In an early English usage plantation referred to a colony or the act of colonization. In early colonial Virginia the term simply meant a family farm, as opposed to a tenancy. These meanings, however, were soon overtaken by its reference to an agricultural mode of production that existed long before the term plantation was used to describe it. In this sense plantations were large tracts of land in the tropical or subtropical New World, producing staple crops for export using enslaved, or otherwise bound, non-European labor, with authority concentrated in the central figure of the planter. Financed by European merchant capital, New World plantations arose during the time of European imperial expansion into the Americas and were associated with the birth of the modern nation-state and the emergence of global trade networks. Individual plantations were nodes in a global plantation complex linking metropolitan capital, frontier raw material production, and emerging industrial regions.
The plantation appeared on the North American continent with the first British colonists in Virginia in 1607. Early tidewater planters grew tobacco using a variety of labor relations (wage, indentured, and slave) involving British, Native American, and African laborers, but by the 1670s African slavery was the foundation of colonial tobacco production. The plantation system developed in other regions of colonial North America, appearing as rice plantations in lowcountry South Carolina (1670) and Georgia (after 1750). After the 1790s cotton plantations spread westward from South Carolina and Georgia into Alabama, Mississippi, and east Texas. Sugar was grown on Louisiana plantations from the 1740s, with settlers, planters, and slaves arriving from French colonies in the Caribbean. By the early 1800s short staple cotton dominated plantation production in the United States.
Significant regional variations occurred in plantation relations. The gang system developed on tobacco, sugar, and cotton plantations, where slaves were organized into groups. These gangs worked all day, giving the slave little time for anything else. The task system evolved on rice plantations, in which slaves were assigned specific jobs for the day, after which they were able, within limits, to pursue their own interests. Absentee planters were the norm on rice and sugar plantations, whereas the planter was typically resident on tobacco and cotton plantations. The unique circumstances on rice plantations, together with the African and African American majority population, contributed to the survival of many African cultural practices in the lowcountry. This Creole culture is known as Gullah in South Carolina and Geechee in Georgia.
Plantation culture in the United States was formed in the struggle between planter paternalism and slave resistance. Planter paternalism developed as an ideology that justified unequal relations within the plantation household, legitimizing the master's role of protective domination and summed up in the oft-repeated phrase “my family, white and black.” Despite the many scientific, religious, and philosophical justifications for the system, plantation slavery was characterized by often extreme brutality. Planters used the violent spectacle of public discipline both as punishment and object lesson. In this way the planter sought to inscribe his will on the symbolic plantation landscape. Although rarely erupting into outright rebellion, slave resistance involved numerous little acts, the sum of which allowed slaves to gain and protect a small measure of autonomy. On many large plantations their sheer numbers allowed slaves to remap the plantation landscape with a meaning system of their own making.
The plantation survived the destruction of slavery, although it did so in various ways in different regions. In some places the plantation was subdivided into tenant farms, while in others (particularly the lowcountry) it remained intact. The postbellum plantation continued to involve the production of a staple crop under the central authority of the planter, who employed a variety of measures to ensure social control of labor. Although the gang system of production was rejected in favor of sharecropping, planter abuse and exploitation often led to debt peonage among the sharecroppers. As a mode of production the plantation was destroyed by the 1930s through the combined effects of African American migration to urban areas, the infestation of the boll weevil, New Deal programs that took cropland out of production, and the diffusion of mechanized agriculture.
The plantation first appeared in American literature in the 1832 novel Swallow Barn by John Pendleton Kennedy. By the 1850s the plantation romance was a somewhat popular genre. The plantation stories of Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus character (1888–1906) and Thomas Nelson Page's In Ole Virginia, or Marse Chan and Other Stories (1887) introduced readers to plantation stereotypes. Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind (1936) surrounded these plantation stereotypes with an aura of historical veracity, helped in large measure by the 1939 film version. The journals of plantation mistresses, however, offer insights into planter paternalism as practiced, both during the antebellum period (for example, Fanny Kemble and Caroline Merrick) and postbellum period (Elizabeth Allston Pringle and Kemble's daughter Frances Butler Leigh). In the early twentieth century writers such as DuBose Heyward and Julia Peterkin—whose Scarlet Sister Mary won a Pulitzer Prize in 1929—provided a more nuanced look into the lowcountry African American community as the plantation world came to an end. The television miniseries based on Alex Haley's Roots (1977) signaled a shift in the popular imagination away from earlier plantation stereotypes.
Current presentations of plantation landscapes as heritage settings for tourist consumption highlight the resilience of the so-called plantation myth that developed during the last decades of the nineteenth century. According to this myth, plantations were social and cultural institutions, rather than economic units, symbolizing the Old South as a lost Garden of Eden standing in stark contrast to the commercial excesses of the North. Memory groups, such as the United Confederate Veterans (1889) and the United Daughters of the Confederacy (1894), memorialized and celebrated the “lost cause” well beyond the borders of the Confederacy, fixing the plantation myth in the American imagination. Although advances in archaeology since the 1980s have provided important insights into plantation material culture, the persistence of the plantation myth finds expression in many Southern landscapes, from heritage tourist sites to residential developments.
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