Mississippi: A Documentary History

By Bradley G. Bond | Go to book overview

Chapter 4
ANTEBELLUM SLAVERY

During the early eighteenth century, French colonists began importing slaves from Africa and Caribbean islands into the colony of Louisiana. By 1724, a sufficient number of slaves lived in the colony to justify the creation of a law code—the Code Noir—which defined the rights and responsibilities of owners and slaves alike. Although slaves arrived early in the colonial period, sustained growth in the slave population did not occur until the 1790s, when white planters shifted away from tobacco and indigo production and began to plant cotton on a large scale. As Mississippi farmers planted more and more cotton, the demand for slaves increased. Census reports illustrate the increased presence of slave labor. Before the great cotton boom, a Spanish census of the Natchez District taken in 1784 counted 1,619 whites and 500 blacks; a census completed in 1796 found 5,318 whites and 2,100 blacks in the District. By 1820, slaves constituted 43.5 percent of the new state's population, and by 1860, more than 436,000 slaves, or just over 55 percent of the state's total population, lived in Mississippi.

Throughout the antebellum period, slaves built Mississippi. They maintained roads, constructed levees, drained swamplands, washed, cooked, cleaned, tended livestock, and worked at various jobs that required skilled labor. The vast majority of slaves, however, cultivated cotton and other row crops on plantations and farms. Whether they lived on a vast plantation or a small farm, the lives of slaves consisted largely of work, short rations, and

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