Since my retirement my husband and I have indulged in bicycling. Because we are older, we are mindful of the terrain, and the flat Mississippi Delta suits us, especially when riding our tandem. For the past four summers the Bikes, Blues and Bayous organized ride in Greenwood, Mississippi allows us to enjoy a ride highlighted with music, watermelon, chicken salad and pimento cheese sandwiches, and a few historic sites. One of our rest stops on the ride is the old rural store, where a historic marker stands noting the site of young Emmett Till’s “Crime” in 1955 that led to his horrific, senseless, and tragic death. Another feature of riding through these Delta fields in late July or early August is that the cotton is often in its flowering stages. One day most of the plants will bear creamy white flowers, the next day the fields will turn a beautiful pink, and the third day the flowers will have mostly turned red. The next day the colorful show is over as the flowers fall leaving a green boll. By October these bolls will have turned brown displaying soft fluffy cotton fiber. The fields appear as if a blanket of snow has fallen during the still-warm Mississippi days. In the flat farmlands near Sikeston, Missouri during the Cotton Ramble, another organized ride usually held in October, we have bicycled through huge stretches of white cotton fields, the fluffy bolls of fiber waiting to be machine picked. Riders often stop to take selfies in the fields or pose with their bicycles against pastel wrapped monstrous “bales” of cotton. A bale of cotton as a measurement is about 500 pounds, though these modern “bales” are clearly much, much heavier.
What often occupies my mind during hours of riding through these fields and listening to the varied songs of the red-winged blackbirds, killdeer, and mockingbirds are questions and among them are these: If my great, great grandfather planted fifteen acres in cotton during the 1830s in south Mississippi, what would that acreage have looked like in comparison with this large acreage of totally mechanized, fertilized and irrigated crop? What drove my great, great grandfather, Duncan McKenzie, to attempt coaxing out of the soil a labor-intensive cotton crop using coerced human beings with little stake in their work beyond mere survival? Why did he not consider his much more consistently successful acreage in corn enough to provide his modest living? What was it about this system of producing cotton that made him feel it would work for him? Moreover, how did a human desire for the benign products of one plant come to drive the greed and moral choices of human beings in an economic system that existed by oppressing those at the essential base of that industry? At the same time, the growth and production of this plant would drive the economy of the United States to become the strongest and most powerful on the face of the earth.
By January 1833 when Duncan McKenzie arrived with his family in Covington County, MS, the state was already consumed with growing cotton using an enslaved labor force. In 1800 no cotton was grown in Mississippi, but according to author Eugene R. Dattel, by 1833 it produced seventy million pounds! Whites that had come to the state numbered 70,443 along with 65,659 enslaved people. In June of 1831, John Patrick Stewart writes to Duncan McLaurin about the people living in his new Mississippi home, “Raising cotton absorbs all their politics & meditations – The first salute to a neighbor is how does your cotton look.” Advances in the technology of spinning and the addition of steam power during the latter 18th century had led to the growth of the Lancashire, England textile mills in Manchester and Liverpool. In addition, the widespread use of the cotton gin in the US South had tremendously increased the production of cotton making it easier to separate seeds from the fiber and allowing farmers to grow a superior type of cotton. By 1790, when Hugh McLaurin brought his family from Argyll, Scotland to North Carolina, England’s textile mills were producing cotton manufactured items faster than their supply of cotton could keep up. Eventually, most of their cotton would come from the American South. By 1790 the first cotton textile mill was operating in the United States. Roads were improving and transportation technology had vastly grown with the development of the steam engine, which aided the movement of cotton from field to mill. In fact, Sven Beckert in Empire of Cotton says that “…by 1830 fully 1 million people (or one in 13 Americans) grew cotton in the U.S. – most of them slaves.”
