John Weaver described the settlement of the American Cotton Belt as “a great land rush” [1]. Instead of a “gold rush” (which we are are stereotypically familiar) the quest was not for yellow gold, but to raise cotton: the “white gold”. What occurred in the early 19th Century Deep South was not at all atypical of a series of land rushes that in the early 19th Century consumed such various geographies as Australia, New Zealand, southern Africa, Brazil and Argentina.

Land rush settlement characterized the first generation of the Cotton Belt–well into the 1830’s. Things would settle down somewhat after that, but in the meantime several states had been settled (Alabama, Panhandle Florida, northern Louisiana, and Mississippi). These states developed their own versions of a Deep South policy system, and they deviated in some ways from that of the Piedmont Deep South culture. This module focuses on the first generation settlement of the Cotton Belt and it describes the nature of that land rush settlement and my sense of how that initial settlement affected subsequent political institutionalization, formation of a political culture, and how both affected future economic development policy-making.

The Time Line: Sequencing the Rise of the Cotton Belt

The Rise of the Cotton Belt started mid-1790 in the Piedmont plateaus of the South’s Atlantic coastal states (the Carolinas and Georgia). At that time, most of the South and the future Cotton Belt was not within U.S boundaries: Florida, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, and the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Alabama was mostly owned by Spain and later France. Florida was purchased from Spain  in several installments starting in 1819. The other states, in whole or part, were not acquired until 1803 Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase). The 1848 Mexican War mostly completed the relevant Cotton Belt land acquisition. While never part of the Cotton Belt, cotton migrated as far as Arizona–eventually becoming a staple of that state’s economy.

Alabama, Panhandle Florida and Mississippi were the first beneficiaries from an ex-Carolinas/Georgia cotton migration. The precondition for the initial, first generation cotton boom, was the “removal” of Native Americans resulting from the 1814 Creek and 1819 (first) Seminole wars. In the second/third decades of the 19th Century, Louisiana and Texas, each with a more complex statehood path, were next in line for inclusion in the Cotton Belt. From there it went up the Mississippi (through western Tennessee and Kentucky, as far as Missouri) and across the Mississippi, into Arkansas-Oklahoma (1830-40’s), to Kansas-Nebraska in the early 1850’s.

Cotton boom migration sometimes predated, usually occurred almost simultaneously with statehood. Alabama became a state in 1819, but its Cotton Boom commenced in 1816. The next two modules concentrate on the Alabama settlement as Theme 3 major case study.

Mississippi entered the Union in 1817, and while not enjoying a cotton boom until the 1820’s (lasting into the mid-1830’s) initially was settled by a few cotton planters at the same time as Alabama. Mississippi proved to be the most successful of the Cotton Belt states, and its culture and politics has long been regarded as the best example of the Deep South culture.

Florida was not completely purchased until 1821, but it, along with Alabama experienced the first generation cotton boom. Its formal statehood was achieved only in 1845, however. Southern (and even Central) Florida remained largely unsettled during the antebellum period. We will describe post-Civil War Florida more intensely in Part 2 of this Theme.

Louisiana became a state in 1812, but southern Louisiana (especially New Orleans and Arcadia) had been settled by 1718 and had long since evolved its own culture, languages, heritage and traditions under several European landlords. The Cotton Belt meaningfully crossed its borders in early 1830’s, delivering to New Orleans an economic boom, not dissimilar in character to that the Erie Canal provided to New York City. Southern Louisiana, accordingly, was set quite apart from its North (like Upstate New York), which was truly an element of the larger Cotton Belt.

Texas entered the Union in 1845, after a nine year life as an independent “nation”. Most of Texas never made it into the Cotton Belt for obvious climatic and geographic reasons.

Arkansas became a state in 1836 (when Texas achieved its independence from Mexico), but overflow cotton migration poured in earlier. Geography played out in Arkansas much as it did in Alabama; the highlands, unsuitable to cotton, developed in its good time a different economic base and political culture.

