64 Parishes

Plantation Slavery in Antebellum Louisiana

Enslaved people endured brutal conditions on sugarcane and cotton plantations during the antebellum period.

Plantation Slavery in Antebellum Louisiana

Carol M. Highsmith via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Enslaved peoples' cabins and sugarcane boiling kettles at Whitney Plantation, 2021.

Editor’s Note: Warning, this entry contains graphic imagery.

The Antebellum Period refers to the decades prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861. It was a period of tremendous economic growth for Louisiana and the nation. It was also an era of extreme violence and inequality. During this period Louisiana’s economic, social, political, and cultural makeup were shaped by the plantation system and the enslaved people upon which plantations relied.

Origins of Louisiana’s Antebellum Plantation Economy

In 1795, on a French Creole plantation outside of New Orleans, Étienne de Boré’s enslaved workforce, laboring under the guidance of a skilled free Black chemist named Antoine Morin, produced Louisiana’s first commercially successful crop of granulated sugar, demonstrating that sugarcane could be profitably grown in Louisiana. At roughly the same moment, American inventors were perfecting new mechanized cotton gins, the most famous of which was patented by Eli Whitney in 1794. These machines, which removed cotton seeds from cotton fibers far faster than could be done by hand, dramatically increased the profitability of cotton farming, enabling large-scale cotton production in the Mississippi River valley.

The simultaneous introduction of these two cash crops—sugarcane and cotton—represented an economic revolution for Louisiana. Prospective planters flooded into the territory, carving its rich, river-fed soils into sugar and cotton plantations. Yet in 1803 Congress outlawed the international importation of enslaved people into the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase territory, while four years later, in 1808, Congress outlawed the transatlantic slave trade entirely. To provide labor for this emerging economic machine, slave traders began purchasing enslaved people from the Upper South, where demand for enslaved people was falling, and reselling them in the Lower South, where demand was soaring. By 1860 more than 124,000 enslaved Africans and African Americans had been carried to Louisiana by this domestic slave trade, destroying countless families while transforming New Orleans into the nation’s largest slave market. Louisiana’s enslaved population exploded: from fewer than 20,000 enslaved individuals in 1795 to more than 168,000 in 1840 and more than 331,000 in 1860.

By 1860 Louisiana produced about one-sixth of all the cotton and virtually all the sugar grown in the United States. Louisiana’s more than 22,000 slaveholders were among the wealthiest in the nation. Overall, the state boasted the second highest per-capita wealth in the nation, after Mississippi. Sugar and cotton—and the slave labor used to produce them—defined Louisiana’s economy, politics, and social structure.

Sugar Plantations

Sugarcane is a tropical plant that requires ample moisture and a long, frost-free growing season. As such, it was only commercially grown in Louisiana’s southernmost parishes, below Alexandria. Enslaved people planted the cane in January and early February. Spring and early summer were devoted to weeding. Throughout the year enslaved people also maintained drainage canals and levees, cleared brush, spread fertilizer, cut and hauled timber, repaired roads, harvested hay for livestock, grew their own foodstuffs, and performed all the other back-breaking tasks that enabled cash-crop agriculture.

In late summer and autumn the entire plantation prepared for the most arduous stage of the annual cycle, the harvest and grinding season, when the raw sugarcane needed to be processed into granulated sugar or molasses before the first frost destroyed the entire crop. From mid-October to December enslaved people worked day and night to cut the cane, feed it into grinding mills, and boil the extracted sugar juice in massive kettles over roaring furnaces. Once it crystalized the granulated sugar was packed into massive wooden barrels known as hogheads, each containing one thousand or more pounds of sugar, for transport to New Orleans. Then the cycle began again.

