Cajun History

Sugar and the Sugar Region of Louisiana – Part 4


Sugar and the Sugar Region of Louisiana by T. B. Thorpe
Originally published November 1853 in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine


In the fourth installment of “Sugar and the Sugar Region of Louisiana”, the author delves into sugar production in 1850s Louisiana.




The tract of land connected with this estate, contains nine thousand acres, one thousand five hundred of which are under cultivation, and divided as follows:  eight hundred acres in cane; two hundred and ninety-four acres in corn; one hundred and fifty acres cultivated by the negroes for their own use; ten acres in olives; the remainder of the fifteen hundred acres alluded to as under cultivation, is taken up by potatoes, building lots, pasturage, and gardens:  the remainder of the nine thousand acres is in forest, from which is taken the fuel consumed in manufacturing and refining, and the timber for the casks used in packing the sugar for market.

The buildings consist of the proprietor’s dwelling and out-houses—twenty-four negro houses with verandahs in front; each cabin is forty feet square, and contains four rooms, and each cabin has a garden and fowl-house attached—a hospital sixty-four feet square, containing seven rooms, and an immense verandah—a nursery fifty feet square, store-houses, overseer’s or manager’s house, stables containing one hundred stalls, two wood houses, each four hundred feet long by one hundred wide, one sugar house five hundred and seventy feet long by seventy-five feet wide, thirty-four feet high between the floor and ceiling, and a “double saw-mill.”

The machinery consists of steam saw-mills and pumping-engine at the river for supplying the sugar house with water, steam-engine of eighty horse-power, and sugar-mill for grinding cane, engines, vacuum-pans, and a complete apparatus for making and refining twenty-five thousand pounds of sugar every twenty-four hours direct from the cane-juice, and doing this entirely by steam.

The stock upon the plantation consists of sixty-four mules, twelve horses, sixteen oxen, one hundred and forty-five sheep, eighty head of cows and “beeves,” two hundred and fifteen slaves—among which are one hundred and seven field hands, two coopers, one blacksmith, two engineers, four carpenters, twenty house-servants, four nurses, eleven old men and women that attend to the stables, and sixty-four children under five years of age.

The cash expenses of this estate are twenty thousand dollars annually, paid to managers, sugar-makers, engineers, and for food and clothing for the negroes, and repairs of machinery and buildings.  The weekly rations of each negro are five and a half pounds of mess-pork, best quality, with as much meal and potatoes as they choose to take—in addition to which every one has his pigs and his poultry; for all adults have not only the chicken-yard, but also their garden, which they are obliged to cultivate for their own benefit—the surplus of vegetables and poultry being purchased by their master, and paid for in gold and silver, and amounted, in the year just past, to one thousand five hundred and sixty dollars—this sum not including the money obtained by sales of poultry, pigs, eggs, and fruits, to chance customers.  In addition still, the negroes annually receive two suits of clothes, two pairs of shoes, a blanket, and hat.

The value of the estate of St. James, and of its productions for the year 1852, are as follows:


Land:  $9000 acres, at $40                  $360,000
Buildings                                                    100,000
Machinery                                                    60,000
Slaves                                                        170,000
Stock                                                             11,000
Total                                                          $701,000


Sugar:  1,300,000 lbs., at 6 cts.,          $78,000
Syrup:  60,000 gallons, at 36 cts.,          21,600 99,600
Corn:  9000 barrels for consumption on the
estate; wood:  3000 cords for the engine-
house.  Estimated value                                       $14,400
Total products of the estate,                              $114,000

This plantation shows the average production of the best class of sugar estates in Louisiana, the largest of which, in 1852, yielded a revenue of one hundred and fifty-two thousand and fifty dollars; but these estates increase the value of their products, by the aid of costly machinery, not used on the ordinary plantations.

And here, it is perhaps pertinent to remark upon the natural dependence of one portion of the Union upon another, as illustrated by the distribution of a large portion of the income of this particular plantation.  The bricks and timber of the immense sugar house, we have noticed, are of home growth and manufacture; but these crude materials form only an unimportant item in the gross expense.  The mill, the steam-engines, the complicated vacuum-pans, the bone-black, the wrought iron moulds, the iron of the railway, the mules, the wagons, the carts, the food, the clothing for an army of negroes, and the ten thousand not recollected but expensive items, are all produced at the North and West; and hundreds of families in those distant portions of the country are just as dependent for their living as the planter himself upon the successful cultivation of the sugar cane crop.


The sugar house, which boils in “open kettles,” is the one generally met with throughout the State, and the sugars thus produced are in the most universal use.  There can not be a doubt that good brown sugar is sweeter than any other, and that the process which it goes through to deprive it of its dark color also takes from it some of its intrinsic qualities.  Some profess to make a distinction between saccharine and sweet; and say that in one sugar the sweet predominates; in another, the saccharine.  The Chinese make the fanciful distinction of male and female sugar—the former being most saccharine, the latter most sweet.  That there is a perceptible difference in the taste of sugars can not be denied; and perhaps it is true that raw or brown sugar is most sweet, and refined sugar the most saccharine.  The marked differences in sugar are no doubt owing, in some degree to the soil and to the season, but more particularly to the consequences resulting from successful and unsuccessful manufacture.  The Louisiana planters, beyond any others in the world, have been most successful in crystallizing sugar direct from the cane-juice; and we have therefore, in their method, the most perfect examples that can be given of the primitive, and, if you please, the natural way of producing sugar.