In 1803 the United States had acquired the Mississippi Territory as part of the Louisiana Purchase, and by 1817 Mississippi had been awarded its statehood. Though the territory had been at first sparsely settled, it was the opening of native American lands that drew migrants from the east and north. The Treaty of Doak’s Stand ceded the Choctaw land in 1820 and in 1830 the Choctaw removal was begun by the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. The Treaty of Pontotoc in 1832 ceded Chickasaw land. With these the rush for Mississippi land was in full swing. Speculators in the form of land companies began purchasing this land to make money off of selling it. Individual farmers often speculated in land too by clearing it and adding a house and buildings then selling out at a higher price. According to Dattel, “From 1833 to 1836, total federal land sales in Mississippi amounted to 8,331,581 acres.” The impetus for coming to Mississippi and other states in the cotton belt was that the climate and soil was particularly suitable for growing cotton — a labor intensive crop best suited in the 19th century for gang labor — and in great demand.
John Patrick Stewart, a friend of Duncan McLaurin’s and former resident of Richmond County, writes from Covington County, MS in November of 1831 about the Choctaw removal from the state.
“The Choctaw Indians are at this removing to the territory that was
ceded to them West of the Mississippi River — one third are already
gone and those remaining in two succeeding years — It is said
more than 500 have refused to go they can remain provided they
subject themselves to the laws of the state — The laws will be
rigidly enforced against them whether they are willing or not
Each head of a family remaining will have a reserve of a half
section of land as long as he chooses to remain but cannot
dispose of it if he would be willing to leave — could they do this
a major part of them would remain merely to acquire this land
and sell it in a short time and afford a fruitful source of
So as native Americans were forced marched from their ancestral homes, African Americans were force marched from the old South to the southern cotton belt. Although Duncan McKenzie’s Covington County land he rented in 1833 was suitable for growing some cotton, his crop was more diversified than on larger farms, where more acreage was available for growing cotton. Still, because of the demand and rising prices, a modest crop of cotton likely was his money-maker. By 1840 the rented property is listed in his name and he paid taxes on it. In the spring, March or April, came planting time. Duncan describes the 1837 planting season in a March letter to his brother-in-law. His description is evidence of the farmer’s dependence on the whims of mother nature.
“we have planted a little corn, but from
much rain we are likely to be late with the main
part of our crop, as we are not done cleaning up our fields
yet, we are plowing the cotton land. Should the weather
permit we will plant a good parcel of corn next week”
Farmers, who owned their own land had to finance a crop with the expectation that the weather would cooperate and the crop would be successful, so a crop was begun on credit using the land and slaves as collateral. Though Duncan would have been considered a small farmer, who owned about eight enslaved people by 1840, the same credit principle applied. In this same March 1837 letter Duncan makes reference to his last crop of cotton, “my cotton is not Sold as yet at least I have not recd the returns, the price varys from 14-17 cts — corn is worth $1:50 cts per Bush peas $2-3 for Seed, oats sold for 1$ – per Bushel &c.” According to R. Douglas Hurt in American Agriculture: A Brief History, in 1800 one could sell cotton at about twelve cents a pound, though in the following decades the price would fluctuate as high as forty cents a pound. Prices generally rose and fell along with the vicissitudes of an international market. Duncan McKenzie confirms this in his letters. An average crop would be about two to three hundred pounds per acre, so a farmer could stand to make a modest profit even if an acreage as small as fifteen or thirty was under cotton. Of course, the farmer’s profits were never guaranteed since the uncertain weather and changes in the international markets had to be considered.
In addition, as Hurt contends, the labor of enslaved people on a small farm was costlier to the farmer than on a large plantation, but if a farmer grew cotton, he was dependent upon having the necessary manpower to clean and plow the fields, plant the crop, chop the weeds, and gather the cotton. Since cotton bolls did not ripen all at once, hands would pick a field three or four times a harvest. Even though innovations were constantly improving farm tools, southern farm workers generally used a wooden shovel plow, a hoe and a dibble stick. After the cotton was harvested, access to a gin was essential. Farmers who could afford to do so built their own gins. A small farmer such as Duncan McKenzie with a small number of enslaved laborers had to put himself and his sons into the fields working along side his laborers. Eventually, they would build their own gin, but having one nearby was crucial.
