Slavery and the Cotton Gin - American History
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Slavery and the Cotton Gin

Cotton baby dress
A cotton baby dress from about 1796 AD
(Wisconsin Historical Society)

When European explorers came to the West Indies in 1492 AD, they saw that people grew cotton there, and by the 1600s these invaders forced the local people to grow more and more cotton that the Europeans could take and sell back in England. Cotton, imported from the Ottoman Empire, was still very rare and expensive in England in the 1600s, so everyone was very excited to have a new cheap way to get it. To produce cotton thread more efficiently, Europeans brought over the Indian churka to get the seeds out of the cotton. Even though the Sea Island cotton that grew in the West Indies was different from Indian cotton, the Indian machine worked pretty well.

By about 1670, as more and more Europeans came to live alongside the Cherokee along the south Atlantic coast of North America, they began to grow cotton there as well. At first they grew Sea Island cotton, that grew well near oceans, and they kept on using the churka to get the seeds out.

By the middle of the 1700s, though, a lot of the Cherokee had died of smallpox, and European settlers were beginning to move inland, taking over Cherokee land and moving into the land of the Mississippians (modern South Carolina and Georgia). They found that the Sea Island cotton didn't grow so well here, and instead it was better to grow the other kind of American cotton. But this short-staple cotton had different seeds, and the churka didn't work to get these seeds out. Cotton farmers bought African people as slaves and forced the Africans to pick the seeds out by hand.

It was impossible to make much money on cotton picking the seeds out by hand, so cotton remained expensive and not that many people grew it. But in 1793, just after the American Revolution, Eli Whitney invented a new kind of cotton gin that would get the seeds out of short-staple cotton.

Soon everybody in Georgia was growing cotton and using the new cotton gin to get the seeds out cheaply. Tens of thousands of African people were captured and brought to the United States to work in the cotton fields to grow more and more cotton. Most of the people who came to the United States as slaves came just around 1800 AD, and they came to pick cotton.

More about cotton
Cotton before 1500 AD

Bibliography and further reading about cotton:

Cotton and Silk, by Jacqueline Dineen (1988). Easy reading.

Cotton, by Guinevere Healy-Johnson and Nancy Shaw (1999). Also for kids.

Cotton Now & Then, by Karen B. Willing (1996).

Linen home

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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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