Stanley Nelson

In Natchez during the year 1722, Father Pierre de Charlevoix, a Jesuit priest, saw cotton plants growing near the Fort Rosalie in the garden of the clerk for the Company of the Indies.

The French had made Natchez an important settlement on the Mississippi in the early 1700s where they primarily concentrated on tobacco production. That made Father Charlevoix’s observation significant – it’s the first known cultivation of cotton in this region.

Decades would pass before the fields turned white with cotton.

The French and Natchez Indians went to war. The final battle was in Louisiana near Sicily Island. As a result, the Natchez Indian population was all but depleted and the French abandoned the region.

But decades later, the Natchez economy would grow by leaps and bounds from the production of cotton. More land was cleared to plant more cotton. More slaves were needed to do both.

In the 1770s during British rule and in the 1780s during Spanish rule, the family of Anthony Hutchins made clothes from the cotton they grew on their plantation 12 miles south of Natchez.

"Clothing and covering were scarce and such as we had was of the coarsest and roughest kind made by our mothers and sisters from the spinning wheel and the loom," recalled one of Anthony' sons, John Hutchins ("Journal of Mississippi History," John Q. Anderson, 1958).

"As soon as we had opened land enough for the purpose of raising bread there were cotton patches planted for clothing, the seed was picked out at night and carded and spun and woven on a loom, stuck up in an outdoor cabin on fork and stick ... If we went to visit a neighbor it was generally on foot, when the ladies would fill their aprons with cotton to amuse themselves with on the road by picking out the seed; then, we had no gins, our looms were made with great simplicity and any farmer boy could make a spinning wheel. All the looms and harness were made at home."

In 1792 cotton first appeared as a crop on the Spanish agricultural census, revealing that the Natchez District -- comprising Villa Gayoso (Coles Creek), Bayou Pierre, Big Black, Buffalo Creek, Bayou Sara, Homochitto, Second and Sandy Creeks, and St. Catherine Creek -- produced 75,227 pounds.

 

ROLLER TO SAW

 

Like the Hutchins' family, most farmers for years extracted the seed inside cotton by hand. Some, however, used a small roller-gin known in India as a charkha. Using his hands, a man could de-seed a pound and a half of cotton a day. A roller gin operated all day could de-seed 70 pounds. 

But roller gins were only effective with long staple (long fiber) cotton, whose seeds were easily separated from the lint by its pinching action. Since long staple cotton was a tropical plant, it didn't grow well as far north as Natchez. Short staple cotton, on the other hand, grew quite well in the somewhat cooler subtropical climates that were characteristic of Natchez. But there was a problem -- the lint clung tenaciously to the seeds and couldn't be separated by roller gins.

This problem was solved with Eli Whitney's cotton gin -- actually a saw gin -- that he created in 1793 and patented in 1794. His invention, capable of ginning short staple cotton, was termed a saw gin because early models consisted of a series of circular saw blades on a cylinder.

When spinning, the saw teeth pulled the fiber off the seeds and through grates too fine for the seeds to pass through. Later models used wire brushes on a cylinder. Whitney's saw gin made it economical to plant and market short staple cotton throughout much of the Lower South, giving birth to the Cotton Kingdom.

 

‘A VERY INGENIOUS MECHANIC’

 

Both John Barclay and David Greenleaf were credited with constructing the first cotton gins in Natchez based on the Eli Whitney patent. At the age of 12, David Greenleaf had been a signal boy in the Battle of Bunker Hill during the American Revolution. He arrived in Natchez in 1790.

Mississippi historian John F.H. Claiborne wrote in the 19th century that Greenleaf "was a very ingenious mechanic," who "built the first public or toll gin" on his father-in-law's land along the Natchez Trace at the old village of Selsertown, located on the Adams-Jefferson line about a mile from Emerald Mound. Greenleaf reportedly saw a model of the Whitney gin at the home of a local man.

In July 1795, John Barclay returned to Natchez after spending months in the Carolinas. According to historian Jack D.L. Holmes, Barclay "was a resident of Buffalo Creek (Wilkinson County) where he cultivated 500 arpents, lived with his wife and four children" and raised horses, cattle, pigs and corn.

At that time, Barclay had turned his attention to constructing a cotton gin. Historian Holmes speculated that Barclay may have visited Whitney in Georgia during his trip back east and may have "observed the almost childlike simplicity with which the crank-turned cylinder's teeth pulled the seeds from cotton. Barclay's completed gin was inspected by a committee of Natchez planters at Daniel Clark's plantation (near Fort Adams in Wilkinson County). Despite the early morning fog which dampened the cotton and made it difficult to handle, in forty-five minutes the machine removed the seeds and cleaned expertly eighteen and three-quarters pounds of cotton. None of the cotton was damaged."

The farmers predicted it could gin up to 1,000 pounds of clean cotton per day.

Greenleaf's and Barclay's designs based on the Whitney patent changed agriculture in Natchez. Cotton soon became the top agricultural export and money maker.