So The Cotton Belt began its Piedmont womb after 1794,  and Cotton Belt diffusion from its Piedmont womb began around 1815. The expansion’s first generation settled northern Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi–and overflow into northern Louisiana and Texas. Excepting southern Louisiana, cotton migration and settlement preceded political institutionalization in the first generation of the Cotton Belt. At the time the whole melange was called the  “Alabama Fever”, to us a land rush. That lasted through the 1830’s. The second generation Cotton Belt diffusion moved into regions with different geographies, a different time line, and migration patterns, more integrated into the American political infrastructure than the first generation. One may argue that by the end of the 1850’s, on the eve of the Civil War, that the Cotton Belt had extended as far as it was likely to go.

So in summary, the reader might remember an opening remark made in a previous module, stating that the Cotton Belt was an overnight success that took its own sweet time. The expansion lasted for over sixty years, but each burst was characterized by huge land rushes and then in the second generation more restrained surges. The world was a different place in the second generation Cotton Belt expansion. Since our policy-making model stresses variation induced by the different experiences, time lines, and cultural migration pattern of each state, we see the policy systems of each state as distinctive in ways relevant to ED policy-making.

There is a Deep South political culture but it displays several versions or styles. That will be immediately apparent after the reader completes the next two modules; Alabama is not South Carolina. It should be clearly understood at the beginning the Deep South culture, like the Yankee Progressive culture in the North developed several styles as it extended westward. California is not Massachusetts, but Yankees are fundamental to both state political cultures. States matter; states are cultural containers and their boundaries include disparate geographies, resources, and population demographics–and historical experiences.

That leaves us with a concluding observation that we observe from our research on the Cotton Belt and the Yankee Diaspora. That research allows us to “deepen” our understanding of culture’s role in state and local policy-making. A particular culture as it plays out in policy-making is not monolithic nor uniform. Characterizing culture as a hard and fast set of values and beliefs, a core of central belief/value/attitudinal tenets that is both sophisticated and integrated is not what we should expect to see in our history. What works in the classroom and in understandable for textbooks is only the start.

Local political cultures form, and state political culture are aggregates of several local political cultures. Each whatever their initial origins develop over time and experience different time lines, historical experiences, and usually evolve distinctive economic bases. We shall see much that the Deep South political culture shares with each of its member elements, but don’t be surprised to discover each state needs to be understood in its own terms.

Land Rush Settlement Produces Little Political Institutionalization–and Lots of Legacies

Seizure of land suitable for cotton-agriculture was, of course, the goal for the U.S. When the Cotton Belt culture and economy took shape in the Piedmont Upcountries “womb”, it had matured sufficiently by the end of the 19th Century’s first decade to spillover its coastal state boundaries into the neighboring wilderness. Entry into that largely unsettled territory, however, meant overcoming one huge obstacle: in one way or another, the desired land was not yet owned or so newly-acquired it had not been effectively incorporated into our national governmental fabric. This was not equivalent to an Oklahoma land rush eighty years in the future. Rather, the initial Cotton Belt land rush was a venture into the unknown.

First, if possession is nine-tenths of the law, then Native Americans, French, Spanish and later Mexicans were “legally” in possession of the land. Before a homestead/plantation could be claimed, the land had to be “seized”–and then held onto as a horde of speculators and claim-jumpers descended upon the pioneer. There were no established courts, in large measure because there was no rule of law in place. If there is such a thing as vigilante law, that’s what one found. It did not work well for the underdog or the weak.

The second problem for white plantation and Scots-Irish yeoman farmers in the Piedmont Upcountries, was, as observed numerous time in the preceding modules, the chronic “soil depletion syndrome” combined with the seemingly insatiable desire of thousands of American southern whites to join in the quest for the white gold, as their version of the American Dream. It seems everybody got the same idea at the same time, usually when cotton prices increased after an recession.

What happened, and it happened again and again for a generation after 1810, was little more than a “king-of-the-mountain struggle by thousands of potential farmers to hold onto whatever land they claimed/seized. Woe betide to those whose claim was challenged by someone with cash, such as a young plantation owner subsidized by Dad, or a local lender set up by Dad’s friends. That this king-of-the-mountain struggle acquired class overtones that carried over into later years is understandable. That most of those negatively affected were Scots-Irish whose cultural history reflected literally hundreds of years of this king-of-the-mountain existence, meant that salient features of that culture would be activated and given new vitality and relevance. Whether or not the “deference culture” devised in coastal Piedmont Upcountries could be maintained under these conditions will be considered in the next module.

