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Southern Plantations and Plantation Life

Southern Plantations

A plantation was a large farmed area where crops were grown for-profit and African slave labor was used to cultivate crops. Most plantations were located in the south during slavery in the United States. Plantations, which were common in southern states before abolishing slavery, were reliant on forced labor and enslavement. The Antebellum Period lasted from 1812 to 1861 and was the start of the American Civil War. There are currently around 375 museums that are former 1800s plantations in the United States. In the Antebellum Period in the U.S., African slave labor was used and exploited to produce crops such as cotton, tobacco, indigo, and rice. Some crops were used to feed and meet the needs of the plantation (subsistence farming), while others were sold as cash crops to make a profit. The Upper South: Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee, and the Deep South, including South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, are where most large southern plantations were located.

Slavery was widespread in the Southern United States during the colonial period and after the founding of the U.S. in 1776, up to the end of the Civil War in 1865. During the Antebellum Period and Civil War, southern plantations held many enslaved people whose labor was exploited. Southern states that practiced slavery include Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, D.C., North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Missouri, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Florida, and Arkansas. The Utah and New Mexico territories also allowed slavery after the Compromise of 1850. The institution of slavery was protected in the U.S. Constitution in 1789 and was later repealed by the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.

In 1860, an estimated 46,200 plantations existed in the United States. Of these, around 20,000 plantations had 20 to 30 enslaved people, and 2,300 had 100 or more enslaved people. Statistically, few Southern farmers owned more than five enslaved people.

Four famous plantations include The Hermitage, Mount Vernon, Montpelier, and Oak Alley.

  • The Hermitage - located in Davidson County, Tennessee, this plantation was owned by U.S. President Andrew Jackson from 1804 until he died in 1845. The plantation is 1,120 acres and grew mainly cotton crops. By the time of his death, Jackson owned 110 enslaved people. The Hermitage is now a museum and historical landmark.
  • Mount Vernon - located south of Washington, D.C., was the first U.S. President George Washington's home and plantation. The plantation grew tobacco in the 1700s and 1800s and comprises 500 acres. The site is now a museum that offers tours.
  • Montpelier - this plantation was owned by U.S. President James Madison. The plantation is 2,650 acres and is located in northern Virginia. Madison was the fourth U.S. President who lived from 1751 to 1836. The site is now a museum with exhibitions on slave life and restored slave quarters.
  • Oak Alley - this is a plantation in Louisiana that grew sugar cane crops on the Mississippi River. The land is 25 acres, and the mansion was built in the Greek Revival architectural style. It is now a restaurant and inn that holds tours.


This map shows United States at the start of the Civil War in 1861 with slave states in red and free states in blue.

A map of the United States at the start of the Civil War with slave states in red and free states in blue.


Southern Plantation Owners

The manager of a plantation was called an overseer. Southern slave plantations were managed by overseers who not only supervised the work of enslaved people but also committed acts of violence as punishment if rules were broken. The people who lived on plantations included the plantation owner, the overseer, and the enslaved people. There was a hierarchy with plantation owners at the top and enslaved people at the bottom. Plantation owners owned the property, and 20 or more enslaved people. Larger owners could own 50 or more enslaved people. The overseer was the manager of the plantation who worked for the plantation owner. Enslaved people were the lowest in the hierarchy, and they were subject to forced labor, harsh conditions, violence, and low quality of life.

Plantation owners were influential in the south and could be modest to lavishly wealthy depending on the size of the plantation. Plantation owners were at the top of Virginian society in the antebellum period due to their wealth, cash crops, employment, and land ownership which meant that their interests were a major factor in politics.

Southern Plantations

Southern plantations were a means for some to gain wealth from the work of enslaved African Americans and tenant farmers. The owners of plantations and their families enjoyed the profits, but these folks made up a small portion of the Southern population.

For a long time, the plantations of the South represented a definite inequality. The working class was provided the bare minimum to survive, while plantation owners got the chance to build a well-established financial status, and had opportunities to strongly support their economic interests for generations to come.

With an extreme increase in the growth of cotton, tobacco, indigo, and rice, the Southern economy was supported by the need for a reliable, consistent labor system. Lacking access to useful machinery, humans were used instead to cultivate, plant, and harvest crops. On stately plantations, owners would often have hundreds of enslaved people, or men, women, and children who were owned as property.

An overseer (plantation manager) would be the one in charge, enforcing strict rules and severe punishments if rules were broken. The enslaved were often treated cruelly by their masters, who used inhumane practices to control behavior. Sadly, this was a regular standard of consequences for all workers of this back-breaking labor system. All enslaved people were forced to work on a daily basis to accomplish the same goal: to supply the labor needed to build mass fortunes.

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  • 0:05 Southern Plantations
  • 1:34 Tenant Farmers
  • 2:34 Resistance to Slavery
  • 4:26 Free Communities
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Tenant Farmers

However, some landowners did not enjoy a high degree of wealth. Their land (unsuited for large plantations) was simply maintained by tenant farmers, people who paid rent with crops or cash to work the land of another individual. Tenant farmers were the rural poor living in simple cabins and struggling to take care of their own needs in a society where wealthy plantation owners had the most financial control. Tenant farmers did not have enslaved people. They were forced to live on land that was undesirable and would move frequently, looking for better opportunities or to avoid personal debts.