Sugarcane cultivation was brutal, even by the standards of American slavery. Workplace accidents were common: enslaved people were cut by cane knives, dragged into mills and crushed between the grinders, mauled by exploding boilers, or burned by boiling cane juice. “It was a rare thing if a man lived from more than ten to twelve years of those who worked at the mill,” one formerly enslaved person recalled. Conditions were so severe that, whereas cotton and tobacco plantations sustained positive population growth, death rates exceeded birth rates in Louisiana’s sugar parishes. Enslaved women were simply too overworked, exhausted, and vulnerable to disease to bear healthy children. Sugar barons reaped such immense profits that they sustained this agricultural system by continuously purchasing more enslaved people, predominantly young men, to replace those who died. This dynamic created demographic imbalances in sugar country: there were relatively few children, and over two-thirds of enslaved people were men.

For slaveholders sugar cultivation involved high costs and financial risks but the potential for large profits. As such, the sugar parishes tended toward particularly massive plantations, large populations of enslaved people, and extreme concentrations of wealth. On the eve of the Civil War, the average Louisiana sugar plantation was valued at roughly $200,000 and yielded a 10 percent annual return. It held roughly fifty people in bondage compared to the national average plantation population, which was closer to ten. Slaveholders in the sugar parishes invested so much money into farm equipment that, on average, Louisiana had the most expensive farms of any US state. In 1860 Louisiana had 17,000 farms, of which only about 10 percent produced sugar. Yet those farms reported $19 million worth of agricultural equipment (more than $635 million in 2023). By comparison Wisconsin’s 70,000 farms reported less than $6 million.

A small, tightly knit group of roughly five hundred elite sugar barons dominated the entire industry. Their ranks included many of the nation’s wealthiest slaveholders. John Burnside, Louisiana’s richest planter, enslaved 753 people in Ascension Parish and another 187 people in St. James Parish. In 1860 his total estate was valued at $2,186,000 (roughly $78 million in 2023). Mary Stirling, Louisiana’s wealthiest woman, enslaved 338 people in Pointe Coupée Parish and another 127 in West Feliciana Parish. Her estate was valued at $590,500 (roughly $21 million in 2023).

Cotton Plantations

In contrast to sugarcane cotton production involved lower overhead costs, less financial risk, and more modest profits. The average Louisiana cotton plantation was valued at roughly $100,000, yielding a 7 percent annual return. Cotton flourished north of sugar country, particularly in the plains flanking the Red River and Mississippi River.

Enslaved people planted cotton in March and April. Picking began in August and continued throughout the fall and early winter. During cotton-picking season, slaveholders tasked the entire enslaved population—including young children, pregnant women, and the elderly—with harvesting the crop from sunrise to sundown. Cotton picking required dexterity, and skill levels ranged. Whereas the average enslaved Louisianan picked one hundred fifty pounds of cotton per day, highly skilled workers could pick as much as four hundred pounds. After each haul was weighed and recorded, it was fed through the gin. Giant screw presses compacted the cotton lint into four-hundred-pound bales, which were shipped to New Orleans for export.

Plantation Life and Labor

On both sugar and cotton plantations, enslaved people endured regimented, factory-like conditions, that used advanced management strategies to enforce ruthless efficiency. Field labor was typically organized into a “gang system” with groups of enslaved people performing coordinated, monotonous work under the strict supervision of an overseer, who maintained pace, rhythm, and synchronization. Large plantations often deployed multiple gangs—for example, one to drill holes for seeds, another to drop the seeds, a third gang to close the holes—working in succession like an assembly line. Large plantations also gave rise to enslaved specialists: enslaved foremen and drivers who managed menial workers, as well as skilled artisans like blacksmiths, carpenters, coopers, and spinners.

