True to form, the new nation wasted no time in asserting its economic strength. Rice planters from Georgetown north of Charleston on down to the Altamaha River in Georgia built on their already-impressive wealth, becoming America’s richest men by far—with fortunes built, of course, on the backs of the slaves working in their fields and paddies.
In 1786, a new crop was introduced that would only enhance the financial clout of the coastal region: cotton. A former loyalist colonel, Roger Kelsal, sent some seed from the West Indies to his friend James Spaulding, owner of a plantation on St. Simons Island, Georgia.
This crop, soon to be known as Sea Island cotton and considered the best in the world, would supplant rice as the crop of choice for coastal plantations. At the height of the Southern cotton boom in the early 1800s, a single Sea Island cotton harvest on a single plantation might go for $100,000—in 1820 money!
While Charleston was still by far the largest, most powerful, and most influential city on the southeastern coast of the United States, at the peak of the cotton craze Savannah was actually doing more business—a fact that grated to no end on the Holy City’s elite. Unlike Charleston, where the planters themselves dominated city life, in Savannah it was cotton brokers called factors who were the city’s leading class.
It’s during this time that most of the grand homes of downtown Savannah’s Historic District were built. This boom period, fueled largely by cotton exports, was perhaps most iconically represented by the historic sailing of the SS Savannah from Savannah to Liverpool in 29 days, the first transatlantic voyage by a steamship.
During the prosperous antebellum period, the economy of Charleston, Savannah, and surrounding areas was completely dependent on slave labor, but the cities themselves boasted large numbers of African Americans who were active in business and agriculture. For example, the vending stalls at the City Markets of both Charleston and Savannah were predominantly staffed by African American workers, some of them free.
Despite the undeniable lack of equality, the racial apartheid typical of Reconstruction and the later Jim Crow era was generally not in evidence at this time. Working-class blacks and whites alike often frequented the same watering holes and lived in mixed neighborhoods, much to the consternation of the elite.
Many churches of the coast had regular biracial attendance during this period. In fact, a case could be made that the area’s churches are more segregated now than they were before the Civil War, with slavery in full swing.
© Jim Morekis from Moon Charleston & Savannah, 4th Edition