When Cotton Was King

Cane River Creole National Historical Park tells the story of life on a Louisiana plantation.


By Scott Kirkwood


Deep in the South, in the northwest part of Louisiana, two plantations called Oakland and Magnolia tell the story of cotton and the people whose lives revolved around it—the men and women who picked it, the wealthy landowners who profited from it, and the land and the waterways where Creole culture emerged nearly three centuries ago.

“Today, when we drive our cars along the highway with farmland on either side, we see a nearly empty landscape with nothing but heavy machinery, but one hundred and fifty years ago, those fields were filled with people,” says Nathan Hatfield, an interpreter at Cane River Creole National Historical Park in Natchitoches, Louisiana. “Back then, rivers were the transportation routes—the highways of the eighteenth and much of the nineteenth century—and the combination of the Cane River and its fertile soil are what led people to settle here.”

The Spanish were the first Europeans to explore the region, but the French were the first to claim it as their own, in 1714; soon after, they brought African slaves to the area. In the years to come, both countries would lay claim to the region at different times, and their influences would mingle along with African influences to form a unique culture that would come to be called Creole. In 1803, the United States took over the land as a part of the Louisiana Purchase, adding a dash of spice to a nation that would one day be called a mixing bowl.

“America tends to put people in categories like black or white, but Creole isn’t a racial identity—it’s a cultural identity,” says Hatfield. “During the colonial period the term was used to designate people of Spanish or French descent born in Louisiana. But as those people interacted with each other and with the slave population, that definition expanded to include Creoles of color or mixed race. Many of the Creoles of color were descended from slaves and went on to acquire wealth and become slave-owners themselves. Today, not all Creoles share the same skin color, but they do share language, food, music, and architecture.

Regardless of the color of their skin, people here soon found their lives revolved around the fertile land in the region, which was first used to plant tobacco and indigo, the main ingredient in a blue dye used for military uniforms and other clothing. Soon, cotton took over, and at the end of the 18th century, the invention of the cotton gin made the plant even more profitable for the next 100 years. Today, rows of soybeans and corn dominate the landscape.

At their peak, the plantations at Oakland and Magnolia were less like big farms and more like small cities. Before the Civil War, Oakland had about 150 enslaved workers, and Magnolia about 250. Within that community, not everyone was picking cotton or doing domestic work—some slaves worked as blacksmiths and carpenters as well. 

Telling the story of slavery in the South requires a deft touch, and the challenge is made even more difficult by the fact that few slaves wrote about their experiences, as their owners worked hard to keep them illiterate. The Park Service distinguishes between field slaves and house slaves, and notes differences in the ways the French and Spanish treated their captives—here, slaves were baptized in the Catholic religion, which meant they were viewed through a different prism, and children lived with their parents rather than being separated at an early age. But cultural differences notwithstanding, slavery was still slavery: “When you’re interpreting Louisiana slavery,” says Hatfield, “it’s not better and it’s not worse—it’s just different.”

When cotton prices soared, plantation owners were extremely well off and able to travel widely and dabble in other pursuits; the owner of Magnolia raised thoroughbred horses for a time. But the Civil War changed that. In 1864, during the Red River campaign, Confederates ordered farmers to burn their cotton to prevent the Union from sending it to mills in the Northeast. And when Union soldiers passed back through the region after their defeat, they burned homes and other buildings, completing the decimation.

In the early 20th century, more hard times came to the region when the boll weevil arrived and devastated the cotton crop. Black slaves, who became sharecroppers after the war, soon suspected they would never own their land, and started to leave the region—a movement that continued with the Great Depression. As the price of cotton continued to fall, plantation owners tried to find creative ways to make money, raising livestock and turning old buildings into a recreational fishing camp at the Oakland plantation. Workers headed to big cities like Memphis or St. Louis, or moved to industrial centers in Chicago and Detroit. Plantation life essentially ended by the 1950s.

Today, Oakland and Magnolia still contain the presence of people who lived on the land, and the Park Service engages locals to tell their stories as well. This fall, the Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches held its annual fall tour of homes, featuring descendants of some plantation families dressed in period garb. “These activities really take what could just become a historical museum, and put the people back in the story,” says Julie Ernstein, assistant professor of anthropology at nearby Northwestern State University. “You can meet a Metoyer family member who grew up in the overseer’s house or talk to James Helaire, the descendant of a sharecropper. So you’re not only speaking with a park interpreter who is incredibly knowledgeable, but local people who actually lived here. It takes a certain amount of openness to surrender that story to people, and say, ‘This is your day—there’s room at the table for everyone.’ ”

Scott Kirkwood is editor in chief of National Parks magazine.

This article appears in the Spring 2011 issue.

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