River of Dark Dreams NPR coverage of River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom by Walter Johnson. News, author interviews, critics' picks and more.
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River of Dark Dreams

Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom

by Walter Johnson

Hardcover, 526 pages, Harvard Univ Pr, List Price: $35 |


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Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom
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NPR Summary

Looks at the history of the Mississippi River Valley in the nineteenth century and the economy that developed there, powered by steam engines and slave labor.

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Excerpt: River Of Dark Dreams

Chapter 7: “The Empire of the White Man’s Will”

Manure may be a homely subject, but on its preparation and use every thing is depending. Without it, the deep green of our pastures, the golden yellow of our corn-fields, and thfine beef and white loaf of our tables, could not exist.

The American Cotton Planter

Throughout the antebellum period, the Lower Mississippi Valley, declared by its chroniclers to be the richest agricultural region in the world, imported most of the wheat, corn, beef, and pork its residents required to live from the Mid-West and Ohio Valley. It was an entire economy devoted to agriculture, and it could not feed itself. Cotton, it was said by one planter, was “so much more profitable than other kinds of cultivation,” that planters supplied themselves “almost entirely from the upper country.” There were, scattered amongst the many plantation owners who planted nothing but cotton, a few planters who tried to diversify their crops, usually with corn. Corn would provide feed for livestock, who could in turn reduce Southern planters’ dependence upon imported foodstuffs—a concern that became particularly pressing during the Depression of 1837, when a sharp drop in the price of cotton made imported food appear even more dear. “We were driven by necessity to break our intolerable bondage to the grain growing states, and raise within ourselves what was necessary for our own consumption,” wrote one Hinds County planter in what most would have regarded as a too-optimistic assessment of the potential of the plantations in the Mississippi Valley to feed their owners.

Planters who valued self-sufficiency used corn to feed the cattle and pigs they hoped would reduce their reliance upon imported foodstuffs. Cattle and pigs were marked with patterns cut into their ears or brands on the flank, turned out into the woods, swamps, and roadways to forage for feed. In the autumn, Charles Ball remembered, “Neither the hogs nor the cattle required any feeding at our hands. The woods were full of nuts and the grass was abundant.” Hogs were generally driven in from the woods to be slaughtered after the cotton had been shipped, but while it was still cold enough to preserve their flesh while it was processed into meat. “Each carcass is cut into six parts,” explained Solomon Northup, “and piled one above the other in salt, upon large table in the smoke-house. In this condition it remains a fortnight, when it is hung up, and a fire built, and continued more than half the time during the remainder of the year.” “This smoking,” he continued, “is necessary to prevent the bacon from becoming infested with worms.” For planters this feral economy—forage to flesh to meat and milk—had the advantage of providing protein at the cost of little extra labor: the cows and pigs themselves did much of the work of converting nature to the service of the cotton economy (as well as, in many cases, the bounty of the public domain into the benefit of private consumption).

There were, however, well-known limits to stock-raising in the agro-capitalist ecology of “the Cotton Kingdom.” Like corn, livestock drew upon the same land and labor as cotton. The energy of each sector of earth could be converted to stock or staple, but not both; the labor of each hand had to be committed to raising either fodder or fabric. In an economy where both planting and productivity were measured by a calculation of bales per hand per acre, allocation of either land or labor away from cotton and towards corn, cattle or hogs represented an unaccountable loss in the minds of cotton-crazed planters. Or at least an unaccounted loss, suggested one planter in observing that “large plantations” were not suited for the raising of pigs, “for it is found to be almost impossible to prevent the Negroes stealing and roasting young pigs.” And so planters throughout the Mississippi Valley (and elsewhere in “the Cotton Kingdom”) imported food in order to export cotton throughout the antebellum period.