 

‘THE MOST PROFITABLE CROP’

 

Also at that time, William Vousdan, an Irishman, who lived on a plantation called the "Cotton Fields" located on both sides of St. Catherine Creek between Natchez and Washington, reportedly grew clean, high quality cotton.

Vousdan produced black seed cotton. Three varieties were popular then -- Nanking, Siamese and Creole. Vousdan was the first Natchez citizen to export cotton, which he cleaned and converted to lint on his roller gin. But by the next year, the roller gins were being put into storage in the barn.

In 1797, Englishman Francis Baily, on a tour on eastern half of the continent, visited Natchez: "There is a great deal of cotton raised in this district. There are several jennies erected ... in order to extricate the seed from the cotton." On the bank of the Mississippi River at Natchez, Baily observed one gin that was "worked by two horses, which will give 500 lbs. of clear cotton in a day."

By 1799, a year after Natchez became American, 1.2 million pounds of cotton were being produced along the east side of the Mississippi River from Port Gibson, Miss., southward to St. Francisville, La.

That same year, as he realized the revolutionary potential of the cotton gin, planter, astronomer, explorer and inventor William Dunbar, viewed the future. From his Forest Plantation six miles south of Natchez, Dunbar wrote his business partner in Philadelphia:

"We continue to cultivate cotton with very great success. It is by far the most profitable crop we have ever undertaken in this country. The climate and soil suit it exactly, and I am of the opinion that the fibre, already of so fine a quality, will be still better when our lands are well cleared."

By 1801, Mississippi Territory produced 6,500 bales (450-lb. average per bale) of cotton.

 

DUNBAR'S VISION

 

Prototypes of the Whitney gin built in Natchez in the mid-1790s initially produced 500 to a 1,000 pounds a day. Improvements were constantly made. While others worked to upgrade the Whitney ginning technique, William Dunbar set out to improve the baling process.

In the early years, a man stood inside a huge bag with a paddle to beat down and pack the cotton. The cotton was dumped through a hole from the second story of a barn or shed into the big sack. Cotton fibers and dust often made the man sick and never compacted the cotton very well. In fact, it took one man a whole day to pack down just one bag.

Constantly tinkering and inventing at the Forest, Dunbar set out to improve upon a wood baling press designed by David Greenleaf, which pressed the cotton inside a rectangular shaped box. The bale was then tied with hemp cloth.

Historian Arthur H. DeRosier Jr. wrote that Dunbar designed a cast iron screw press then contracted a Philadelphia firm to build it. The press was delivered in 1802 and its assembly at the Forest drew a crowd of area cotton farmers. Dunbar paid for the machinery with seven bales of cotton, worth about $1,000.

DeRosier said Dunbar's "original intention was to use it to press his cotton bales into a small rectangular shape that would need no further compressing at any seaport. Dunbar also hoped to recoup its cost by using the press to crush cottonseeds and selling the oil extracted."

But his screw press was just too expensive for most Natchez farmers, so in the early years they stuck with Greenleaf's simple and inexpensive wooden press design. Notes DeRosier: "Large cast screw presses were not common until 1840 ... Dunbar was ahead of his time."

Dunbar's idea on extracting oil from the cottonseed was also ahead of its time. He wrote fellow Scotsman Alexandria Ross in Philadelphia in 1799 that the oil "will probably be of a grade between the drying and fat oils, resembling that made from linseed in color and tenacity, but less drying. Where shall a market be found for such an oil?"

Historian Claiborne wrote that Dunbar's idea was "the first suggestion of that product which has now become a great article of commerce, or indeed in utilizing cotton seed at all. At that period it was not dreamed of as a fertilizer, nor fed, in any shape, to stock. It was usually burnt or hauled to a strong enclosure, at a remote part of the farm, to decompose, and was considered of no use whatever, and really a nuisance."

 

COTTON WEST

 

Black River planter, writer and physician A.R. Kilpatrick of Concordia wrote in "DeBow's Review" that the first saw gin and gin house west of Natchez was built by John Henry in late 1805 near the mouth of Little River at present day Jonesville. The gin was "very small and light, requiring only one small horse to turn it. Cotton was brought to it from Catahoula and Boeuff prairies {Franklin Parish}, and it was quite an object of amazement."

Henry's gin at Little River operated until 1813, but Kilpatrick said it was "frequently out of fix." To the north at Sicily Island, however, near Lake Louie, a gin operated for years and was, said Kilpatrick, known for its reliability. In operation by 1807, it was built by brothers Edward and Richard Lovelace.

The construction, said Kilpatrick, "was attended with a great deal of trouble, as they had only a few oxen (three yokes) to haul the timbers, and lacked many other things. At that time, iron cost a great deal, and most of the nails used were wrought out on the anvil. They were nearly two years building the house and getting the machinery completed."

Kilpatrick reported that Shadrach Taylor made "the running gear and the wood work of the gin-stand; while James Wright made the saws and all the ironwork. The gin had fifty saws and every part of it was made there on the ground by the two workmen ... There was great joy and rejoicing when it was all completed and set in motion."

The original Lovelace gin was destroyed by fire in 1829.

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