Abstract: Plantation Business Practice and Cotton Factors: Plantation Accounting in the American South

Ian Beamish


By the 1830s, cotton plantations dominated the Southern economy. Unlike the shopkeeper, printer, or even banker of the North, even small planters were required to manage dozens of coerced workers at a variety of constantly shifting tasks, while also attempting to control the details of their non-working lives. For all the complexity of these enterprises, nearly all cotton planters relied on cotton factors to secure credit and get their valuable crop to Atlantic markets. Establishing credit-worthiness was as essential as agricultural acumen for a cotton planter. Even the largest planters often found themselves deeply indebted to factors. This paper argues that cotton planters in the American South used the language of merchant clerks to establish themselves as creditworthy figures. In order to gain favor with (mostly northern) cotton factors, Southern planters presented themselves as modern, progressive entrepreneurs. They were able to present this image by mobilizing their networks of agricultural improvement, which advocated for advanced accounting practices. At the same time, the families of factors and planters cemented alliances through intermarriage.