Plowing & Hoeing on antebellum cotton plantations

Sep 2013
816
Chattanooga, TN
#1
I recently was reading Charles S. Davis' book The Cotton Kingdom in Alabama. On page 57 of The Cotton Kingdom in Alabama, Davis wrote the following passage: "In distributing work to the negroes, Alabama planters used both the gang system and the task system and frequently a combination of both. James Tait preferred the gang system for plowing and the task system for hoeing....Each member of the hoe gang received a daily assignment of fifty rows of cotton to chop, though when a negro reached fifty years of age his task was reduced to forty rows."

After I read this passage, it occurred to me that I don't know exactly what the purpose of hoeing was on antebellum cotton plantations. I don't definitely know what the purpose of plowing was on antebellum cotton plantations either.

On antebellum cotton plantations in the South, was the purpose of plowing to ground up the soil in order to make it easier to plant cotton seeds underground?

Before I read this passage from Charles S. Davis, I didn't even know that hoeing was done to chop cotton. Before I read The Cotton Kingdom in Alabama, I would have guessed that the purpose of hoeing was to break up the soil for planting cotton seeds. Davis' quote makes it sound like the purpose of hoeing was to chop cotton itself, not to chop up the ground in order to plant cotton seeds. On antebellum cotton plantations in the South, what exactly did slaves do with a hoe when they were hoeing? What was the purpose of hoeing on an antebellum cotton plantation?
 

Chlodio

Ad Honorem
Aug 2016
3,484
Dispargum
#2
Hoeing is done to kill surplus plants so that these extra plants don't compete with the surviving plants for water and nuitrients in the soil. Usually hoeing is applied to weeds although some crops are sown with lots of extra seeds and after they sprout the extra plants are chopped up with a hoe leaving the optimal number of plants to produce the crop. It sounds like cotton seeds typically produce more plants than necessary so hoes are used to chop up and kill the extra cotton plants.

Harvest is in late summer or early autumn. Planting is in late spring or early summer. Between harvest and the next planting season the soil lays idle for eight or nine months. If the planter is employing some type of crop rotation, he might let a field lie fallow for a year in between crops. So the soil might lie idle for 20 or 21 months. Sometimes they let animals graze on idle farm fields so that the manure will fertilize the fields. Animals are heavy and tend to compact the soil under their feet. Even without animal assistance, soil can become very hard when idle. Plowing is done to break up the soil and make it easier to work. It is also used to keep the weeds down. Fallow fields might be plowed three or more times during the warm months just to keep the fields from becoming overgrown with weeds. I'm not sure how they plant cotton seeds. I've seen several different devices used with different crops to make a hole in the ground, drop in some seeds, and cover them over. Usually one plows a field a week to a month before planting it.
 
Sep 2013
816
Chattanooga, TN
#3
Your post is a very interesting and informative, Chlodio.

Fallow fields might be plowed three or more times during the warm months just to keep the fields from becoming overgrown with weeds. I'm not sure how they plant cotton seeds. I've seen several different devices used with different crops to make a hole in the ground, drop in some seeds, and cover them over. Usually one plows a field a week to a month before planting it.
How do you think that cotton seeds were planted on antebellum cotton plantations in the South? On antebellum cotton plantations in the South, do you think that usually the cotton seeds would be planted by simply digging a hole in the ground with a hand shovel or by hand and then dropping the cotton seeds in the hole by hand and covering them up?
 

Chlodio

Ad Honorem
Aug 2016
3,484
Dispargum
#4
How do you think that cotton seeds were planted on antebellum cotton plantations in the South? On antebellum cotton plantations in the South, do you think that usually the cotton seeds would be planted by simply digging a hole in the ground with a hand shovel or by hand and then dropping the cotton seeds in the hole by hand and covering them up?
Given the availability of cheap labor, I don't think the seeds were planted mechanically. It could be done very simply by hand using just a pointed stick to poke a hole in the ground, wiggle the stick back and forth to expand the hole, pull out the stick, drop in a few seeds, then the last thing the slave did before moving down the row to repeat the process was to step on the hole to bury the seeds. I don't know how far apart each hole would be spaced, but with multiple seeds in each hole multiple plants would sprout up. Most of the plants would have to be killed off with a hoe so that only one plant survived through to harvest.

I recall from stories about Eli Whitney's cotton gin that cotton seeds were very small - too small to be easily plucked from the cotton fibers by using one's fingers. I'm guessing the reason they waisted so many seeds in each hole was because it was so difficult to grasp just one or two seeds due to their small size.