Cash Crops before Sugar in West Baton Rouge
While sugarcane is the main cash crop in West Baton Rouge Parish today, this wasn’t always the case. For most of the 1700’s, Louisiana planters focused on indigo and cotton. In 1795, Étienne de Boré successfully crystallized sugar from sugarcane syrup at his plantation near New Orleans, proving that sugarcane could be profitable in our climate and prompting many Louisiana planters to transition to sugarcane farming.
Indigo is a plant native to Africa that has been cultivated and used to make dye there since ancient times. In the 18th century, European consumers clamored for indigo-dyed fabrics and paints, but indigo could not be grown in Europe’s climate, so European colonial powers turned their attention to subtropical colonies in the New World, such as southern portions of Louisiana.
In order to establish indigo as a cash crop, European slave traders enslaved experienced indigo farmers and dyers from West Africa and brought them to Louisiana. Indigo plantations appeared on the West Baton Rouge landscape in the late 1780s through the 1790s. Indigo was fairly profitable until 1793, when a plague of caterpillars destroyed the crop. Planters in search of a new cash crop eventually turned to sugar cane. African indigo farmers and dyers from West Africa - including the Yoruba, the Malike, and Dogan of Mali, and the Soninke of Senegal - continued the ancient trade into the 21st century.
The cotton plant is a shrub native to tropical and subtropical regions around the world, including India and Africa. The seeds are contained in a capsule called a boll; each seed is surrounded by downy fibers called lint. This fiber is most often spun into yarn or thread and used to make soft, breathable fabrics.
Cotton grows well in the southeastern region of the United States, and was cultivated in Louisiana since the 1740s. French planters used a cotton gin fifty years before Eli Whitney’s invention (c. 1793). The lint naturally occurs in colors of white, brown, and green; in early West Baton Rouge, cotton was cultivated for local use and for export, so it was common to find cotton growing alongside indigo fields and corn fields.
During the cotton harvest season, an enslaved adult was expected pick an average of 150 to 200 pounds of cotton a day. Some could pick 300 pounds a day, though this was exceptional. A crew of enslaved laborers operated the gin and pressed the lint cotton into four hundred-pound bales.