"The Cotton Culture of Missouri's Little Dixie"
By Gary Gene Fuenfhausen
May 7, 2001
Midwest OpenAir Museums Magazine, Summer Issue 2001
A Publication of: The Midwest Open-Air Museums Coordinating Council (MOMCC), Midwestern affiliate of the Association for Living Historical Farms and Agricultural Museums (ALHFAM)
Beginning in the 1810's and lasting into the 1850's, thousands of Upper South pioneers crossed the Mississippi River and headed West and settling in Missouri's central and western Missouri River valley. From a predominately Scotch-Irish yeoman and planter class, these new Missourians believed that economic independence and social standing could be achieved from riches obtained through the practice of traditional agriculture. Like back home in the Upper South, Missouri's central and western Missouri River valley pioneers practiced a system of diversified farming coupled with the raising of cash crops. In the fertile hills and valleys of this region, an area that was later dubbed "Little Dixie," the Southern farmer and planter raised livestock, such as pigs, horses, and mules, cultivated their corn and cash crops, like hemp and tobacco, and maintained a large slave population for cheap labor.
One cash crop successfully grown during the pre-Civil War period was cotton. The Little Dixians grew Upland Cotton, Gossypium Hirsutum, mostly for domestic use, but also as a viable commercial crop. For a period of some 5 decades during the pre-1870 period, Little Dixians followed market conditions and planted large quantities of cotton when trends merited its tedious culture.
The cotton culture brought to the Missouri River valley by the Americans was not only a traditional folkway, but also a necessity for surviving on the Western Frontier. The Colonial French were the first to raise cotton as far north as St. Louis, growing the fiber mainly for domestic purposes. For the early pioneer, cotton was as important as growing corn for food or building log houses for shelter. For instance in Callaway County, one early citizen reminisced that besides the grain and vegetables that were required for food the land also grew the cotton, "which was needed to make the lighter clothing." In a later statement he added that both cotton and flax were raised in Callaway County for making homespun clothing, "until the time came when it was cheaper to buy factory-made calicoes, domestics and linens."
During the early period of settlement, central and western Missouri River valley Southerners placed a high significance on the cultivation of good crops of cotton. This importance imposed on one's skill in cotton cultivation is exemplified by one Boon's Lick settler's account, a Clay County Judge who had lived in the first permanent settlements of 1811. At one time residing in the area that become Howard, Cooper, and Saline Counties, the old pioneer related that the Kentuckians "vied with each other" to see who could raise the best crops of cotton.
Women oversaw much of the cotton fiber's production in the early decades, beginning with picking the cotton in the fall and ending with weaving the fabrics in the spring. Boon's Lick women folk exercised the usual frontier skills, carding and spinning their cotton on a "cotton wheel" and weaving it into cloth on large pioneer looms. In respect to the women's role in cotton cultivation and cloth making, one settler in the Boon's Lick relates, "We raised cotton enough for our own use, and with that and wool which came from our sheep, our women folks made nearly all the clothing worn by either men or women." Judge Joseph Thorp of Clay County, an early central Missouri pioneer, states that the Boon's Lick "women carded, spun and wove the cotton and made their clothing, which was neat and tasty." John Bradbury, an English naturalist, may have possibly seen such clothing while on an expedition in the Boon's Lick country in 1811. In his 1819 published journal, Bradbury states that after his party arrived on a Sunday "we found three women there, all dressed in clean white gowns."
The arduous task of making cotton cloth was often interwoven with Boon's Lick social events. While performing their duties, women in Cooper County held community "cotton pickings." After the women's work was finished, the young men of the neighborhood joined them in all night affairs that usually included music, dancing, drinking, and other entertainment.
By the 1820s, Missouri's interior was an emerging economy that was quickly moving beyond its subsistence pioneer farming to commercial agriculture. Early in the antebellum period, Southern farmers and planters settling Little Dixie were experimenting with crops that would make suitable exports for trade. In an 1820 article published in the Boon's Lick's Intelligencer, a newspaper then published at Franklin in Howard County, the best crops for the region were discussed. Titled "The "Boon's Lick" Country," the newspaper boasted "The soil, in respect to its fertility and productiveness, is believed to equal any other in the Union. More than one hundred bushels of corn and several instances, fifty bushels of wheat are average crops. Rye, hemp, flax, oats, barley, and all other cultivated productions of the climate grow here exuberantly. ..... Tobacco is a certain crop, grows large and has large and thick leaf. Good crops of cotton are sometimes raised." By November 1823, commercial agriculture had arrived in the Boon's Lick Country. The coming of a market economy was reported in the newspaper, "Within a few days past a number of boats have left this vicinity (Franklin, Howard County), bound for New Orleans, laden with beef, pork, and other products of the country." The news article went on to say the New Orleans' shipment included locally produced flour, lard, tallow, and tobacco.
