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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 on the James River, had more land and slaves. This was particularly true of what evolved as the Upper South, the original Chesapeake Bay Colonies of Virginia, Maryland and Delaware; and the Carolinas. The later development of cotton and sugar cultivation in the Deep South had different characteristics, in which planters typically owned greater amounts of land and hundreds of slaves. The great majority of Southern farmers owned no slaves or fewer than five.
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 and rice. 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 holding large rice and cotton plantations in South Carolina typically owned hundreds of slaves. (In towns and cities rich families held slaves to work as household servants). The 19th-century development of the Deep South for cotton cultivation depended on large plantations with much more acreage than was typical of the Chesapeake Bay area, and for labor, planters held hundreds of slaves.
Antebellum architecture is seen in many plantations, especially in the "plantation house," the large residences of planters and their families. The largest and wealthiest planter families, for instance, those with estates fronting on the James River in Virginia, constructed mansions in brick and Georgian style, e.g. Shirley Plantation. Common or smaller planters in the late 18th and 19th century had more modest wood frame buildings, such as Southall Plantation in Charles City County.