Documenting Louisiana Sugar 1845-1917



Sugar was not the most important crop in the American South, but it defined the history of the Americas. This project investigates the fortunes of the U.S. sugar industry between 1845 and 1917, and aims to analyze four historical problems: the peculiarity of the sugar sector within the slave South; the transition from slavery to freedom; the persistence of the "Old" and the novelty of the "New South"; and the variable impact of plantation ethics on the evolution of southern capitalism. It centers on Louisiana, the last of the New World sugar colonies, which-like its predecessors in the Caribbean-rested its fate on plantation agriculture, slavery, forced labor, and racial oppression. In this key location, free labor replaced slavery, civil war triggered overwhelming economic and social change, and international competition brought the industry to its knees. Utilizing a unique dataset on the annual performance of Louisiana's sugar plantations and other supporting materials, the project provides both micro-level and regional analyses of the American sugar industry, paying particular attention to shifting patterns of production, land ownership, technology, and labor.

From the era of plantation slavery to America's intervention in the First World War, agricultural economists P.A. Champomier and Alcee Bouchereau recorded plantation ownership, crop yields, and detailed information on the technology used on each sugar producing estate in Louisiana. Historians had long known about the annual Champomier and Bouchereau crop returns but the size and unwieldy nature of them prevented any individual from analyzing them in their entirety. These remarkable records provide an unbroken time series of economic and production data with which scholars can examine an entire industry; one, moreover, that underwent the enormous transition from slave to free labor in the mid nineteenth century. These annual records are combined here with decennial census records for five key sugar growing regions, adding further nuance to the portrait drawn from the annual crop data. This project makes these sources publicly available and provides users with the query functions to examine in micro and macro detail one of America's definitive plantation crops, cane sugar.

In short, Documenting Louisiana Sugar permits users to rifle through the hundred thousand data entries that Champomier and Bouchereau filed a century ago and examine the social and economic history of the American South's most industrialized and capital intensive plantation regime. Our databases provide scholars, genealogists, and members of the public with an unparalleled opportunity to examine a plantation regime in exceptional depth. The flexibly arrayed datasets allow us to study plantation life in the Old and the New South, they track persistence and change among the plantation elite and enable us to trace landholding and economic performance among smallholders. The databases additionally enable us to examine the effect of the American Civil War on the sugar industry and assess the impact of slave emancipation on Louisiana's plantation economy. But Louisiana's sugar producing parishes were also unusual; in contrast to the rest of the American South where sharecropping and tenant farming replaced the regimented gang work of plantation slavery, sugar planters in Louisiana preserved their giant plantation holdings and employed large gangs to conduct their labor needs. Although African American were now paid for this work, the prevalence of wage labor and the persistence of work gangs ensured that Louisiana's sugar region evolved in a distinct manner to that of the neighboring cotton South.

For researchers and genealogists, Documenting Louisiana Sugar provides something quite unique. No other public database detailing plantation life in this detail exists. Documenting Louisiana Sugar, however, enables all users to consider the multiple transitions in southern life during the nineteenth century and assess the enduring role of coerced labor in America.

Reserach Databases:

Available on this site (project download pages).


Richard Follett, Eric Foner, and Walter Johnson, Slavery's Ghost: The Problem of Freedom in the Age of Emancipation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011, paper and cloth).

Richard Follett, "Slavery and Technology in Louisiana's Sugar Bowl" in Susanna Delfino and Michele Gillespie eds., Technology, Innovation and Southern Industrialization: From the Antebellum Era to the Computer Age (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2008), 68-96.

Richard Follett, Rick Halpern, Alison Bambridge, Alex Lichtenstein, "Documenting the Louisiana Sugar Economy, 1845-1917: An on-line Database Project," Journal of Peasant Studies 35 (October 2008): 801-810.

Richard Follett, "Slavery and Plantation Capitalism in Louisiana's Sugar Country," in J. William Harris ed., The Old South: New Studies of Society and Culture (New York: Routledge, 2008), 37-57.

Richard Follett, "The Sugar Masters," Louisiana Cultural Vistas 18 (Summer 2007): 44-55.

Richard Follett, "'Give to the Labor of America, the Market of America': Marketing the Old South's Sugar Crop, 1800-1860," Revista de Indias (Special Issue on the 'The Sugar Industry in the Americas') LXV, 233 (January-April 2005): 117-147.

Richard Follett and Rick Halpern, "From Slavery to Freedom in Louisiana's Sugar Country: Changing Labour Systems and Workers' Power," in Bernard Moitt, ed., Sugar, Slavery, and Society (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2004), 135-156.


"The Persistence of Paternalism-Planter Ideologies in the Era of Reconstruction," Southern Historical Association Annual Meeting, Louisville, November 2009.

Plantation Economies in the American South: Database Design and Southern Agricultural History,” British Agricultural History Society, Northampton, April 2009.

"Documenting Louisiana Sugar, 1845-1917: An On-Line Database Project Workshop," Louisiana Historical Association Annual Meeting, Monroe, LA, March 2009.

"Legacies of Enslavement: Plantation Identities and the Question of Freedom," Marcus Cunliffe Lecture, University of Sussex, March 2009.

"'Thoroughly Done For': Mastery & the Conflict over Wage Labor in Louisiana's Sugar Country", Wiles Colloquium, Rethinking Reconstruction: Race, Labor and Politics after the American Civil War. Queens University, Belfast, October 2008.

"The Meaning of Freedom for Emancipation-Era African-Americans," Chasing Freedom Conference, Royal Naval Museum, Portsmouth, October 2007.

"Database Design and Southern Plantation Economies," Agricultural History Society Annual Meeting, ISU, Ames, Iowa, June 2007.

"Freedom and Unfree Labor: Black Americans under Slavery and Emancipation, 1840-1900," Peking University, Beijing, China, May 2007.

"Documenting Louisiana Sugar: A Database Workshop," Gulf South Historical Association Annual Meeting, Pensacola, October 2006.

"Race, Labor, and Tradition, and Change--Louisiana's Sugar Industry," Agricultural History Society Annual Meeting, MIT, Cambridge, Mass., June 2006.

"Unfree Labor after emancipation: anomaly or necessity? The case of Louisiana's Sugar Workers," Institute of Historical Research, University of London, March 2006.

"Race, Labor, and Technology in the Cane Fields: Documenting the Louisiana Sugar Harvest, 1844-1917," Second International Conference on Technology, Knowledge and Society, Hyderabad, India, December 2005.

"Tradition and Modernity: Louisiana's Antebellum Sugar Elite," Southern Historical Association Annual Meeting, Atlanta, November 2005.

"Technology and Traditionalism in Louisiana's Cane World, 1840-1890," Social Science History Association, Chicago, November 2004.

"Documenting the Louisiana Sugar Harvest, 1844-1917," European Social Science History Association Annual Conference, Berlin, April 2004

"Race, Labor, and Technology in the Cane Fields: Documenting the Louisiana Sugar Harvest, 1844-1917," Society for the History of Technology Annual Meeting, Atlanta, October 2003.