In any event, spasms of large numbers of people migrating into an unsettled, semi-anarchistic area, desperate and committed to acquiring land for a new start in life is not likely to lead to well-thought-through (honest or fair) settlement. If much of the Yankee and Midlands Diaspora focused around conscious, planned city-building in its initial stages, not so the Cotton Belt. There was no state government worth mentioning, and U.S. Territorial government was more fiction than reality. Political scientists would observe there was a discernible lack of political and social institutionalization in the early decades of these Cotton Belt states.

It should be little surprise that this sloppiness and confusion created a long-lasting legacy, and that, given record-keeping, the distinction between a legal land claim and a squatter was blurred indeed. Economic development in an isolated rural geography such as this will likely assume nuances and emotions not shared by communities in more organized, institutionalized geographies-states, especially those whose migration pattern is more “sustained” and incremental than spasmodic. The realities of land rush settlement carried forward for several decades, mightily channeled the development of political parties and sharpened contrasting political cultures which shared common areas. As we shall see, for example, “Whig” (a major political party of this period) does not mean the same thing in the South as it did in the North. Southern Whigs came to be called “Cotton Whigs”. We shall see why in the following modules.

So morals, justice, and humanity aside, not to mention legal rights, the hopeful cotton pioneers by 1810 were ready to to grab what they could from whoever they could, whenever they could. A great land rush was in the offing–arguably the most important, and certainly the largest America had seen to that point.

Whether or not economic development could be shaped by a land rush is probably not immediately obvious. Few would likely dispute, however, that the land rush that followed, and the establishment of a multi-state agricultural-export-plantation-slavery economic base is not an economic development event of great consequence. That the “power” behind the land rush was “private”, individuals seeking their fortune in a “wilderness” where day-to-day government was non-existent, and the sheer effort to get from “here to there”, wherever “there” was is something we cannot understand. Each Cotton Belt community was a land by itself, and the state government in a galaxy “far, far away”. The national government like the pharaoh was seldom seen but often talked about.

In a contemporary world and economy that is intimately familiar with nanoseconds, and is impatient with slow-loading pages on their laptop/mobile screens, the swamps, mountains, highlands and valleys, and rivers to cross were serious impediments, and imparted rather serious meaning to “isolated”. Air conditioning meant getting conditioned to excessive heat and humidity, and the disease and insects, alligators, snakes and whatever else roamed these lands. We are truly talking about “starting from scratch”–for everything need and want.

This is certainly an 1800 agricultural version of entrepreneurialism, however unfortunate and immoral most of its consequences proved to be. I make this point because two-hundred years later this backdrop is easy to push to the side. Whatever it is that is being discussed in this module and the ones to follow in Part I of Theme 3, this is the context. You want a hardscrabble farm or cotton plantation, well go and develop it yourself, from soup to nuts so to speak. The first Cotton Belt expansion is without any doubt the first brutal American West; the Midwest settlement, despite its hard winters was a pale comparison to the Cotton Belt expansion.

In the white quest for their white gold, these emigrants/entrepreneurs enjoyed the almost total support of their national government–which by this time (post-1800) was controlled by the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans, a southern-dominated Congress/Presidency–and then steroidal Jacksonian yeoman expansion afterwards. While some may blanch at my labeling Indian Removal and the purchase of foreign national territories (Florida, and Louisiana Purchase) that occurred in the period previous to 1836 as national-level economic development, it’s hard to avoid the reality that intended or not, that is what these actions were construed to be during that time. The initial strategy, actions and specific governmental programs that opened up the Cotton Belt wilderness were a public-private endeavor, with the federal government as the prime player.

