The White Farmer

Many white small farmers turned to cotton production during Reconstruction as a way of obtaining needed cash. As cotton prices declined, many lost their land. By 1880, one third of the white farmers in the cotton states were tenants rather than landowners, and the South as a whole had become even more dependent on cotton than it had been before the war.

Before the Civil War, the majority of the South's white population owned no slaves. Few of these farmers grew much cotton; they preferred to concentrate on food crops for their own families, marketing only a small surplus, and making most of the tools, clothing, and other items they needed at home.

The widespread destruction of the war plunged many small farmers into debt and poverty, and led many to turn to cotton growing. The increased availability of commercial fertilizer and the spread of railroads into upcountry white areas, hastened the spread of commercial farming.

By the mid-1870s, the South's cotton output reached prewar levels. But now, nearly forty percent was raised by white farmers. Like black sharecroppers, those who wished to borrow money were forced to pledge the year's cotton crop as collateral. Some found economic salvation in cotton farming, but many others fell further and further into debt.

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Copyright 2003
A New Birth of Freedom: Reconstruction During the Civil War he Meaning of Freedom: Black and White Responses to Slavery From Free Labor to Slave Labor Rights and Power: The Politics of Reconstruction Introduction The Ending of Reconstruction Epilogue: The Unfinished Revolution Resources Credits for this Exhibit