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Cotton is produced by small trees or shrubs of the genus Gossypium. The flower bud of this plant, which is commonly called the cotton boll, is the marketable portion used in textiles. Cotton is known to have been grown in India as early as 3000 B.C. as well as by the ancient Chinese and the ancient Egyptians. It was one of the first crops introduced to this continent by European colonists, having been planted at the Jamestown colony.
The climate of Louisiana, in particular the northern region, is ideal for the cultivation of cotton. The crop requires a long growing season, marked by plenty of water and sunshine during the early portion and dry weather for the harvest. Cotton is planted in late winter or early spring. When the crop begins to grow, the fields are thinned by “chopping,” which is the cutting out of weaker plants. This is a very labor-intensive operation. In October the crop was harvested by hand picking the mature bolls.
Emanuel Prudhomme was the first to grow cotton in Louisiana, planting some on his plantation near Natchitoches in 1718. However, very little cotton was grown statewide until after the invention of the cotton gin in 1792. The primary areas in which this crop was grown were the valleys along the Red, Ouachita, Tensas, and Mississippi Rivers due to the rich soils. The proximity of these rivers also helped with the shipment of the harvest.
Prior to the Civil War most cotton was grown on large plantations, utilizing slave labor. The abolition of slavery combined with the economic chaos brought by the war and Reconstruction had considerable impact on cotton growing. Plantation owners had difficulty turning a profit in the business due to the amount of labor required. However, since the newly-freed ex-slaves and a number of poor whites needed a way to earn a living, the sharecropping system was developed. These individuals would “contract” with a plantation owner to work a tract of land on the plantation, usually between ten and sixty acres. The planter would provide a house, tools, seed, a mule, etc., and in return the sharecropper would give the owner one-fourth to one half of the crop. The planter would also provide the sharecropper with provisions, food, and clothing for his family. This monthly “furnish” was often credit in the form of tokens used at the plantation commissary. The sharecropper would settle the account when the crop was harvested. In the Cotton Belt along the Mississippi River, approximately ninety percent of the farmers were sharecroppers.