The states, it must be admitted, were not innocent bystanders. The Piedmont Upcountry, especially in Georgia, were internal to sovereign states, and coastal southern state governments were definitely prime players in clearing the land of Native Americans, and carving out their versions of white “homesteading” legislation. As we shall soon see in Mini-Series B, states built roads, bridges, river improvements, canals and after 1832, railroads to “connect the dots” and access their interiors. Transportation infrastructure was a state responsibility, as was regulating and facilitating settlement-building.

I reference “settlement-building” because in these early years, city-building would distort the image of what was happening “on the ground”. Unlike the North, and the Yankee–and Midlands to a lesser extent–Diaspora, cities and city-building were not primary, and sometimes barely secondary. The economic development that would follow Cotton Belt settlement did not closely resemble the urban economic development north of the Mason-Dixon line.

States at time of Louisiana Purchase

Especially troublesome to “early” Early Republic westward expansion was states claimed lands that could stretch to the Mississippi River and even to the Pacific Ocean. Conveniently ignored in history books (it’s boring and confusing), both northern and southern “western” settlement triggered a series of state land wars, extensive legal conflict, and negotiated state boundaries. Connecticut, for example, claimed lands on the the Great Lakes; New York and Massachusetts claimed today’s Upstate New York, and New York and Vermont had a grand old time figuring out who owned what. Recently on a trip, I discovered as I sat on the Battle of Bennington monument in Bennington Vermont, that the actual battle was fought in what is today’s New York. The South also had its state land claims controversies, and one warrants a detailed mention, it being central to the expansion of the Cotton Belt. Hence, we now turn to the Georgia Yazoo Land Scandal-a scandal starting in 1795 and extending into the 1840’s.

Georgia’s land claim stretched to the Mississippi River (Yazoo lands). The unraveling of that land claim was truly important to understanding the first decades of Georgia state politics (and its early political culture), and its resolution was fundamental to the structure of the Cotton Belt that followed. That it was relevant to 19th Century economic development, I hope will be obvious to the reader. Summarizing commentary in the New Georgia Encyclopedia [1] the Yazoo story offers our first insight of what land rush economic development looks like in the southern wilderness. It played out during the formative years of the Piedmont Cotton Belt Womb, although cotton was not the primary dynamic.

It started in the 1780’s when the state-dominant Articles of Confederation were our national government. The Georgia legislature, desirous of settling regions within its claimed boundaries supported formally at least two private (and ultimately unsuccessful)  efforts to form settlements, and to unsuccessfully “con” the national government into taking ownership of undesired lands. In 1789, the first year of the new American Republic, the state legislature sold 25 million acres to three private corporations for settlement and land sales. That too ultimately collapsed and came to nothing.

But also In 1795, Governor George Mathews, signed the Yazoo Act which transferred 35 million acres (in today’s Alabama and Mississippi) to four private companies for $500,000. The principal individual behind this Act was Georgia’s Federalist U.S. Senator, James Gunn. Being the generous soul he was, Senator Gunn distributed land and monies to facilitate the Act’s passage and implementation. Shockingly, those who wanted in, but were unable to buy their way into the deal, thought it corruption, and called it bribery. Gunn came home to take charge of the Yazoo land settlement, remaining as Senator.

The other U.S. Senator, James Jackson (no relation) a Democrat-Republican was livid. He resigned his office and came home to dedicate his life to overturning the Yazoo Act and convicting the corrupt (usually Federalist) malefactors. Needless to say, this turned into a highly disruptive partisan affair, complete with legislative hearings, and in 1796 state legislative approval of the the Rescinding Act. That passage was made possible by the illegal destruction of public records on the matter, and a subsequent 1796 election which replaced all the Federalist party office-holders. The Rescinding Act was followed up by a completely-rewritten state constitution which was approved in 1798 (see previous module). The new constitution, written by Democrat-Republicans (predominately Scots-Irish in Georgia) integrated yeomen farmers into the Georgian version of a Deep South deference state political culture and policy-making.

In 1802, after the Democrat-Republicans tossed the Federalists out of Washington D. C., state Democrat-Republicans sold the Yahoo Land to the federal government (Compact of 1802) for $1.25 million dollars–and a side agreement that the federal government would remove Native Americans from Georgia’s counties. Sounds like “the End” of the matter–it wasn’t.

