lived on farms, and 58 percent of those farms were operated by tenant farmers. In 1930, the ratio of tenant farmers rose to 65 percent, whereas there were 37,600 white and 27,500 black sharecroppers. (source: The Encyclopedia of Alabama)

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