Background: Solomon Northup was a slave who eventually gained his
freedom and wrote about his experiences. Below is a selection adapted
from his book titled Tweleve Years a Slave. In 1850 more than 3 million
enslaved African Americans lived in the United States. Seven out of eight
worked on plantations. Most slaves performed basic labor as field hands.
Picking and cleaning cotton was one activity that fields hands had to do.
Inventions like Eli Whitney’s cotton gin made cotton farming more profitable
than it had ever been before. The cotton gin also made the job of cleaning
cotton much easier. As you read and experience the activity, think about the
following about why an enslaved African American would want to pick just
the right amount of cotton.
In the latter part of August begins the cotton picking season. At this
time each slave is presented with a sack. A strap is fastened to it,
which goes over the neck, holding the mouth of the sack [chest] high,
while the bottom reaches nearly to the ground. Each one is also
presented with a large basket that will hold about two barrels. This is
to put the cotton in when the sack is filled. The baskets are carried to
the field and placed at the beginning of the rows.
When a new hand, one unaccustomed to the business, is sent for the
first time into the field, he is whipped up smartly, and made for that
day to pick as fast as he can possibly. At night it is weighed, so that
his capability in cotton picking is known. He must bring in the same
weight each night following. If it falls short, it is considered evidence
that he has been laggard, and a greater or less number of lashes is
An ordinary day's work is two hundred pounds. A slave who is
accustomed to picking, is punished, if he or she brings in a less
quantity than that. There is a great difference among them as regards
this kind of labor. Some of them seem to have a natural knack, or
quickness, which enables them to pick with great [quickness], and
with both hands, while others, with whatever practice or industry, are
utterly unable to come up to the ordinary standard... Patsey, [a friend
of mine], was known as the most remarkable cotton picker…. She
picked with both hands and with such surprising rapidity, that five
hundred pounds a day was not unusual for her.
Each one is tasked, therefore, according to his picking abilities, none,
however, to come short of two hundred weight. I, being unskillful
always in that business, would have satisfied my master by bringing
in the latter quantity, while on the other hand, Patsey would surely
have been beaten if she failed to produce twice as much.
The cotton grows from five to seven feet high, each stalk having a
great many branches, shooting out in all directions, and lapping each
other above the water furrow…It presents an appearance of purity,
like an immaculate expanse of light, new-fallen snow…
The hands are required to be in the cotton field as soon as it is light in
the morning, and, with the exception of ten or fifteen minutes, which
is given them at noon to swallow their allowance of cold bacon, they
are not permitted to be a moment idle until it is too dark to see, and
when the moon is full, they often times labor till the middle of the
night. They do not dare to stop even at dinner time, nor return to the
quarters, however late it be, until the order to halt is given by the
The day's work over in the field, the baskets are "toted," or in other
words, carried to the gin-house, where the cotton is weighed. No
matter how fatigued and weary he may be—no matter how much he
longs for sleep and rest—a slave never approaches the gin-house
with his basket of cotton but with fear. If it falls short in weight—if he
has not performed the full task appointed him, he knows that he must
suffer. And if he has exceeded it by ten or twenty pounds, in all
probability his master will measure the next day's task accordingly.
So, whether he has too little or too much, his approach to the gin-
house is always with fear and trembling.
|Reading for Cotton Cleaning Lesson
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