The Southern Colonies

5e. Life in the Plantation South

Sotterley Plantation
Slave Cabin at Sotterley Plantation, Maryland, is one of the only remaining freely accessible examples of its kind in the state.

Plantation life created a society with clear class divisions. A lucky few were at the top, with land holdings as far as the eyes could see. Most Southerners did not experience this degree of wealth. The contrast between rich and poor was greater in the South than in the other English colonies, because of the labor system necessary for its survival. Most Southerners were yeoman farmers, indentured servants, or slaves. The plantation system also created changes for women and family structures as well.

The tidewater aristocrats were the fortunate few who lived in stately plantation manors with hundreds of servants and slaves at their beck and call. Most plantation owners took an active part in the operations of the business. Surely they found time for leisurely activities like hunting, but on a daily basis they worked as well. The distance from one plantation to the next proved to be isolating, with consequences even for the richest class. Unlike New England, who required public schooling by law, the difficulties of travel and the distances between prospective students impeded the growth of such schools in the South. Private tutors were hired by the wealthiest families. The boys studied in the fall and winter to allow time for work in the fields during the planting times. The girls studied in the summer to allow time for weaving during the colder months. Few cities developed in the South. Consequently, there was little room for a merchant middle class. Urban professionals such as lawyers were rare in the South. Artisans often worked right on the plantation as slaves or servants.

The roles of women were dramatically changed by the plantation society. First of all, since most indentured servants were male, there were far fewer women in the colonial South. In the Chesapeake during the 1600s, men entered the colony at a rate of seven to one. From one perspective, this increased women's power. They were highly sought after by the overwhelming number of eager men. The high death rate in the region resulted in a typical marriage being dissolved by death within seven years. Consequently there was a good deal of remarriage, and a complex web of half-brothers and half-sisters evolved. Women needed to administer the property in the absence of the male. Consequently many developed managerial skills. However, being a minority had its downside. Like in New England, women were completely excluded from the political process. Female slaves and indentured servants were often the victims of aggressive male masters.

On the Web
A Day in the Life of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello
From the folks at Monticello a fascinating slice of plantation life. Thomas Jefferson was a very reluctant politician and couldn't wait to retire to his plantation. But with all the work to be done, it's a wonder he didn't want to stay in the White House. Start at sunrise and spend a day with farmer Jefferson.
Gunston Hall
Gunston Hall was home to influential Virginian George Mason who was a big influence on Jefferson. These folks say they're ready to help you with you school project. I quote. "Working on a school project? Writing a paper? Or maybe you are simply interested in more information about George Mason or Gunston Hall. Please call, write, or e-mail us to discuss your needs. We carry books about George Mason and Gunston Hall, copies of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, postcards, and much more. Let us help you with your project!" They have a comprehensive bibliography of sources on George Mason, Gunston Hall, and other 18th-century topics.
Historic St. Mary's City — 1634-1695
Historic St. Mary's City has a working farm as part of the museum's attractions. The Spray family's recreated 1660s tobacco plantation, tucked away on the banks of St. Andrew's Creek, contains the main house, tenant house, and tobacco houses (barns), as well as the crops, gardens, orchards, livestock, and fencing that a successful planter would have owned. The Spray family and their indentured servants interpret the everyday life of early Tidewater farmers. Tasks and activities change along with the seasons, and the lessons of opportunity and hardship are shared with those visiting.
In 1809, Jefferson retired from the "hated occupations of politics" and returned to "the bosom of my family, my farm, and my books." Experience a day in the life of Thomas Jefferson.
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