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An individual owning a plantation was known as a planter. Historians of the antebellum South have generally defined it in the strictest definition as a person owning property and 20 or more slaves. The wealthiest planters, such as the Virginia elite with plantations near the James River, owned more land and slaves than did other farmers. Tobacco was the major cash crop in the Upper South, the original Chesapeake Bay Colonies of Virginia and Maryland; and in parts of the Carolinas.
The later development of cotton and sugar cultivation in the Deep South in the early 19th century also led to the establishment of large plantations which had hundreds of slaves. The great majority of Southern farmers owned no slaves or owned fewer than five slaves.
In the "Black Belt" counties of Alabama and Mississippi, the terms "planter" and "farmer" were often synonymous.; a "planter" was generally a farmer who owned many slaves. While most Southerners were not slave-owners, and while the majority of slaveholders held ten or fewer slaves, planters were those who held a significant number of slaves, mostly as agricultural labor. Planters are often spoken of as belonging to the planter elite or planter aristocracy in the antebellum South.
The historians Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman define large planters as owning over 50 slaves, and medium planters as owning between 16 and 50 slaves. Historian David Williams, in A People's History of the Civil War: Struggles for the Meaning of Freedom suggests that the minimum requirement for planter status was twenty slaves, especially since a southern planter could exempt Confederate duty for one white male per twenty slaves owned. In his study of Black Belt counties in Alabama, Jonathan Weier defines planters by ownership of real property, rather than of slaves. A planter, for Weier, owned at least 10,000 dollars' worth of real estate in 1850 and 32,000 dollars' worth in 1860, equivalent to about the top 8 percent of landowners. In his study of southwest Georgia, Lee Formwalt defines planters in size of land holdings rather than slaves. Formwalt's planters are in the top 4.5 percent of landowners, translating into real estate worth six thousand dollars or more in 1850, 24,000 dollars or more in 1860, and eleven-thousand dollars or more in 1870. In his study of Harrison County, Texas, Randolph B. Campbell classifies large planters as owners of 20 slaves, and small planters as owners of between ten and 19 slaves. In Chicot and Phillips Counties, Arkansas, Carl H. Moneyhon defines large planters as owners of twenty or more slaves, and six hundred or more acres.
Crops cultivated on antebellum plantations included cotton, tobacco, sugar, indigo, rice, and to a lesser extent okra, yam, sweet potato, and watermelon. By the late 18th century, most planters in the Upper South had switched from exclusive tobacco cultivation to mixed-crop production.
In the low country of South Carolina, even before the American Revolution, planters in South Carolina typically owned hundreds of slaves. (In towns and cities, families held slaves to work as household servants). The 19th-century development of the Deep South for cotton cultivation depended on large tracts of land with much more acreage than was typical of the Chesapeake Bay area; and for labor, planters held dozens, or sometimes hundreds, of slaves.
Antebellum architecture can be seen in many extant "plantation houses," the large residences of planters and their families. The wealthiest planters in colonial Virginia constructed their manor houses in the Georgian style, e.g. Shirley Plantation. In the 19th century, Greek Revival architecture became very popular in the U.S., and it represents the most commonly recognized style of historic Southern home. However, this style was not universal. For example, Louisiana had a heritage of French and Spanish colonial architecture. Common or smaller planters, throughout the South, had more modest homes.
Common plants and trees incorporated in the landscape of Southern plantation manors included Southern live oak and Southern magnolia. Both of these trees are native to Southern North America and were classic symbols of the old south. Southern live oaks, classically draped in Spanish moss, were planted along long paths or walkways leading to the plantation to create a grand, imposing, and majestic theme. Other common trees and plants used for landscape were saw palmetto, pin oak, slash pine, weeping willow, Eastern redbud, Kentucky coffeetree, white oak, American hornbeam, post oak, and sugar maple. Plantation landscapes were very well maintained and trimmed, usually, the landscape work was managed by the planter, with assistance from slaves or workers. Planters themselves also usually maintained a small flower or vegetable garden. Cash crops were not grown in these small garden plots, but rather garden plants and vegetables for enjoyment.