People and Places: A Historical Overview of the American South


A Historical Overview of the American South

The history of the American south begins with the colonization of Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia. The rich and fertile soil of these areas were prime for cultivating many crops, such as tobacco, rice, and cotton, which were exported to markets throughout Europe. Plantations developed into work areas so large that slave labor and trading soon became routine. After the Civil War, the devastated south entered a tumultuous transition period as slavery came to an end, and the reconstruction period ensued. It took decades for the south to recover, but eventually industry began to grow, and non-agricultural jobs became available, resulting in widespread economical growth.

The Early Settlers

European colonization of the south began due to the commercial possibilities of the coastal plain. There were many areas that were ideal for agricultural cultivation because of the fertile soil and mild climate. The long summers were hot, with plenty of rain, and the winters were warm, which allowed settlers to plant crops like tobacco and rice. Due to the river ways, there was also the option for expansion and to move easily between the Altamaha River in Georgia and Virginia’s James River.

Although there was great agricultural growth, the bulk of the population grew slowly and people often remained close to the port cities or along the main rivers. The British immigrants made up the majority of the population until the 1840’s. Around that time, the Canadian, French-speaking exiles came and settled in Louisiana, now called the Cajuns, and the Scottish-Irish arrived, while the Spanish settled in Florida. Farms were many, but plantations slowly emerged as leading agricultural producers, growing tobacco, rice and indigo as their main crops. Early in the 19th century, foreign-born migrants declined with the influx of African slave labor, the first arriving in 1619.

The Architecture of New England and the Southern Colonies

The Southernmost Colonies: The Carolinas and Georgia

The Southern Colonial Region

The American Revolution

As the American Revolution took hold of the nation, changes also came to the South. Slavery was most effected as tens of thousands of slaves took advantage of the war time chaos and escaped. The British Governor Lord Dunmore seized this exodus opportunity by offering any escaped slaves freedom for their service. Not all accepted, but many from South Carolina took the governor up on this offer. There were also some slave owners and church leaders that were inspired by the war to release their slaves after the Revolution.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution was put into practice, and now that all the individual colonies were the United States of America, the county needed a common market. A number of changes were imposed by the constitution. The economic system would not have tariffs or taxes on interstate trade and the federal government would also be able to administer trade with foreign nations and within individual states. They could also print their own money and regulate the value. The American economy did not go smoothly, it would take time to overcome the limitations freedom had imposed on the market.

The people wanted autonomy, but their independence politically did not end their need to remain economically tied to Britain. Though they could now trade with any country, they would still have to retain trade with Britain for years to come. The Revolution had also put a stop to the many subsidies that were once provided by the British to the colonies. Because of this and the costly war, the United States gradually fell into a recession. The government responded by printing more money, which pushed the economy into period of inflation. Eventually, there was recovery and the country bounced back to be the wealthiest in the world.

Southern Campaign of the American Revolution

South Carolina Department of Archives and History

The Antebellum Period

The antebellum period lasted approximately from 1830 to 1860, and during this time the southern plantations flourished with agricultural wealth and growth. However, the south gradually began to set themselves apart from the nation’s politics, economics, religion, and philosophy. By the early 18th century, slaves were imported from central and western Africa in large numbers. Many southerns thought of the transatlantic slave trade as a “positive good,” although not all whites owned slaves. Tensions became increasingly high between abolitionists and pro-slave owners, and the controversy between the North and South over slavery further fueled expansionism. Each side wanted the nation to admit new states that supported its own political, economic, and slave policies.

Crops like tobacco, rice, hemp, and sugarcane were grown in a secondary manner, but overwhelmingly, cotton was the most successful crop of the region. The demand for cotton soared through the 1850s, especially with increasing use of the cotton gin. Cotton was so popular, that it dominated the economy, and by 1860, it was the export income of not only the South, but also the country at 60 percent.

Slavery in the Antebellum South

Manners and Etiquette in the Antebellum South

The Civil War

The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 only increased tensions between the north and south as it stated that territories could decide for themselves whether to become free or slave states. Tensions reached a peak when Abraham Lincoln was named president of the Union in 1860, and his solid belief that “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” only shook the south even more. Any and all issues dividing the nation became the main focus and it wasn’t long before tensions came to a breaking point. An underlying issue of the Civil War was slavery, and two differing opinions on what the role of the federal government should be. This caused great division among the nation, which eventually resulted in the secession of the southern states. South Carolina left the union just after the election of Lincoln on December 20, 1860. Soon after Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana followed in January of 1861. Texas then left in February. After the Battle of Fort Sumter, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee followed suit in April, May and June. These then formed the Confederate States of America.

The Confederate troops first fired on South Carolina’s Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. Troops were quickly raised and strategies forged as both sides prepared for war. Missouri was soon under Union control and the North and South stood firm along the Ohio River and Tennessee. Because the lower South had seceded, on February of 1861, Robert E. Lee was recalled from Texas. He was strongly attached to the Union and had no sympathy for slavery. General Ulysses S. Grant had been newly commissioned and was stationed in Illinois. General William T. Sherman was heading downriver from Memphis, Tennessee to try and seize Vicksburg.

