The Legacy of the U.S. Cotton Economy by Sha’Mira Covington
The history of cotton in the United States is complex and racialized. To fully understand cotton from a historical perspective, both European colonization in the Americas and African enslavement must be contextualized. The history of cotton in the U.S. includes the hoarding of Native land resources and the exploitation of free slave labor. Additionally, from a sociohistorical perspective, the legacy of cotton presents a record of human activities and the effects of those activities. For example, chattel slavery in the U.S., was primarily used for cotton production, meaning that human beings were treated as property, sometimes worked to death, and were grossly beaten and mistreated in the pursuit of cotton. The effects of slavery are still evident in today’s U.S. capitalist system. Slave labor facilitated economic development which organized the trade of slave-grown agricultural commodities. Cotton, as a crop and a commodity in the U.S., has a significant colonial legacy with lasting implications for both Native peoples and African descendants.
Traditionally, cotton has been used by Native Americans for food and fiber for thousands of years. Archaeological digs at Snaketown along the Gila River in Central Arizona revealed roasted cottonseed fragments dating back 1,400 years (Murphree, 2013). Prior to widespread British colonization of the U.S., when the Spanish explorer Coronado visited what is now Florida in 1540-42, American Natives were seen growing and using cotton (Flint and Flint, 2011). As people of the land, however, they likely grew cotton out of necessity for food and weaving. As colonization persisted, there was little to no cotton grown in the U.S. in favor of British wool. However, the takeoff of cotton production in the Mississippi Territory was an important shift for most Native communities (Usner, 1985) as European colonizers displaced Natives from their land to create slave inhabited cotton plantations.
Prior to the use of Native lands for cotton production, enslaved Africans brought to the country during colonization were primarily used to produce staple crops like tobacco, rice, indigo, and sugar, all of which were in decline under competition from the Caribbean. Additionally, crops like tobacco were increasingly depleting the farmland. In the 18th century, there was virtually no cotton grown in the U.S. Because the harvesting of cotton required an excessive amount of manual labor, it was not considered a cash crop. The boll of the plant had to be picked by hand because no other gathering method had yet been invented. It was a tedious task to walk the fields gathering the bolls and even more tedious attempting to separate the dark-colored seeds from the cotton lint. Separation of the seed was done at the end of the day, and typically only a pound or two of the cotton lint was separated. For slaveowners, one or two pounds of cotton was not considered a productive use of slave labor.
While staple U.S. crops were declining, the textile industry in Great Britain was in need of cotton for clothing production. The U.S. was able to meet this demand after the invention of the cotton gin, which shifted the competitive advantage from cash crops to cotton production. Despite the machinery, the process of picking cotton manually was grueling. Slaves picked cotton in the summer months and were expected to pick on average two hundred pounds each day or they would face a beating. When the cotton was taken to the “gin-house”, slaves were whipped if the cotton did not weigh-in correctly (Northup, Gates, and Burke, 2017). The mass production of cotton was also accompanied by a dramatic 90 percent drop in the price of a cotton textile garment (Dattel, 2014) since the manufacturing process could be streamlined. This increased the consumer demand for cotton goods, which in turn increased the demand for slave-produced cotton. Thanks to these two factors, the U.S. could now participate in the international commerce of cotton. By 1860, American cotton production exploded from small batches to 4.3 million bales with each bale weighing in at 500 lbs and comprised almost 60 percent of America’s exports (Dattel, 2014). Thus, the historical Black American experience is intractably linked to America’s relationship with cotton.
Similarly, the explosion of cotton production meant that colonizers needed more land to cultivate the crop. Eager for land to raise cotton, they pressured the federal government to acquire Native land. The U.S. government, with cooperation from merchants familiar with Native commerce, accelerated cotton production by manipulating the trade debts of Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creek leaders into cessions of land from the tribes. With the cotton boom underway at the opening of the 19th century, the government sought some of the fertile lands that stretched between the Alabama and the Mississippi rivers from the Choctaw nation and discerned a convenient means of acquiring such a cession by coercion. The transformation of the region into the cotton states of Mississippi in 1817 and Alabama in 1819 also involved the use of military force to subdue both slave rebellion and Native resistance (Usner, 1998). Native peoples were forced to cope with their diminishing land base through different economic strategies (Usner, 1985). While some groups were forced to move out of the territory, others remained and tried to negotiate trade with the U.S. Natives became nomadic laborers and vendors or intensified their own agricultural production for profit. Many Natives became seasonal laborers or peddlers around the towns and plantations of the Mississippi Territory. As early as 1808, Choctaw women picked cotton during the harvest season for cloth, blankets, utensils, and even cash wages (Usner, 1985). Cotton, therefore, facilitated the displacement of many Native communities from their land and resources.
Slavery, as a representative of the Black experience in the U.S., during this time, was so closely tied to cotton that the price of a slave directly correlated to the price of cotton (Williamson and Cain, 2016). Slavery spread where cotton could be grown. A Northern traveler in 1834 noticed this singular goal: “To sell cotton in order to buy negroes – to make more cotton to buy more negroes, ‘ad infinitum.’” (Woodman, 1990). However, it was not just the South that benefited from the burgeoning cotton industry. Scholars generally refer to “King Cotton” when discussing both the slavery plantation complex and the U.S. textile industrial complex which flourished in the Northern states. The general development of commerce and industry in the U.S. is closely intertwined with the history of the slave trade and slavery (Bailey, 1990). The inception of the textile and fashion industry in the U.S. largely relied on slave labor and slave-produced cotton from the Southern U.S. Uncompensated Black labor also played a pivotal role in the expansion of interregional trade for the textile and fashion industry. In fact, the textile and fashion industry’s development during the period of 1790 and 1860 was strongly connected, through various routes connected to cotton production, to the slave trade, and the slave-based Atlantic economic system.
From the 17th to the 19th centuries, there was a general dependence on Black slave labor in the Atlantic economic system. There was also significant and direct involvement of New England's merchants to the Southern cotton system and the slave trade. New England's maritime trade and shipping heavily depended on the slave-based economies of the Atlantic Ocean. Early industries in New England such as textiles, shipbuilding, rum manufacturing, etc. were all linked to activities dependent on the slave-based Atlantic economic system. Additionally, Native labor and slave-grown southern cotton stimulated a regional specialization, which created a large market for New England's cotton industry (Bailey, 1990). Thus, cotton production and its relationship to Native and Black exploitation played a key role in the industrialization of the U.S. and the capitalist system.
Cotton has indeed been central to the history of the United States and a formidable political and still-growing economic force. As an important crop for the inhabitants of the U.S., cotton became the first mass consumer luxury commodity. It proved to be a reliably stable profit engine in more ways than one. The legacy of cotton in the U.S. includes the theft and misuse of Native lands and their displacement. It also involves the exploitation of African descendants in this country. Although the history of cotton revolutionized the American economy, it also contributed to the colonial legacy of the U.S. and continues to persist. Its primary social byproduct is the subordination of Native and Black peoples to the cotton economy which has shaped the plight of these groups throughout U.S. history. As cotton shaped the nation’s economic landscape, racial oppression shaped its social landscape with lasting implications. In addition to this aspect of cotton’s legacy, it has also contributed to severe soil erosion and land degradation (Cotton Today, n.d.) from an environmental standpoint. Despite these harmful characteristics, cotton has influenced Black folk traditions such as cotton basketry, quilting, and traditional African American clothing (Vlach and Levine, 1991). It is evident that cotton’s legacy in the U.S. is deep and impactful.
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