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Courtesy of Georgia Archives
Vanishing Georgia Collection, Image GLY-213

Scene 9

Growing Rice

By the 1750s, rice cultivation played a significant role in the growth of Georgia's economy and solidified its establishment as a plantation colony. Rice was initially grown in freshwater swamps along Georgia's coastal region and later along tidal rivers such as the Savannah, Ogeechee, Satilla, and Altamaha. The cultivation process required an extraordinary amount of work, almost all of which was undertaken by either enslaved or free African-Americans. To successfully cultivate rice in freshwater swamps, the swamps had to be drained, cleared, and leveled before they could be used for agricultural purposes. Laborers would then collect rainfall in man-made reservoirs and release the water at various times onto the newly established fields through artificial channels and floodgates known as "sluices". Similarly, rice cultivation along tidal rivers required the implementation of irrigation measures to control the supply of water on and off the fields before rice could be planted. These measures included the construction of a complex system of levees, earthen banks, ditches, culverts, floodgates, and drains to control the tides. Once the fields and methods of irrigation were established, the rice was planted. The fields were then flooded at various times throughout the growing season. After the water was drained, the fields were hoed to remove any grass or weeds growing around the rice sprouts and to encourage the growth and extension of their roots. When the rice was mature, the crop was then harvested and processed before being transported to market.

Dugout Canoes

The dugout canoe is one of the earliest types of boats ever made and was originally used for transportation and hunting fish by Native Americans across North and South America. They were typically constructed from a single log that was hollowed out using a controlled fire. After the introduction of metal tools by European explorers, the logs were often hollowed out with an axe instead of controlled fires. When controlled fires were used, they were periodically extinguished so that the burnt wood could be scraped out. The wood was scraped to carve out the canoe's design, which consisted of a flat bottom and straight sides. The type of wood used to build dugout canoes varied across the Americas. In the southeastern part of North America, dugout canoes were generally made of either cypress, poplar, or pine logs. In coastal Georgia, these canoes were especially useful in navigating the various types of waterways found in the area. Even after the demise of their Native American creators, dugouts were designed and used by African-Americans across the American south for fishing and transporting goods and people to and from local markets. Their use as workboats remained popular into the early decades of the twentieth century.

Slavery in Georgia

When Georgia was founded in 1733, it was the only colony that attempted to ban slavery as a matter of public policy. The Trustees who founded Georgia wanted to create a colony where the workforce consisted primarily of white European laborers. Many of the settlers protested, however, arguing that they could not expect to be prosperous without enslaved workers, and expressed their desire to create a slave-based plantation economy similar to that of their neighbors in South Carolina. Under mounting pressure from the settlers, the Trustees of Georgia finally lifted the ban on slavery in 1750. As a result, many wealthy planters from South Carolina expanded their slave-based rice economy into Georgia's coastal region. In 1750, Georgia's slave population numbered less than 500. By 1775, however, the number of slaves increased to approximately 18,000 and comprised about ½ of Georgia's entire population.

The American Revolution disrupted the plantation economy as continuous changes in government generated enough confusion for roughly 5,000 of Georgia's slaves to flee the plantations in search of a better life. Some sought jobs in Georgia's urban areas. Others looked to reunite with family members on other plantations. A small percentage even fought for the British Army in return for a promise of freedom. Under British control, many African-Americans in Georgia lived independently, pursued their own economic interests, and established black churches. America's ultimate defeat of the British Army, however, resulted in both the end of the American Revolution and a restoration of the plantation economy that would be sustained until the end of the Civil War.

While the pre-Revolutionary plantation economy was based primarily on rice production, the new plantation economy that emerged from the Revolution was characterized by production of both rice and cotton. Both relied heavily on slave labor, and by 1810, Georgia's slave population totaled over 100,000. By 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, the number of slaves increased to almost half a million. Regardless of what type of plantation they worked on, slaves often encountered harsh treatment from plantation owners both physically and psychologically, ranging from brutal beatings to threats of splitting up families by selling off members to another plantation. With slavery ultimately abolished after the Civil War, southern planters bemoaned the decline of the plantation economy while former slaves welcomed their new freedom.

Buildings on a Rice Plantation

Like most other types of plantations, rice plantations consisted of an overseer's house, or "main house", where the plantation owner's family resided, as well as slave quarters whose number depended on the size of the plantation and the number of slaves that worked there. Slave quarters were usually clustered together and situated between the overseer's house and the rice fields. Rice plantations were also marked by winnowing houses, which were structures consisting of a small, square room elevated about ten feet off the ground by wooden posts and reached by an external stairway. Winnowing houses served as places where the rice kernels were cleaned after the rice was harvested and the grains were separated from their stalks. When rice plantations began operating by steam power instead of water power, the landscape of the plantation began to resemble a factory instead of a farm as large outbuildings were constructed to house the machinery used in the plantation's daily operations. Storm towers approximately twenty-feet high were also commonly found on rice plantations and provided shelter for field workers against bad weather. Other types of outbuildings including barns, storerooms, and detached kitchens were also common features scattered across the landscape of rice plantations. One of the few remaining places in Georgia to catch a glimpse of rice plantation architecture is the Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation located between the cities of Darien and Brunswick.

Additional Reading

Rice (New Georgia Encyclopedia)
Slavery in Georgia (New Georgia Encyclopedia)
Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation (New Georgia Encyclopedia)

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