The rise, fall and aftermath of the sea-island cotton industry on the sea-islands of South Carolina and Georgiaby Harold W. Shilk.

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1971

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Abstract

The development of the sea-island cotton industry in the United States has played a major part in the growth of the area in which it was cultivated. The purpose of this study is to follow that growth from its inception to its present status. After the downfall of the sea-island cotton industry the last part of the study will be the development of new cultures which replaced the sea-island cotton production on the sea-islands of Georgia and South Carolina. The method used to acquire the information in this study was to examine the primary and secondary source materials available in the libraries of Sam Houston State University, the University of Georgia, the University of South Carolina, the Charleston Historical Society and the private library of Margret D. Cate. Extensive use was also made of the materials available through the inter-library loan service of Sam Houston State University. To enhance the study, extensive field studies were made in Georgia and South Carolina during the summer of 1970. A number of personal interviews were conducted, the principal one being the interview with Burnette Vanstory, a local historian living on St. Simons Island, Georgia. Sea-island cotton was introduced into the coastal area of Georgia and South Carolina in or around the year 1784. The first state to grow sea-island cotton was Georgia, with a number of men claiming to be the initiator of its cultivation. The characteristics of the sea-island cotton plant were commercially different than that of the green seed or upland cotton. Its most important characteristic was that it had a longer staple length of about 1 ½ to 2 ½ inches and its fiber was strong and silky. Another distinguishing feature was that its area of growth was geographically restricted to the coastal lowlands of South Carolina and Georgia. These restrictions were long growing season, fine sandy soils, and adequate rainfall. By 1800, the production of sea-island cotton almost completely dominated the commercial endeavors of most of the planters along the coastal lowlands of Georgia and South Carolina. In the development of the sea-island cotton industry, the use of slaves was considered a necessity in its culture. The type of labor system devised on the sea-islands was the “task system,� and under this system each slave had a job that he or she was assigned to do. This slave system was outdated even in the ante-bellum period, because it failed to adequately utilize the slave labor. In general, the plantation owners were agriculturally inclined and practiced the most progressive agricultural methods available in the ante-bellum period. Because of their special endeavors the sea-island cotton crops along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia brought the highest prices offered for cotton in the United States. A type of factorage system was used along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia and was practiced because of the uncertainty of the sea-island cotton crop, and the need of large amounts of capital to grow the crop. The factor acted as a private banker for the planter and handle all the business transactions done for the plantation. He bought all the supplies for the plantation, bought and sold slaves for the owner, and sold the cotton when it was harvested. The factors enabled the sea-island planters to continue cultivation of sea-island cotton even in times of stress. After the sea-island cotton crop had risen to a place of prominence the Civil Was caused a temporary halt in its production. Following the Civil Was the cultivation of sea-island cotton was renewed, but the amount produced was no longer supplied by the large plantation owner but instead by the small farmers. The major factors which brought the eventual downfall of the sea-island crop were: the price disagreement between the cotton farmers and the American mill owners which occurred in the fall of 1912 and the spring of 1913, the loss of the tire industry as a market and the change in women’s apparel. The most decisive factor in the fall of sea-island cotton, however, was the invasion by the boll weevil in the southeastern United States. After the boll weevil made its intrusion into the sea-island cotton area, commercial production of sea-island cotton in the United States ended. Following the collapse of the sea-island cotton industry, a new land use for the sea-islands was developed, which used the land for vacationing and hunting and involved only the wealthiest of people. With the linking of bridges to the mainland, such sea-islands as St. Simons and Hilton Head were opened to the public. Since that time, the islands have developed into resort areas, where middle class people can enjoy themselves by taking up residence or by vacationing there. The islands offer a multitude of things for the affluent visitor to do from golfing and fishing to the visiting of historical places that were once part of the sea-island cotton culture. One of the most important factors in the development of sea-island cotton was that it was among the first important commercially grown crops to be exported by the United States to the countries of Western Europe. Sea-island cotton also enabled the upper class of the United States and Europe to dress in the finest cotton fabrics made during the Nineteenth Century. Today, the commercial impact that sea-island cotton had on the sea-islands during the Nineteenth Century was little if any significance as far as the development of the sea-islands today. In the 1970, all that remains of the sea-island cotton culture are the historical records and relic structures made of tabby that were left behind by those plantations owner who once resided on the sea-islands.

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Keywords

Cotton growing--South Carolina., Cotton manufacture--South Carolina., Cotton growing--Georgia., Cotton manufacture--Georgia.

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