Slavery in Mississippi was inextricably intertwined with agriculture—primarily cotton production. The invention of the cotton gin in the 1790s coincided with the transfer of Mississippi to the United States and the establishment of a territorial government. In the early years of the territorial era, the work patterns associated with cotton production were developed and implemented, and cotton production changed only minimally over the remainder of the antebellum era.
Agricultural slaves in Mississippi were also involved in production of other crops, especially corn and vegetables to provide food supplies for the plantations, but those crops were produced only as the rhythms of cotton production allowed. Planters could make the most money growing cotton and consequently purchased food so that they could focus their slave labor on the most lucrative crop.
Cotton production involved the development of the gang system of labor, which differed from earlier slave regimes. Gangs of slaves worked their way through the fields, plowing, thinning, hoeing, chopping, picking, or whatever else the day’s assignment might be. The gang system provided far less individual autonomy than the task system employed in other regions, under which slaves were assigned a set amount of work that could be completed at a pace defined by the individual. White overseers or slave supervisors watched over the labor gangs to make sure the work proceeded as scheduled. The enforcement of the pace of work—often through public whippings of slaves whose efforts lagged behind the others—introduced a regular element of cruelty to the gang labor system.
Because one of the most significant aspects of cotton production—the removal of the seeds from the lint—is mechanized and must occur after the crop is harvested, nearly year-round labor was involved. In the early years of cotton production, this change resulted in significant acts of resistance against the new machinery, and gin fires seemed to occur regularly at the height of the harvesting and ginning season. From the 1830s onward, however, the cotton gin became normalized as a piece of plantation equipment and was less commonly the target of slave sabotage. By the 1830s the only downtime in the cotton-production cycle was a brief period between the end of harvest and the preparation of fields for the next year’s crop.
The success of cotton slavery in Mississippi is best illustrated by its rapid expansion from river towns into the interior of the state. During the mid-1790s the first crops were grown primarily in the Natchez region, but by the 1830s the center of cotton production had moved to the center of the state, and planters flocked with their slaves to lands previously controlled by Choctaw and Chickasaw. Few urban centers developed because the state’s greatest opportunities for wealth lay in the countryside.
- David J. Libby, Slavery and Frontier Mississippi, 1720–1835 (2004)
- John Hebron Moore, Agriculture in Antebellum Mississippi (1958)
- Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (2013)
- Adam Rothman, Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the Deep South (2005)
- Charles S. Sydnor, Slavery in Mississippi (1933)