Mississippi History: The Apron Strings of Cotton that Tie Our State Together

Photo by Sarah Beaugez

It might not be apparent to most people the way in which Mississippians are knotted by cotton apron strings.

“How?” you ask politely.

Cotton didn’t become Mississippi’s number one cash crop by random sampling. It wasn’t even entertained as a cash crop until tobacco failed to bring in the high prices which it had been doing until the Spanish soldiers in New Orleans found a cheaper source and began buying from outside of the Mississippi River Valley around 1790. The Louisiana Territory was like a newborn baby and, at this juncture, was swaddled in protection by Spain, on the one hand, and ruled like a dictatorship on the other. Spain, France, and England took turns controlling the rich region until 1803, at which point the United States government purchased the territory that eventually gave birth to fifteen states.

With the need for a new cash crop, the Natchez region decided to attempt growing indigo. (Indigo is primarily used as a blue dye). However, by 1793, growing indigo had ended due to pestilence and the crop’s harsh effect on the environment, especially for cattle.

Enter cotton.

The year was 1793. It was realized by growers that cotton grew easily in certain areas with particular soil composition. Eli Whitney applied to patent his cotton gin design in that same year; its easy replication made changes in the world of cotton growth, and production, which forever changed the world of textiles. Cotton had been grown, and ginned, in Jackson County, the eastern-most Gulf Coastal county, for at least twenty-five years prior to Whitney’s gin.

U.S. census data reflects zero percent cotton production in 1800. But hold on to your britches … in less than sixty years, the U.S. became the world’s number one supplier of cotton fiber capable of being ginned, spun, and woven into textiles which could then be manufactured into garments. Mississippi produced one-third of the total amount of cotton in the U.S. in 1860.

Mississippi’s one-third of the total U.S. cotton production in 1860, equated to 1,250,000 bales or 562,500,000 pounds of cotton (averaging a conservative 450 pounds per bale), according to historian Gene Dattel.

Skip one hundred-plus years. For many reasons, Mississippi’s position as the center of a global economy had long since ended. Within that time period, massive changes had occurred within the practice and culture of growing cotton, including the end of the Civil War, sharecropping, and the mechanization of the crop, as well.

If we look at a Mississippi production map on the eve of the Civil War, circa 1860, it is clear where cotton production was greatest: in the Black Prairie region on the north-central side of the state, Madison County, Pontotoc County, and the area on each side of the Mississippi River, south of Sharkey-Issaquena counties all the way to the Louisiana line. While there was some production in the Delta, it was minuscule compared to the other areas in Mississippi. Only 10% of Delta land was cleared for the planting of cotton in 1860.

Cotton fiber affects most, if not all, of the people on the planet every single day. It is still expensive to grow in an iffy market that seems to crave synthetic fibers. However, if we look at how Our Mississippi continues to be a major player in cotton production, we must consider a serious glance at the historical context and pay attention to how far we’ve come.



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