Tenant farmers found themselves in debt if the land they worked on deteriorated or suffered damage from a natural cause like droughts or floods. However, tenant farmers were in demand once Black Americans were freed and plantation owners no longer had the free labor they were used to. In addition, a loss of enslaved labor resulted in the loss of money needed to pay for hired workers.

Resistance to Slavery

The cruel and unjust treatment of the enslaved motivated some to resist slavery. Resistance was carried out in different ways. Passive acts were often carried out in the workplace, where on a daily basis, enslaved people were known to demonstrate their resistance by stealing, pretending to be sick, destroying tools, or causing a deliberate slowdown in crop production. Of course, these methods were used in situations where masters and overseers were absent, outnumbered, or property owners were in financial distress.

Active resistances were more damaging; for example, destroying plantations, causing arson, suicide, poisonings, and enslaved people running away. Runaways demonstrated their resistance by escaping from their bondage to a location where slavery was not practiced. The Underground Railroad was a series of safe houses used to assist the enslaved in permanently leaving their oppression and moving to a free state. Active resistance also involved major conspiracies or revolts against slavery.

For example, in Richmond, Virginia, in 1800, a blacksmith named Gabriel Prosser organized a rebellion along with his brother Martin, a local preacher. Both men were enslaved. Together they planned to gather other enslaved people from neighboring plantations to march on Richmond, set the city on fire, and kill white residents, with the exception of the Methodists, Quakers, and the French. These residents were opposed to slavery.

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Video Transcript

Southern Plantations

Southern plantations were a means for some to gain wealth from the work of enslaved African Americans and tenant farmers. The owners of plantations and their families enjoyed the profits, but these folks made up a small portion of the Southern population.

For a long time, the plantations of the South represented a definite inequality. The working class was provided the bare minimum to survive, while plantation owners got the chance to build a well-established financial status, and had opportunities to strongly support their economic interests for generations to come.

With an extreme increase in the growth of cotton, tobacco, indigo, and rice, the Southern economy was supported by the need for a reliable, consistent labor system. Lacking access to useful machinery, humans were used instead to cultivate, plant, and harvest crops. On stately plantations, owners would often have hundreds of enslaved people, or men, women, and children who were owned as property.

An overseer (plantation manager) would be the one in charge, enforcing strict rules and severe punishments if rules were broken. The enslaved were often treated cruelly by their masters, who used inhumane practices to control behavior. Sadly, this was a regular standard of consequences for all workers of this back-breaking labor system. All enslaved people were forced to work on a daily basis to accomplish the same goal: to supply the labor needed to build mass fortunes.

Tenant Farmers

However, some landowners did not enjoy a high degree of wealth. Their land (unsuited for large plantations) was simply maintained by tenant farmers, people who paid rent with crops or cash to work the land of another individual. Tenant farmers were the rural poor living in simple cabins and struggling to take care of their own needs in a society where wealthy plantation owners had the most financial control. Tenant farmers did not have enslaved people. They were forced to live on land that was undesirable and would move frequently, looking for better opportunities or to avoid personal debts.

Tenant farmers found themselves in debt if the land they worked on deteriorated or suffered damage from a natural cause like droughts or floods. However, tenant farmers were in demand once Black Americans were freed and plantation owners no longer had the free labor they were used to. In addition, a loss of enslaved labor resulted in the loss of money needed to pay for hired workers.

Resistance to Slavery

The cruel and unjust treatment of the enslaved motivated some to resist slavery. Resistance was carried out in different ways. Passive acts were often carried out in the workplace, where on a daily basis, enslaved people were known to demonstrate their resistance by stealing, pretending to be sick, destroying tools, or causing a deliberate slowdown in crop production. Of course, these methods were used in situations where masters and overseers were absent, outnumbered, or property owners were in financial distress.

Active resistances were more damaging; for example, destroying plantations, causing arson, suicide, poisonings, and enslaved people running away. Runaways demonstrated their resistance by escaping from their bondage to a location where slavery was not practiced. The Underground Railroad was a series of safe houses used to assist the enslaved in permanently leaving their oppression and moving to a free state. Active resistance also involved major conspiracies or revolts against slavery.

For example, in Richmond, Virginia, in 1800, a blacksmith named Gabriel Prosser organized a rebellion along with his brother Martin, a local preacher. Both men were enslaved. Together they planned to gather other enslaved people from neighboring plantations to march on Richmond, set the city on fire, and kill white residents, with the exception of the Methodists, Quakers, and the French. These residents were opposed to slavery.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Did slaves work 7 days a week?

In most cases, slaves, or enslaved people, worked seven days a week. This included people who worked in the house doing domestic work and on the field doing manual labor.

What did slaves eat on plantations?

Enslaved people ate crops or leftover food on the plantations. Life was harsh for enslaved people, and as a result, many people resisted slavery through active and passive resistance.

What was the biggest plantation in the South?

The Belle Grove Plantation in Louisiana was the biggest in the south. The main crop that was cultivated at this plantation was sugar cane. The plantation was more than 7,000 acres and operated in the antebellum period in the 1800s.

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