Slavery – the engine that drove economic growth
African-American slaves provided the labor that was required to sustain and enrich the large agricultural enterprises, like Evergreen Plantation, which grew up along the banks of the Mississippi River. As a result of their work, they were directly responsible for the spectacular economic growth that Louisiana's River Road area experienced during the first half of the 19th century.
The slave community at Evergreen
African Americans provided the workforce and lived in the quarters’ houses at Evergreen Plantation for nearly 200 years, first as slaves and later as freedmen. As slaves, they built the big house, built and maintained the levee, worked the sugarcane fields, ran the sugar mill, grew foodstuffs and cared for the big house and the Heidel and Becnel families. Many of the slave laborers on plantations in the South worked in the fields, either as plow hands, carters, ditchers, or woodcutters, among others.
At Evergreen Plantation, Pierre Clidamont Becnel purchased slaves that were skilled workers. An 1835 document lists a total of 54 slaves at the plantation. Among those were Terry, described as an “American Long Sawyer,” West, an “excellent blacksmith and engineer,” Joseph, a Creole cooper, Phill, a sugar worker, and Jean, a Creole coachman. Establishing a new plantation required workers with certain capabilities and expertise, and it is likely that each of these slaves was chosen specifically by Becnel to perform the types of work for which they were described.
Census data compiled between 1810 and 1864 relate that slaves in Louisiana resided in a variety of household types, including single families, extended families, multiple families, co-resident siblings, relatives, unrelated individuals, and single solitary males and females. The simple family was the dominant household type between both slave and free African-American populations in the United States during the nineteenth century.
Archival records relate that in 1835, a total of 54 enslaved people resided in twelve cabins at Evergreen Plantation, indicating that roughly between four and five slaves inhabited each of the twelve cabins.
Daily life as an enslaved person
Life for enslaved African-Americans was difficult in Louisiana. The sub-tropical climate, particularly the intense heat and humidity that characterizes much of the year, along with the epidemic diseases such as cholera and yellow fever, took their toll on the overall health of Louisiana's African-Americans during antebellum times. A seemingly endless cycle of planting, hoeing, weeding, harvesting, and grinding comprised the work routine on Louisiana's sugarcane plantations during the 19th century. Slaves often worked in gangs under the direction of drivers, who were typically fellow slaves that supervised work in the fields.
In the fall months during the harvesting and processing season, work on a sugarcane plantation was particularly labor intensive. Mills operated around the clock processing sugarcane. On some plantations, slaves worked in eight-hour shifts, called “watches,” and adult slaves worked two such shifts each day during grinding season.
These gangs of slave laborers worked in tandem in the fields cutting, stacking, and loading cane stalks onto mule-drawn carts. The carts traveled to the cane mill for processing. The loads of cut cane stalks were crushed between rotating steel rollers to extract the cane juice. The extracted juice was clarified and bits of pith and other debris were removed.
Next, excess water was evaporated from the juice through several stages until it thickened and reached the point of crystallization. These steps of boiling took place in series of large to small open kettles, often referred to as a “Jamaica train.” The most skilled slaves were chosen for the dangerous job of working close to the open kettles during the boiling process.
Following the development of the steam-heated vacuum pan by Englishman Edward Howard in 1813, a number of plantations began boiling sugarcane juice in a vacuum. This new technology had the advantage of being a more controlled method of boiling, where lower temperatures were required and less fuel was needed.
Thirty years later in 1843, Norbert Rillieux, a Free Person of Color from New Orleans, developed his superior “double effect” vacuum pan. On the eve of the Civil War, most sugarcane plantations in Louisiana used vacuum pans to produce unrefined crystallized sugar.
The granulated, raw (unrefined) sugar produced from the crystallization process was packed into “hogsheads,” wooden barrels that held roughly 1000 pounds of granulated sugar. Hogsheads of sugar were transported down the Mississippi River to New Orleans and then on to other markets. Much of the sugar produced on Louisiana's plantations was consumed in such East Coast cities as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.