Early Life in Cabarrus County: Indigo and Cotton

30 May 2014

The indigo plant became a cash crop in the Carolinas in the 18th century. Although the flower of the indigo plant is light purple, the dye produced from the leaves is a rich, dark blue color. Courtesy of www.learnnc.org

The April 9, 2014 blog discussed early grain crops in Cabarrus County as gleaned from the “Essay of Agriculture,” by William Shakespeare Harris (1815-1875). The 12-page, handwritten essay, composed between 1850 and 1875, discusses such topics as farming and building techniques, crops, clothing and lifestyle. Here, we turn our attention to other crops – indigo and cotton,

Despite the difficulties of indigo cultivation and manufacture, it was profitable until around 1790-1795. However, by the time Cabarrus was carved from the northeastern corner of Mecklenburg County in December 1792, indigo as a staple trade crop had begun to decline.

Harris reports that indigo required “exhausting labour – was filthy in the handling vats – was deemed to be very unhealthy,” but was easy to transport by pack horse to markets as far away as Philadelphia. Cabarrus indigo growers, however, were reluctant to abandon this profitable crop before a suitable replacement was discovered. It was cotton which, slowly but surely, began to supplant indigo as a money-making crop.

In its earliest days, before there were any cotton gins in the area, cotton was a small crop. Harris tells us the young ladies spent long winter evenings separating the cotton fibers from seed by hand. A young woman, “no matter how many beaus she might have waiting on her favor or her frown – was to pick out a shoe full of cotton seed before bedtime.” Fortunately for Cabarrus women, Harris remarks, “the gallant fellows learned to pick seed so adroitly that the task of the ladies was always comparatively light and easy.”

 By 1806, Colonel James Pickens had built a water-powered gin that became “both an astonishment and a convenience.” Improved machinery, a greater number of cotton gins being built and high cotton prices, made the crop extremely profitable by 1816. After the institution of Federal tariffs on cotton around 1816 to 1824, profits fluctuated; by then however, the South’s agricultural economy, including that of Cabarrus County, was firmly tied to cotton production. Harris does note that, in light of the evils of slavery and the devastation of the Civil War, “it would have [been] better if the South had surrendered its [cotton] culture” before becoming dependent on it.

In concluding his “Essay on Agriculture,” William Shakespeare Harris offers suggestions for improved agricultural production of both cotton and corn, the primary cash crops of his day, and comments regarding the eventual success or failure of the rural, agricultural economy of the South and Cabarrus County. An interesting counterpoint to our modern-day Cabarrus economy, the essay is available to researchers in the Concord Library Local History Room.

Courtesy of the Cabarrus County Public Library, Lore Local History Room

Postcard of the Concord, NC Cotton platform (1912) where farmers would bring their crop to be weighed, bought, and prepared for shipment. Courtesy of Julie Hampton Ganis.