From the late eighteenth to the mid-twentieth century, there was no more important single factor in Georgia's agricultural economy than cotton. In 2007 the state was ranked third in cotton production in the United States (second in amount of cotton planted), with 1.03 million acres of land being used for cotton farming.
Introduction of Cotton
After the forced removal of the Creeks in the 1810s and the Cherokees in the late 1830s, more white settlers moved west from the coast, developing some of the South's most productive farmland. The rich soil could produce a variety of products,
The market for Georgia's cotton grew throughout the nineteenth century. The War of 1812 (1812-15) cut the United States off from the British Empire's cotton supply, and Americans became dependent on their own production.
During the years leading up to the Civil War (1861-65), slaves and land became more expensive and harder to find. The scarcity of land pushed farmers to try their luck on less suitable soil, but with cotton prices relatively high, many of these gambles initially paid off. Cotton growing could be immensely profitable, and for thousands of Georgians it was. During this period entire towns, complete with banks, schools, stores, and other businesses, sprang up to serve the needs of a successful cotton-producing area. Everyone with sufficient capital tried cotton farming; many doctors, lawyers, bankers,
The widespread success of cotton divided Georgia's classes, from planter to slave, from top to bottom. In addition to the unmistakable mark the plant left on black-white relations in the state, it affected gender relationships. Women's roles on Georgia cotton farms varied according to geography, farm size, and other factors, but generally women helped chop and pick cotton, besides performing a host of difficult, monotonous household duties.
The Civil War and Reconstruction
Cotton played an important role in Georgia's entry into the war, its wartime experience, and its postwar efforts to rebuild. Without the South's obsession with cotton, it is hard to imagine that the Civil War would have occurred at all. Once the war began, the Confederacy attempted to use cotton as a weapon by starving the North of the crop and by courting European support with it. Neither strategy worked, however, because the superior Union navy blockaded Confederate ports, choking both intraregional and international trade. Domestic sentiment in Britain against slavery kept their navy out of the conflict, despite the severe disruption of cotton production in England.
During Reconstruction cotton planters worked hard to recover and rebuild their cotton operations. The primary obstacle that planters faced in rebuilding their plantations was neither the condition of their fields nor the intrusion of federal officials but rather the condition of free labor for the state's black population. Though most former slaves imagined that they would acquire land and become self-sufficient cotton farmers, soon after the war it became apparent that the rural white elite would not give up their control of cotton production so easily. What developed were systems of tenancy, including sharecropping, which took a variety of forms. With a predominantly black workforce back in the fields, and with cotton mills multiplying in the state (especially in west central Georgia), cotton again became the king of Georgia's economy.
Cotton in the Twentieth Century
As a result, Georgia's cotton economy peaked on the eve of World War I (1917-18). Georgia produced a record 2.8 million bales on 4.9 million acres in 1911. The boll weevil arrived four years later. The weevil, cotton's greatest enemy, not only cut production levels in half in many areas but also increased the mass migration of white and black tenant farmers from rural Georgia that had begun during World War I. The insect reduced the state's cotton yields an average of 29 percent from 1918 to 1924.
According to the Georgia Crop Reporting Service, by 1957 the state produced only 396,000 bales on 570,000 acres, and the numbers continued to drop. In 1987 a means of boll weevil eradication was finally developed, and many counties, especially in south Georgia, began to turn back to the crop. From 1983 to 1994, for example, Lee County's cotton production jumped from 64 to 17,800 acres.
Cotton in the Twenty-first Century
James C. Bonner, A History of Georgia Agriculture, 1732-1860 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1964).
Pete Daniel, Breaking the Land: The Transformation of Cotton, Tobacco, and Rice Cultures since 1880 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985).
Gilbert Fite, Cotton Fields No More: Southern Agriculture, 1865-1980 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1984).
Steven Hahn, The Roots of Southern Populism: Yeomen Farmers and the Transformation of the Georgia Upcountry, 1850-1890 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983).
Arthur Franklin Raper, Preface to Peasantry: A Tale of Two Black Belt Counties (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1936).
Gavin Wright, Old South, New South: Revolutions in the Southern Economy since the Civil War (New York: Basic Books, 1986).
James C. Giesen, Mississippi State University
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