The Plantation Economy

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13498

Plantations are what permitted the United States' economy to flourish in the early 1800s, but the Founding Fathers had expected slavery and the plantation economy to slowly fade away. What changed?


People and Their Environment, United States

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

Audio: Image - Button Play
Image - Lession Started Image - Button Start
  • Do you know that the invention shown below not only changed the whole economy of the Southern U.S. but also made it more dependent on slavery?

cotton gin

Thirteen Colonies

colonies map

When the colonies first began to form, the Southern colonies started growing cash crops to become economically viable.

These crops included rice, indigo, and primarily tobacco. Cash crops were grown with the specific purpose of selling them abroad for a profit.

Originally these large cash-crop farms, called plantations, were dependent on indentured servants and Native American labor.

The colonies' attempt to control and utilize the Native American populations as a labor force failed because, without any immunity to the new viruses introduced from the colonists, 95% of all indigenous people in the new world died.

Having lost this population, plantation owners offered people living in England a free voyage to the new world if they agreed to work for an average of seven years on their plantation.


Initially, this was a very efficient means of obtaining labor for plantations because having five to 10 servants who had to be treated well did not cost a significant amount to maintain.

This changed as thousands of more people came to America. Once plantations came to have 40 or 50 indentured servants, humanely clothing and feeding them began to stifle profit from the cash crops.

The Slave Trade

slave trade

The practice of slave labor began in the Caribbean.

The conditions on the humid islands made it a much less desirable place to entice indentured servants. Because of this, after also eliminating the native population, the Spanish began to heavily utilize African slave labor in Hispaniola.

With the increased price of indentured servants on plantations, Southern landowners began to utilize slave labor as well. As slavery became more desirable in the 13 colonies during the 1800s, the number of slaves stolen from Africa and brought to America grew steadily.

However, as farming began to industrialize, fewer and fewer slaves were needed for the production of crops like tobacco; so, plantations only utilized a handful of slaves for harvest.



Cotton was not one of the original cash crops because it is incredibly difficult to process.

To understand what it took to refine this plant, watch removing seeds by hand from wild organic cotton from O M:

Image - Video

  • Wow, can you imagine doing that from sunrise to sunset?

Growing and processing cotton simply did not generate as much money as other crops. However, with the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, farming cotton became very profitable.

Watch this Cotton Gin Cart Demonstration, from the National Museum of American History:

Image - Video

  • Doesn't that look like it would process cotton significantly faster than by hand?

Cotton was a very valuable commodity because it was so difficult to process. This new invention encouraged plantations to shift their land to producing cotton over tobacco.

In fact, this invention and the growth of the cotton exports that resulted began to drive the entire U.S. economy.

Landowners, therefore, sought to purchase even more slaves in order to profit off of the cotton boom. This shift to large-scale cotton plantations entrenched slavery into the American economy unlike it was anywhere else in the world.

Plantation in the Antebellum

As you look at this graph showing the slave population during the 19th century, take note of the relationship with increasing cotton production:

slave population growth chart

Image by Delphi234, via Wikimedia Commons, was made available under the CC0 1.0 Public Domain Dedication.

  • What were the plantations like during this 60-year period from 1800-1860 when slavery grew faster than it ever had in the colonies?

Read this account from Mary Ella Grandberry, a former slave in Alabama, provided by The Cultural Landscape of the Plantation:

"The clusters of cabins where slaves were housed, some times scattered about randomly and other times ordered with geometric precision, were the definitive element of any plantation. Encoded in the quarters was a complex and contradictory message; they were a sign of the planters' success and the slaves' captive status. Comments from slaveholder and slave alike detail the slip-shod condition of many of these buildings. Slave cabins had chimneys that were prone to catching fire, roofs that leaked, dirt floors, and walls with gaping holes. Nothing more than a place to sleep, the average slave house appeared to be simply one more of the penalties of being a slave. Yet, testimony from former slaves points up their persistent and deliberate efforts to improve their cabins, to keep them in good repair, and to make them as comfortable as possible. In short, many slaves worked very hard to transform their quarters into homes. In this way slaves signaled their reluctance to accept degrading living conditions. With nearly invisible acts, they defied the subservient status conferred on them by the plantation system."

plantation life

This plantation system was extremely profitable, but the slaves' conditions did not improve.

Move on to the Got It? section to consider the growing disparity between the workers on the plantation and those who benefited from that cheap labor.

Image - Button Next

Elephango's Philosophy

We help prepare learners for a future that cannot yet be defined. They must be ready for change, willing to learn and able to think critically. Elephango is designed to create lifelong learners who are ready for that rapidly changing future.