Plantations distinguished themselves from smaller farms not only by the sheer size of their landholdings and workforce but in other ways as well.
In the seventeenth century the term “plantation,” which formerly referred to any colonial outpost, evolved to refer specifically to large agricultural estates whose land was farmed by a sizable number of workers, usually slaves, for export crops. Englishmen initially created plantation societies in the West Indies, and in the 1670s South Carolina became a northern extension of this empire.
Plantations distinguished themselves from smaller farms not only by the sheer size of their landholdings and workforce but in other ways as well. There was a distinct separation between owners, overseers (managers), and the labor force. Evidence of this separation could be found in plantation housing patterns. Laborers were housed in often shoddy, crowded cabins clustered in a village or “street” at some remove from the owner’s residence. While plantation “big houses” were mostly modest affairs, they sometimes reached uncharacteristic levels of opulence. These more elaborate residences became fixtures in an enduring plantation mythology. The Georgian and Greek-revival mansions popularized in romantic fiction were more the exception than the rule.
An additional defining element of plantations was their focus on one commercial crop. Although South Carolina planters grew a little tobacco in the early years, rice became the colony’s most important staple, and in the years prior to the Revolutionary War, a full-scale plantation culture worked by African slaves emerged along the rivers of the Carolina lowcountry. The success of rice culture was due in large part to the agricultural skills of the slaves, many of whom hailed from rice-growing regions of Africa. An innovative development in rice culture was tidal irrigation. Water was drawn on and off the crop through an elaborate system of dams, canals, and gates. The landscape was dramatically altered, profits soared, and rice planters became some of the wealthiest people in North America. Planters typically divided their time between their country seats and residences in “town,” moving to Charleston, Georgetown, or Beaufort for a winter social season and relief from the threat of malaria in summer.
The plantation system, in a modified form, spread inland, with cotton fueling the expansion. In the early 1800s cotton culture was lucrative, and many planters plowed their profits into acquiring more land and slaves. Thus, medium-sized farms could grow into plantations within a few years. By 1820 South Carolina was producing more than half the nation’s total output of cotton. Although “King Cotton” continued to rule the state’s economy in the antebellum decades, the center of cotton culture in America gradually moved west into Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas.
The North’s opposition to the continued expansion of slavery was the primary factor compelling South Carolina’s secession from the Union, which set in motion the Civil War. Southern defeat resulted in the emancipation of the slaves and profound changes in southern agriculture. A common misconception is that when slavery ended, the plantation system collapsed. In reality, plantations were defined more by the size of their workforce than the status of the workers. Many South Carolina plantations survived the postwar years in a modified form dubbed “fragmented plantations” by geographers. These surviving plantations differed from antebellum properties in important ways. Sharecropping and tenantry replaced slavery as a labor system, and laborers were disbursed across the property rather than concentrated in a central location. Despite this reconfiguration brought about by the end of slavery, many freed people noticed little difference between their former and current living standards. Indeed, they frequently continued to live and work on the property of their former masters.
From the 1870s through the 1890s, southern agriculture entered a long decline and in most cases never regained antebellum levels of prosperity. South Carolina plantations met a variety of fates. As taxes and maintenance costs outpaced profits, many properties were sold off piecemeal by descendants unable to maintain them. But from the fertile soil of others, emblems of the New South sprang forth. Wealthy northerners purchased many former rice plantations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, transforming them into hunting preserves. Since the 1970s other former rice plantations have become upscale housing developments and golf communities. Further inland, abandoned plantation lands have frequently been harvested for their timber rather than cotton. Due to preservation and restoration efforts, however, in the early twenty-first century some 150 antebellum plantation houses remained in the lowcountry alone, and these estates, still an evocative symbol of the Old South, continued to be a powerful draw for the state’s tourist industry.
Aiken, Charles S. The Cotton Plantation South since the Civil War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
Chaplin, Joyce E. “Creating a Cotton South in Georgia and South Carolina, 1760–1815.” Journal of Southern History 57 (May 1991): 171–200.
–––. “Tidal Rice Cultivation and the Problem of Slavery in South Carolina and Georgia, 1760–1815.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 49 (January 1992): 29–61.
Iseley, N. Jane, and William P. Baldwin. Lowcountry Plantations Today. Greensboro, N.C.: Legacy Publications, 2002.
Iseley, N. Jane, William P. Baldwin, and Agnes L. Baldwin. Plantations of the Low Country: South Carolina 1697–1865. Greensboro, N.C.: Legacy Publications, 1997.
Kovacik, Charles F., and John J. Winberry. South Carolina: The Making of a Landscape. 1987. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989.
Prunty, Merle, Jr. “The Renaissance of the Southern Plantation.” Geographical Review 45 (October 1955): 459–91.