Generally, a farmer would sell his cotton crop to a factor or commission merchant. The factor would then sell the crop to the textile mill through a broker from the mill. This often entailed waiting and hoping for the best return on the crop. The farmer’s profit was, for the most part, in someone else’s hands, and he rarely saw cash right away. In an April 1837 letter Duncan McKenzie explains how his crop has been sold:
“the price of cotton is down again I heard that my cotton
was Sold but not in time it brought $13.50 cts deduct
$2 from that for freight insurance Storage and Commi
=tion for Selling, and you will find it to yield to me
$11:50 its a pitiful reward for So much hard labor
but that suit is the best of any unless it cost too
much — I could have disposed of my crop at home
as usual, but thinking that there was Something
to be made by trying the head of the market
refused $14 at home, I would have taken 4 cts in the
Seed at the cotton house, that has been my plan of
Selling ever since I came to the country, the first
and Second crops we made were Sold at 3 cts the 3rd crop
at 4 cts the purchasers hawling the cotton from the
place to the gins or paying me for the Same —
you see from the above that I have missed the figure
In a June letter of the same year, Duncan McKenzie mentions the name of his factor in New Orleans, Lambeth and Thompson. According to Saul Friedman in Jews and the American Slave Trade, this was one of the factorage merchants that, “underwrote the slave markets on Chartres St. and who truly dominated the sugar, rice and cotton trades in the 19th century.” Though Friedman concedes the Jewish factorage merchant, his book refutes the claim that Jews “dominated” the slave trade. Duncan further explains his dealings with this commission merchant:
“I for the first time sent my crop of cotton, Say 3,000 lb, to New
Orleans, it was Shipd in Dec and consigned to Messrs Lambeth
& Thompson, Merchants at that time in very good Standing
the article was worth from 16 to 17 cts at the time it arivd there
it remained unsold till the 22nd of March when it was Sold
at $13=75 cts but the misfortune is my commission Merchants
have failed consequently this far I have recd nothing but the
promise of men who are insolvent, but so fair is their Stand
-ing that I feel encoreged that at some future time they will
be able to make full returns and if not I must do as many
others who are Similarly placed”
Still, since Duncan is a cautious man about his debts, he will not necessarily suffer much. Due to diversification, he is able to pay off his debts even if his cotton does not result in the expected returns, “your Most obdt is not bound for another in one cent tho the refusal has often caused some growling … was I not fortunate to be able to pay $350 of my debts by corn & pork”.
Duncan continues to explain the difficulties of this season’s planting, which include his own and his oldest son’s absence from the fields:
“Owing to Kenneth bad health and my
own inability to perform hard labor, we are late
with our work, the cold wet and backwardness
of the Spring would not justify forward plan
-ting, the first piece of corn we planted is so much
missing that I expect to put the plow in it in a day
or two — there was very Severe frosts on the 7th & 8th
In June of 1837 he writes of more frost and a worsening drought:
“Frost in May, on the mornings of the 15th, 16th and 17th …
I did not see the frost but Saw the
effects of it on potato leaves & persimmon bushes, in
Some places it is Said the cotton was killed also wheat …
I have not seen the earth so perfectly dry in many years
water courses failing, a constant fountain near
the fence is visited by numerous herds of cattle Suffi
-cient to manure an acre per week if pens were made …
Monday evening the 19th the weather is still
clear and hot and no appearance of rain this is the
67th day since we have had any rain to wet the
earth to the roots of the corn”
In October of 1837, Duncan describes the harvest, which had turned off much better than the vicissitudes of the weather could have foretold:
“we have gathered all our corn it being in the cribs and think it is 250
or 300 Bushels short of the quantity gathered last year, All be it
perhaps it will do but as there is not pease potatoes or mast to Start
hogs it may be Scarce corn does not gather as well as it lookd
yet there will be a plenty made as a great quantity more than
usual was planted, we have not gathered much cotton as yet Say
about 8.000 lb we have a good parcel of it to pick out as there is
the rise of 30 acres under it … we begin to think now there will be as much as we can gather”
Another season began in the spring of 1838 amidst Mississippi’s financial difficulties with the banks – credit was everything in a farming culture, and Mississippi along with the nation was reeling from the Panic of 1837. In February of 1838 Duncan writes, “the price of cotton keeps down, it is from $9= to 12 in New Orleans. All other articles as with you are verry Dear…” In March he continues describing his crops and the weather:
“we have just finishd
Sowing oats, we have not plowd any for corn or cotton
