HIGH PRICE OF COTTON: Eli’s gin made the crop king, slavery grow
Published 11:30 am Friday, March 14, 2014
A patent issued 220 years ago today for a small, simple machine invented by a Massachusetts school teacher changed the course of history, influencing population shifts and the expansion of slavery in and around the Mississippi Delta.
Eli Whitney, a native of Westborough, Mass., received a patent for the cotton gin on March 14, 1794. The 28-year-old teacher had designed the machine that used a roller and series of wires to separate cotton seeds from lint the previous April. But on this day, 220 years ago, the invention became official, changing the American economy for better and for worse.
Before Whitney’s gin, seeds were removed from fiber by hand, taking as long as 10 hours to produce a pound of usable cotton lint.
Small versions of his gin were hand cranked, and larger ones used horse power.
“One man and a horse will do more than 50 men with the old machines,” Whitney wrote to his father. “…Tis generally said by those who know anything about it, that I shall make a fortune by it.”
Fortune, however, eluded Whitney, instead shifting to plantation owners who had a new option for a major cash crop.
And so began the shift of cotton production into the interior of the South and what was known then as the West, said Vicksburg National Military Park ranger David Slay.
“Up until the invention of the cotton gin, the only really profitable cotton was called long-staple coastal cotton — sea island cotton. The fibers were long enough that it was relatively easy to manually separate the seeds from the fibers,” Slay said during a recent licensed battlefield guide seminar.
Sea island cotton did not grow well outside of the Atlantic coast, and the short-staple variety of cotton that we are most familiar with today wasn’t cost effective to grow until after the gin was invented.
Whitney’s gin design was so easy to produce that it was copied almost immediately by other business men.
“Poor Whitney never could enforce his patent on it because everybody and their brother made copies of it,” Slay said.
John Barclay of Natchez is credited with bringing plans for the cotton gin back to Mississippi from the east coast in 1795, but a resident of what is now Warren County improved upon and proliferated production of the gin.
David Greenleaf, a Revolutionary War drummer boy who moved to Mississippi between 1790 and 1792, mastered gin making by 1796.
His design dramatically increased capacity and production, and soon his cotton gins spread across the Spanish-held territory.
“The introduction of the rag-wheel gin was fortunate indeed for this district. I have reason to think that the new gin has been greatly improved here. Our latest and best make, injure the staple little more than cards,” famed Scotish merchant Sir William Dunbar wrote of Greenleaf’s advances in gin technology.
Greenleaf, also a Massachusetts native, died in 1819 and is buried in Redbone Cemetery.
After the Mississippi Territory was created out of Spanish-ceded land in 1798, business people came looking for a quick way to make cash. They found it in cotton thanks to the gin and Mississippi’s fertile soil.
“People tend not to move into places where they cannot make a living unless they are a survivalist or a misanthrope who doesn’t like other people at all. They want to go where there are other people and they can make a living, so there has to be economic opportunity,” Slay said.
With the cotton planters seeking increased production, however, came an influx of enslaved people. In 1816, Warren County had 646 free whites, eight free blacks and 427 slaves, according to a census on file at the Old Court House Museum. By the eve of the Civil War, Warren County’s population was made up of 6,896 free whites, 13,763 enslaved people and 37 free blacks, Slay said.
“The cotton gin made slavery more profitable,” Slay said.
Statewide, the number of slaves increased from 195,000 to 436,000 in the 20 year period before the war, he said.
With a slave population at about 66 percent, Warren County had one of the lowest slave to free ratios in the region. More than 92 percent of Issaquena County’s population was enslaved in 1860. Tensas Parish, southwest of Warren County, had nearly 91 percent of its residents enslaved. More than 88 percent of Madison Parish residents — directly across the Mississippi River from Vicksburg — lived in slavery. More than 71 percent of residents were enslaved in Hinds and Yazoo counties, according to census figures.
“Whether you were involved in the slavery in the South and owned slaves or not, it influenced you,” Slay said. “Like today, you cannot escape from fossil fuel usage … slavery influenced all society.”
Before the Civil War, a bale of cotton sold for about $425, which adjusted for inflation is about $6,000 today. Between 1835 and 1840, Warren County produced between 30,000 and 37,000 bales of cotton per year, according to agricultural records. Adjusted for inflation that’s between $180 million and $220 million worth of cotton produced each year in today’s dollars.