Plantation Systems of Work

Cotton pickers illustration
Cotton Harvest. Illustration from Harper's New Monthly Magazine, March 1854. Click to enlarge

By 1820, two distinct types of work systems developed on American plantations, based on where they were located and what crops were grown there. For example, on the Susquehanna Plantation in tidewater Maryland, 65 enslaved workers cultivated tobacco and wheat under the gang system of labor. Under this system, workers labored in groups from sunup to sundown. Except for Sundays, they had little opportunity to do anything but work.

The task system of work, used at Henry McAlpin's Hermitage Plantation, was very different. This system was commonly used in coastal Georgia and South Carolina where rice was a major crop. Every activity on the rice plantation was divided into specific tasks.

rice illustration
Rice Culture on the Ogeechee, Near Savannah, Georgia.
Sketched by A.R. Waud in Harper's Weekly (January 5, 1867). Click to enlarge.

Tasks associated with rice cultivation included turning up one-quarter acre of land for rice planting, or hoeing one quarter to one-half acre of rice land. Occasionally, tasks could be completed in less than a day. Then, the enslaved workers could use the remaining time to make things their family needed. Some even made goods for sale to others.

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