as yet but expect to commence so soon as the Season
will permit — Since the 15th of Janry the weather
has been unusually cold till about the middle of last
week, Since it has Been quite pleasant till today —
cattle & hogs are leaner now than I have Seen them …
we Sowed a little wheat
and some oats in the fall. I believe the oats are all done
and the wheat looks verry yellow”
In November of 1838 after the harvest Duncan explains that their corn crop was somewhat better than last year’s, but their peas and potatoes did not fair very well due to the dryness of the season. He also predicts that cotton in general will be “short of the usual quantity for number of acres under it. We have rather more under it this year than we had last and I know there will be Several thousands lacking of the quantity made last year.” Duncan’s son Hugh is trying his hand at “waggoning” for others – hauling cotton to market by wagon. On this trip Duncan claims that the farmers whose cotton Hugh hauled, “Sold at 13 cts they gave $2 per sack for salt 11 1/2 cts for sugar, 15 cts for Coffee.” Most manufactured merchandise that met the needs of farmer families in Mississippi was shipped from factories in the North or other parts of the world since Mississippi produced little to no manufactured goods even up until the Civil War. In this same 1838 letter, Duncan says the following:
He prefers, “selling
in the seed & taking freight of a load to go down
and get our supplies of groceries and all heavy articles in
fact if Hugh does not find this trip too fatigueing I will
let him go once a year at least and lay in most or all our
During the growing season of 1839, Duncan describes the season as “verry dry” and notes the suffering crops with a caveat regarding cotton, “the cotton appears to Stand it amazingly blooms are frequent but the corn is falling the forwarder to find it is trying to shoot and tausle.” By August, however, they are able to be “hard at saving fodder, until this week the weather has been too wet.” He also remarks that corn has produced, “much lighter by far this year than usual and the late rains have injured cotton, a poor prospect Say you for a country overwhelmed in debt.” In the same letter he adds, “Cotton has taken a considerable fall in New Orleans Say from 17 to 12 cents and I fear the new crop will settle down to 7 or 8 if so farewell to some of the cotton planters They must run to Texas.” As a result of the financial crisis, many planters had over-extended themselves in land and slaves. According to John Edmond Gonzolas in “Flush Times, Depression, War, and Compromise,” included in A History of Mississippi Volume 1, many gave up their farms rather than face paying their debts and removed their families west to Texas, with the male slaves trotting along behind wagons that carried the women and children enslaved people. Some planters actually left during the dead of night, camouflaging their flight, in hopes of escaping creditors.
In an 1837 letter Duncan McKenzie sums up his own satisfaction with his move to Mississippi and the life he has committed his family to living there.
“where a man is Satisfied
that is the place for him, there are as many dissatisfied men
here as there are there or in any other country tho they can make
with industry more than they can gather, Say you what more
could a man wish (ans) more than he can Spend —
I can make produce, and have made money here, but my expense
would frighten a pine woodser of Richd County, but this is not
what dissattisfies me but that I cant — educate my children”
Beckert, Sven. Empire of Cotton: A Global History. Alfred A. Knopf: New York. 2015. 109, 115, 114, 117.
Dattel, Gene. Cotton and Race in The Making of America: The Human Costs of Economic Power. Ivan R. Dee: Chicago. 2009. 15, 31, 45.
Dattel, Gene. “Cotton in a Global Economy: Mississippi (1800-1860).” Mississippi History Now and online publication of the Mississippi Historical Society. http://mshistorynow.mdah.state.ms.us/articles/161/cotton-in-a-global-economy-mississippi-1800-1860. Accessed 19 January 2018.
Friedman, Saul. Jews and the American Slave Trade. Taylor and Francis: London. 2017.
Hurt, R. Douglas. American Agriculture: A Brief History. Iowa State University Press: Ames. 1994. 90, 120, 124, 139.
Letter from John Patrick Stewart to Duncan McLaurin. June 1831. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 21 March 1837. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 14 April 1837. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 20 June 1837. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 31 October 1837. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 25 February 1838. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 7 November 1838. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 16 June 1839. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 14 August 1839. Boxes 7 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
McLemore, Richard Aubrey, editor. A History of Mississippi, Vol. 1. Gonzolas, John Edmond. “Flush Times, Depression, War, and Compromise.” University & College Press of Mississippi. 1973. 293.