Federalists, mostly from New England, had purchased the land rights from the Georgia Federalists who had been tossed out by Jackson and the Democrat-Republicans. They sued, and until 1810 legal action continued–polarizing domestic Georgian politics. In 1810, Federalist Supreme Court Justice John Marshall (Fletcher v Peck) overturned the 1796 Rescinding Act as an unconstitutional violation of a property contract. That federal action really made the Georgia “locals” mad. Finally in 1814, the federal government authorized $5 million to pay off all the litigation and made the matter “go away”. What it left behind was polarized electorate, and strong, intense anti-federal, states-rights emotions that would greatly affect Georgian economic development policy-making.

This federal-state antipathy further intensified when the state passed legislation to conduct a land lottery system to sell land acquired from the displaced Native Americans. This lottery facilitated cotton and yeoman farmer expansion into geographies previously unsettled by whites. When the federal government was slow to displace the Native Americans, the land was sold anyway to whites, determined to plant cotton, who, with the backing of the state government, simply took land from the Native Americans. Conflict, injustice, and violence continuous through the 1830’s resulted–leading to President Andrew Jackson’s determination to get the federal government out of the Georgia Indian Removal business as quickly as possible. That action commenced what today is known as “the Trail of Tears”.

Andrew Jackson and Diffusion of the Cotton Belt

Yazoo lands were negotiated into today’s Mississippi and Alabama after 1802. The lands were placed under a Territorial Government, Alabama in 1817, and western Mississippi which was negotiated from Spain in 1798. Eastern Mississippi was part of the Alabama Territory until 1804 when Congress merged it with the Mississippi Territory. The 1802 Compact removed the legal obstructions of the Georgia claim on both territories. So by 1805 or so, the state legal structure for Cotton Belt expansion was in place. Little settlement occurred, in large part because the Territories were occupied by Creek Indians. Most Creeks put up with white settlement, but a faction, calling themselves “Red Sticks” resisted. An all-out Creek war with white settlers commenced in 1813, and a “massacre: at Fort Sims (in modern Alabama) resulted.

Enter Andrew Jackson. One is also struck with the substantial, if intermittent, role Andrew Jackson played in the Cotton Bowl migration (think of New Orleans which, save for Andrew Jackson–cleverly made up to resemble Charlton Heston–and Yul Brenner, and Johnny Horton, could have been British in 1816). Jackson’s impact in Alabama state political and economic development was considerable. Jackson, in 1814 was appointed commander-in-chief of the army organized in the Territory. Jackson’s victory in the battle of Horseshoe Bend, and the defeat/imposed treaty on the Creeks  [3] opened Alabama for settlement. His 1819 conduct of the (first) Seminole War also caused significant economic and political repercussions, and opened up northern Florida for white settlement.

With a weak, fractured, and volatile state policy system, Andrew Jackson played an more than life-sized role over settlers in this Territory. Jackson’s second phase of Indian Removal, launched as President in 1828 with Indian Removal Act passage, triggered yet another round of land booms, and polarized Georgia. Jackson, who owned land in Alabama, would remain a polarizing figure in Alabama politics–and as we shall see played an enormous role in the development of Alabama’s political culture and politics.


[1] John C. Weaver, the Great Land Rush and the Making of the Modern World, 1650-1900 (McGill-Queens University Press, 2006).

[2] George R. Lampugh, “Yazoo Land Fraud”, the New Georgia Encyclopedia,

[3] The war was as much about white incursion into Indian lands as it was congruent with the Washington administration’s “plan of civilization” which continued in policy in subsequent administrations. In this plan the federal government through its Indian Agents encouraged, pushed, southeastern Indians to embrace white education, pursue agriculture which included plantations with Black slaves, and white clothing, gender roles, and Christianity. In the Creek instance, a leading “Lower” Creek, Alexander McGillivray, took arms with Jackson and fought the Tecumseh-inspired “Red Stick” Creeks. That complexity of divided Indian loyalties-classes, and the imposition of federal policies was later replicated by Jackson himself in 1828 with the Cherokee. See Thomas Chase, “Territorial Period and Early Statehood“, Encyclopedia of Alabama.