The Mississippi River was key to the war. Whoever held it would hold the key to a major thoroughfare. There were also the railroads to consider. Both sides knew the significance of gaining control over them. Ultimately, the fall of the Mississippi River into Union hands was the end all for the Confederates. Cut off from the vital supplies they needed, the Confederacy could not survive. Virginia withdrew from the Union and Robert E. Lee, instead of suppressing the insurrection, decided to resign. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation then officially freed the slaves. Due to the efforts of President Lincoln, Sherman and Grant, the Union had been victorious.

Civil War and Reconstruction

The "New South"

The Reconstruction Period

Plantation life had become the economic crutch of the South; they were completely dependant on it for their livelihood. The north’s factories had also been the main resource for what they needed to grow and market their crops. Since the south had lost the Civil War, their economic status was severely damaged. Their railroads had been dismantled and their equipment confiscated. Much of the industrial base had been destroyed and their shipping terminals had been disrupted. Confederate money was worthless, and northern forces confiscated any warehouse stocks of cotton. Lands and buildings were in need of repair, livestock had been lost and implements had been stolen. All slave labor was formally eliminated and large plantations were either heavily taxed or broken up.

The post Civil War era was difficult for the South. Even though the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments abolished slavery, gave African Americans citizenship, and allowed them the right to vote, the newly freed southern black population experienced fierce racism and prejudice. Threats and harassment by the white-supremacist group, the KKK, caused fear and danger for many African Americans. With the establishment of the Jim Crow laws, segregation became strictly enforced nationwide, and African Americans faced little opportunities. The South was also experiencing isolation from the rest of the country, decreasing economical growth. Because of this, the south once more fell back on its agricultural roots. This created a unfortunate situation for most rural blacks and poor whites, who were often forced to make arrangements with the remaining white landowners. Sharecropping became a way of life, but it was the same arduous work they had always done. It was a horrible trade off, giving their share of crops for the most basic of life, usually only enough to survive. Even if they were lucky enough to own land, it was difficult in a prejudice land to acquire the credit or extra land needed to make it.

An Outline of the Reconstruction Era

The Meaning of Emancipation in the Reconstruction Era

Late 19th and Early 20th Century

Around 1880, a new period began in the South regarding economic opportunities. There was rapid development in manufacturing as the cotton textile industry grew. Over 50 percent of the nation’s textile spindles were located in the south by 1929. To save costs, proximity became key, so synthetic and natural fiber industries started to appear in order to produce the necessary material for synthetic and cotton manufacturers. This then increased the output of the fiber industries.

Beyond textile manufacturing, reconstruction of the area’s railroads began, which in turn sprouted a number of railroad towns. The manufacturing of cigarettes was also a focus in the regions of Virginia and North Carolina. Due to new federal land policy and the stronger network of the railroad, the South’s large forests began to be resourced. Timber was taken raw and then sent to furniture manufacturers, and after 1936, the manufacturing of pulp and paper ensued.

The Deep South

The African-American Mosaic

Post WWII to Present

From 1939 to 1945, World War II raged and when it ended, the South, as well as the rest the United States, changed. Marriage rates went up sharply and the baby boom began as men and women married at a younger age. There had been a fear that the drop in military spending would bring back the days of the Great Depression, but due to economic growth and consumer demand, there was exceptional economic growth. African Americans saw a turning point in how they were viewed, and the U.S. saw the need to restructure their international monetary arrangements, creating the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Farmers however, were faced with rough times. Productivity gains led to agricultural overproduction and farming turned from family to big business. Small farms could not compete, and over time farmers dropped away from their land.

Beginning in 1947, the civil rights movement began, and in 1948, the U.S. Army was integrated. The Supreme Court struck down segregation in public schools in 1954. Three years later, in Montgomery, Alabama, Martin Luther King launched the bus boycott, which was followed by a series of non-violent protests and marches led by King and other civil rights leaders. In 1964 the Civil Rights Act was passed, followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The nation, as well as the South, saw the end to segregation in public places, and African Americans finally achieved political recognition.

The South experienced profound social, political and economic change. Worry over new legislative policies caused the emergence of the two-party system in the South. Conservative Democrats became Republicans due to disagreements over civil rights, the Vietnam War, and other issues. New industry in the region flourished and diversified the economy. Since the 1970’s, there has been dramatic growth in portions of the South. The population in Florida has more than doubled, while Georgia, North and South Carolina have also had population increases. The leading metro areas are now destinations of choice for both foreign and U.S. corporations, seeking the lower union rates of the region and also favorable tax rates. These include high-technology business as well, such as aerospace and petrochemical industries. There is also favorable growth in trade, service and finance sectors. The manufacturing of pulp and paper continue to be important resources of the South today. Cotton too is still grown, but not restricted mainly to the South. Today cotton is ranked fifth as a United States agricultural export. Rural areas do not fare nearly as well however; poverty, poor health, and illiteracy are still an issue in these areas.

• "The Negro in America Today"

American Literature after World War II

Early Music of the American South

The Slave Experience: Men, Women & Gender

Slavery in America: Historical Overview 

The Depression, The New Deal, and World War II

Drought in the Dust Bowl Years