To maintain control and maximize profit, slaveholders deployed violence alongside other coercive management strategies. Those who submitted to authority or exceeded their work quotas were issued rewards: extra clothing, payment, extra food, liquor. These incentives were counterbalanced by the infliction of pain and emotional trauma. In addition to regular whippings, enslavers subjected the enslaved to beatings, burnings, rape, and bodily mutilation; public humiliation; confinement in stocks, pillories, plantation dungeons, leg shackles, and iron neck collars; and family separation. The diary of Bennet H. Barrow, a wealthy West Feliciana Parish cotton planter, mentions “hand-sawing” enslaved persons, dunking them underwater, staking to them ground, shooting them, “rak[ing]… negro heads,” and forcing men to wear women’s clothing. During the twenty-three-month period represented by the diary, Barrow personally inflicted at least one hundred sixty whippings. Some diary entries—“had a general Whipping frollick” or “Whipped about half to day”—reveal indiscriminate violence on a mass scale.

Plantation owners spent a remarkably low amount on provisions for enslaved Louisianans. In 1830 the Louisiana Supreme Court estimated the cost of clothing and feeding an enslaved child “up to the time they become useful” at less than fifteen dollars. In 1844 the cost of feeding an enslaved adult for one year was estimated at thirty dollars. Typically the enslaved plantation worker received a biannual clothing allotment consisting of two shirts, two pants or dresses, and one pair of shoes. Pork and cornmeal rations were allocated weekly. Enslaved plantation workers were expected to supplement these inadequate rations by hunting, fishing, and growing vegetables in family garden plots.

Family, and the emotional nourishment it provided, were among the most valuable survival resources available to enslaved plantation workers. Most sought to maintain nuclear households, though the threat of forced family separation through sale always loomed. In antebellum Louisiana roughly half of all enslaved plantation workers lived in two-parent families, while roughly three-fourths lived in either single-parent or two-parent households. On large plantations enslaved families typically lived in rows of raised, wooden cabins, each consisting of two rooms, with one family occupying each room. When possible enslaved Louisianans created privacy by further partitioning the space with old blankets or spare wood.

Small-Scale Farming

While elite planters controlled the most productive agricultural lands, Louisiana was also home to many smaller farms. Roughly 15 percent of enslaved Louisianans lived on small family farms holding fewer than ten people in bondage. In contrast to those living on large plantations, enslaved people on smaller farms worked alongside their owner, the owner’s family, and any hired enslaved people or wageworkers. These farms grew various combinations of cotton, tobacco, grains, and foodstuffs. Cattle rearing dominated the southwest Attakapas region. In remote backwoods regions in northern and southwest Louisiana, these were often subsistence farmers, relatively cut off from the market economy.


The common and visible way that enslaved people resisted plantation conditions was by running away. Fugitives found refuge in the state’s remote swamps and woods, a practice known as marronage. By hunting, foraging, and stealing from neighboring plantations, maroons lived in relative freedom for days, months, or even years. Though usually temporary, the practice provided the maroon with an invaluable space to care for their psychological well-being, reestablish a sense of bodily autonomy, and forge social and community ties by engaging in cultural and religious rituals apart from white surveillance. Patrols regularly searched woods and swamps for maroons, and Louisiana slaveholders complained that suppressing marronage was the most irksome part of being a slaveholder.

Other enslaved Louisianans snuck aboard steamboats with the hope of permanently escaping slavery. They followed one of two routes: an upriver journey to Ohio, or a downriver journey to New Orleans, where they hoped to stow away aboard oceangoing vessels bound for the Northeast or Europe. Both routes were vigorously policed by law enforcement, slave patrols, customs officials, and steamboat employees.

Enslaved plantation workers also engaged in coordinated work stoppages, slowdowns, and sabotage. Slaveholders often suspected enslaved people of complicity whenever a barn caught fire, a tool went missing, or a boiler exploded, though today’s historians often struggle to distinguish enslavers’ paranoia from actual organized resistance. Louisiana planters also lived in constant fear of insurrections, though the presence of heavily armed, white majorities in the South usually prohibited the large-scale rebellions that periodically rocked Caribbean and Latin American societies with large enslaved populations. The largest rebellion in US history occurred in Louisiana in 1811, when some two to five hundred enslaved plantation workers marched on New Orleans, burning sugar plantations en route, in a failed attempt to overthrow the plantation system.