It was natural for the Southern yeomen farmers and planters of central Missouri to turn to their traditional farming methods, such as raising cotton, as culturally practiced back home in the regions from which they came, the Kentucky Blue Grass, the Tennessee Nashville Basin, and the Virginia Piedmont. The Little Dixie system of agriculture was dependent on slave labor, the growing of diverse crops, the raising livestock, such as pigs and mules, and the cultivation of cash crops, such as hemp, tobacco, and cotton.
For cotton cultivation in the central Missouri River region, the "short-staple" varieties grew best. In Missouri during the antebellum period, cotton required between 150-180 days for fiber development. The Little Dixie has a growing season that averages 188 days between the last and first freezes, April 12 to October 17. From the first planting of seed in the spring to picking in the fall, the time needed for maturing short staple cotton was well within the range of central and western Missouri's growing season.
By the 1820s, cotton cultivation had indeed reached commercial levels. For instance in 1821, Missourians cultivated an estimated 308,000 pounds of cotton. In the following year, central Missouri raised 25,000 pounds of Boon's Lick cotton, which was shipped down river and sold in the markets of St. Louis. An example of individual production is that of the planter John L. Hardeman who reported growing 1,200 pounds of cotton per acre on his plantation in New Franklin, Howard County. A neighbor of his planted 10 ½ acres of cotton and picked 10,272 pounds. Across the river in Saline County, Dr. John Sappington also grew cotton on his large plantation Pilot Hickory. In 1822, Sappington cultivated between 10,000-12,000 pounds of cotton. Other reports also include those in the southwestern portion of the County near Brownsville, present day Sweet Springs, where "Considerable cotton was raised." Even in up River Ray County, Missouri, planters and farmers cultivated cotton on the open prairies.
With an absence of commercial gins in central Missouri, local farmers and planters would have been forced to clean cotton by hand as in the period before the invention of the Whitney Gin in 1793. A person removing the seeds by hand could clean about a pound of cotton a day; this compared to using a gin, like that invented by Eli Whitney, which could clean about 50 pounds a day.
When and where the first gin was used in Little Dixie is not known, but by the early 1820s, with the abundance of both domestic and commercial cotton in the Little Dixie Missouri River counties, mechanized cleaning of cotton was being utilized. For instance, planter, entrepreneur, and noted physician Dr. John Sappington operated a gin outside Arrow Rock on his plantation Pilot Hickory. Sappington ginned his own cotton and that of his neighbors. In 1822, Sappington complained that he had raised enough cotton to gin 1,000 pounds per day, but his faulty gin prevented him from cleaning more than 500 pounds per day. Other cotton gins were also found in the central Missouri River valley. For example near Brownsville, Saline County, Mr. Prigmore operated a gin. In Clay County, Kentuckian Johnathan Q. Atkins owned a gin on his rural estate and Waltus L. Watkins built and operated a cotton mill, gristmill, and circular saw mill in Liberty, Clay County, during the 1830s. In Randolph County, the old Herring and Davis flourmill, bought by Mr. J. H. Bagby in 1856, ginned cotton.
"Prairie Park" plantation, Saline County, Missouri is one of two remaining houses of the "Sappington Settlement"
where Dr. John Sappington operated his cotton gin. Built from 1844-49, Prairie Park was
the home of Sappington's son William and his wife Mary, children, free workers, and 38 slaves.
Plantation home of Johnathan Q. Atkins, Clay County, Missouri, begun c. 1820s.
It was near here that the Kentucky native and slave owner Atkins ran his carding mill and cotton gin.
Over the following decades, cotton cultivation diminished in Missouri,
particularly in the river counties of Little Dixie. For instance in 1829-30, New
Orleans reported it received 193 bales (est. 59,444 pounds) of Missouri cotton
that was shipped down river to their ports. In 1840, only 837 pounds of cotton
were cultivated in Boone, Callaway, Chariton, Clay, Copper, Howard, Lafayette,
and Saline Counties. Then in 1848, Missouri reported a "little" cotton was
raised, but by 1849, census takers recorded that cotton was not cultivated in
Many historians have interpreted the decline in cotton cultivation in central and western Missouri as the realization by regional farmers and planters that cotton was a precarious crop in their latitudes. If the assumption relating to climate conditions were true, then the resurgence of cotton cultivation during the decades that followed would not have occurred. By 1860, Boone, Callaway, Chariton, Clay, Copper, Howard, Lafayette, and Saline Counties cultivated 186,400 pounds of the white fiber. Little Dixie as a whole produced 189,600 pounds of cotton. Missouri's total yield for that year was 16,000,000 pounds.
During the Civil War, with its high prices and shortages, Missouri's Little Dixie farmers and planters were encouraged to plant more cotton. In 1862, the Clay County newspaper the "Liberty Tribune" declared "Cotton was, in former years, raised as far north as the Missouri River; and if it continues much longer to sell at 40 cents a pound; it will be raised again there for the use of the good housewife." Apparently, prices justified both domestic and commercial production in the Missouri River Counties. By 1864, it was reported that possibly as much as several thousand acres of cotton were growing in the region. The newspaper account went on to say "It is mostly in small patches of an acre or two, but some have been so much encouraged with the results of last year's planting that they have put in eight or ten acres."
