The Antebellum Period
The Making of a Plantation Economy
After the indigo crops failed in 1794, many south Louisiana planters focused their efforts on sugarcane. In 1795, Etienne de Boré successfully granulated significant amounts of sugar by boiling it in iron kettles at his plantation in New Orleans. This event allowed sugar to be manufactured on a commercial scale, and led to the establishment of sugar as king in south Louisiana. Louisiana’s sugar economy was further developed by a large influx of knowledgeable sugar planters from the French West Indies, who came to Louisiana after a series of slave revolts. After 1830, sugarcane plantations comprised 75% of the parish’s total improved acreage; the rest of the land was mostly composed of subsistence farms. Some of the large sugar plantations that emerged in the parish during the Antebellum Period include Allendale, Anchorage, Arbroth, Ashland, Bayou’s Belle Vue, Belmonte, Camp, Carolina, Cypress Hall, Marengo, Poplar Grove, Smithfield, Westover, Yatton, Belle Vale, St. Delphine, Catherine, and Monte Vista.
A Story of Sugar and Slavery
During the Antebellum Period, almost all of the sugar grown in the United States came from Louisiana. The area south of Baton Rouge was considered “sugar country.” Sugar operations were usually large plantations that included their own on-site sugar mills for grinding. The steady expansion of such plantations coincided with an increase in enslaved labor. By the onset of the Civil War, there were over 300,000 enslaved people in Louisiana. Most large sugar plantations listed around 100 slaves on their rosters; about 10% of all Louisiana plantations had enslaved populations that exceeded 100 individuals. According to the 1860 census, approximately 73% of the population of West Baton Rouge was made up of enslaved people of African descent, putting the parish in the top ten parishes in Louisiana in terms of percentage of slaves.
Sugar plantation work for the enslaved laborers was strenuous. As part of the “Jamaica Train” system, enslaved workers transferred boiling cane juice from one kettle to another until the water in the sugar cane juice evaporated, condensing it into sugar cane syrup. This was a particularly dangerous and arduous task, as the boiling juice and steam could burn the workers. Furthermore, these enslaved laborers were working with open fires, boiling kettles, and billowing steam in Louisiana heat, without any air conditioning or opportunity to cool down.
The sugarcane harvest season, called “grinding season” or simply “grinding,” took place in the late fall and often lasted to Christmas. Normally, Sundays were a free day for enslaved people, which they often used to do work on their own time: possibilities included selling handmade wares, hiring themselves out, and maintaining their own garden plots, which they used to supplement the inadequate diet provided by their owners.
Two early planters of note in the West Baton Rouge area included Joseph Erwin, who converted his corn and cotton crops to sugar in the 1820s, and Julien Poydras, who planted sugar at Limerick and Cypress Hall Plantations. Like Erwin, a few planters in the area grew cotton, but most eventually converted to sugar due to its greater success in the region.