Carroll County represents a good example of the high levels of cotton raised during the Civil War in Little Dixie. In 1863, Carroll County planters and farmers raised an estimated 20,000 pounds of cotton. In Carrolton, business owners Musser and Winfrey operated a cotton gin at their woolen factory, and by 1864, they were ginning about 15,000 pounds of locally grown cotton. Unfortunately for the mill owners and its patrons, the mill and the previous year's cotton crop burned in June of 1864. The loss of the mill and its contents was estimated at $20,000, nearly half the value representing stored cotton and wool. An employee of the mill, a boy of 15 named William Vickery, also lost his life in the catastrophic event.
Throughout its period of cultivation, pricing was the determining factor that drove cotton production for Little Dixie's central and western Missouri farmers and planters. From the 1820s high to 1849, Missouri's Little Dixie farmers and planters grew cotton in quantities that were consistent with high market payments. As an example in the early to mid-1820s, when large amounts of cotton were being raised in the central and western Missouri River Valley, prices ranged between 12 and 18 cents per pound. At its peak in June 1825, cotton was selling at 29.5 cents per pound. After the 1830s, cotton prices continued on a downward spiral causing a similar decline in the cultivation of cotton in the Little Dixie counties. Cotton briefly experienced a few price increases like those of the 1820s, but never for an extended period. It was not until after 1855 that cotton prices rose to their pre-1830 levels, a position they maintained for the rest of the decade. (See "New Orleans Cotton Prices, 1820-1860.")
"New Orleans Cotton Prices, 1820-1860," based on the table by Lewis Cecil Gray for "weighted yearly
average and monthly prices" of short-staple cotton in New Orleans, History of Agriculture in the Southern United States To 1860, p. 1027.
Another reason for the shift from cotton cultivation is that by the 1850s, Little Dixie farmers and planters had become entrenched in a culture of growing the profitable and slave intensive cash crops tobacco and hemp. In 1850, Missouri produced enough tobacco to rank fifth in the nation. By 1860, Howard, Chariton, Randolph, and Callaway Counties produced 62% of Missouri's total 25,086,196 pounds of tobacco. Howard County remained the leader in the State for tobacco production, a role it maintained through much of the antebellum period. In 1850, local Howard county farmers and planters grew 18.8% (3.2 million pounds) of Missouri's total 17 million-pound crop. During this period, Howard County was also Missouri 's most important slave county with a 35% African American slave population in 1850 and 36% in 1860. In 1850, Howard County was also first for the largest slave population.
By the 1850s, Missouri also had the nation's most important hemp culture. In 1850, Kentucky and Missouri produced more than 75% of the 74,493 tons of hemp raised in the United States. Missouri harvested 26% of the aggregate, and Little Dixie 18% of the total hemp grown nationwide. In 1860, 70% of Missouri's 19,267 tons of hemp was grown in the River counties of Little Dixie. Lafayette, Saline, Platte, and Pike counties cultivated a total 10,969 tons. Lafayette County had become so devoted to hemp that its citizens were compelled to import grain and meat from neighboring counties. By the outbreak of the Civil War, the culture was dubbed "King Hemp" in Lafayette County, which was also held Missouri's largest slave population in 1860.
By the end of the Civil War, Little Dixians had learned that their economic success came from their specific system of agriculture, which included slave labor and the practice of diversified farming and the planting and marketing of Missouri hemp and tobacco. For the Little Dixie farmer and planter, Upland Cotton cultivation could not compete with other cash crops, such as hemp and tobacco. With the close of the Civil War, the hope of ever producing commercial crops of cotton ended as Missouri's Little Dixians were forced to find alternative agricultural methods. Like cotton, the labor-intensive hemp culture also ended as the cheap labor force evaporated and the maintenance of large tracts of land became a financial drain. The Civil War and the end of slavery forever changed the agricultural landscape of Missouri's Little Dixie.
By the close of the century, many planters and farmers concluded that cotton was better suited for the lower latitudes of the State. Cotton was grown for home use in Missouri as a whole, but only commercially grown in Stoddard, Scott, New Madrid, Pemiscott, Dunklin, Mississippi, and Lawrence counties. Interestingly enough, with the exception of Lawrence County, Missouri's current important cotton growing areas are the same southeastern Mississippi Delta counties. With its production confined to the southeastern part of the State, cotton continues to be an important crop for Missourians. In 1992, Missouri's farmers produced 259,680,000 pounds of cotton, representing 3.8% of the State's total Agricultural Cash Receipts. By the end of the 20th Century, Missouri produced more cotton than Florida, Virginia, and South Carolina and ranked 9th among the Southern States for cotton cultivation.
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World Wide Web
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