The preparations for “grinding”—the term generally used when speaking of manufacturing the crop, are the preliminaries of a busy but happy season.  The cultivation of the cane, that has consumed the hard labor of nearly a year, has become tedious; and master and servant greet with gratification a change from a severe routine to a rush of work that may be said hourly to yield the most satisfactory evidence of remuneration.   The season of harvesting approaches, and who does not rejoice!  The sugar house is thoroughly examined, and each ramification, or department, undergoes a rigid scrutiny.  The kettles, it is discovered at the eleventh hour, need many repairs in their setting; the engine wants several screws; the mill is out of order; the coolers have opened their seams; the purgery wants cementing; the hogsheads are not all made; and the poor planter finds that the work of the leisure hours of summer is now crowded into a few already too much occupied days.  Every thing is hurry and bustle; and the negroes, suddenly rising in importance by the multifarious demands made upon them, seem to shine with an extra polish as they pursue their allotted tasks.  The day “to begin” has been named, but it is deferred to another “set time” that proves to be inconvenient, because the cane-wagons are not ready, and the harness needs repairs; and so continues a chapter of annoyances which is only by extra exertion brought to an end.

And now may be seen the field-hands, armed with huge knives, entering the harvest field.  The cane is in the perfection of its beauty, and snaps and rattles its wiry-textured leaves, as if they were ribbons, and towers over the head of the overseer as he rides between the rows on his good-sized horse.  Suddenly, you perceive an unusual motion among the foliage—a crackling noise, a blow—and the long rows of growing vegetation are broken, and every moment it disappears under the operation of the knife.  The cane is stripped by the negroes of its leaves, decapitated of its unripe joints, and cut off from the root with a rapidity of execution that is almost marvelous.  The stalks lie scattered along on the ground, soon to be gathered up and placed in the cane-wagons which, with their four gigantic mule-teams, have just come rattling on to the scene of action with a noise and manner that would do honor to a park of flying artillery.

We have already alluded to the fact that the sugar crop has to be gathered in Louisiana within ninety days, or else it will be destroyed by the cold; as a consequence, from the moment the first blow is struck, every thing is inspired with energy.  The teams, the negroes, the vegetation, the very air, in fact, that has been for months dragging out a quiescent existence, as if the only object of life was to consume time, now start as if touched by fire.  The negro becomes supple, the mules throw up their heads and paw the earth with impatience, the sluggish air frolics in swift currents and threatening storms, while the once silent sugar house is open, windows and doors.  The carrier shed is full of children and women, the tall chimneys are belching out smoke, and the huge engine, as if waking from a benumbing nap, has stretched out its long arms, given one long-drawn respiration, and is alive.

In the mean while the cut cane is accumulating in the carrier shed; it rises up in huge masses on every side.  Enough “to commence” is obtained, and the steam-pipe whistles shrilly, the lumbering carrier moves, the cane is tumbled between the rollers and ground up, its saccharine juice in breaking jets runs merrily into the receiver.  The furnace fires now send forth a cloud of smoke, and by the time night sets in the sugar house is literally in a blaze.

“While flame the chimneys, while the coppers foam,
How blithe, how jocund, the plantation smiles.”

The planter now becomes indifferent to sleep or rest, and often spends a large portion of the night in visiting the different departments of the busy scene, noticing the working of the engine and the mill, but more particularly he hangs over the kettles, to see what the newly-expressed juice promises.  As is always the case with that from cane first cut from the fields, it yields only indifferently well, and it seems as if a “strike” would never be made.

The “taking off the crop” has now fairly commenced, and for sixty or ninety days all is hurry and bustle.  From morn to night, and night to morn, the unfeeling and powerful steam engine seems to drag along with its untiring industry all within its influence, and man and beast must be alike insensible to fatigue.  Strange as it may appear, under this severe tax every thing thrives; there is something about the season, the peculiar labor, and the constant indulgence in eating the juice of the cane, that produces unwonted health, and consequently the highest flow of animal spirits.  But the planter is not exempt from his misfortunes, and they seem sometimes to accumulate at this critical period.  The sugar maker does not succeed in producing “the staple” of a favorite color and proper grain; an unusual quantity of cane passes through the rollers for the amount of sugar known to be in the coolers.  Frequently the immense pressure brought upon the mill breaks it asunder, and as there is no place nearer than New Orleans in which to get repairs, a delay is the consequence, harassing in the extreme.  The “invalid roller” is tumbled down to the levee, and as the regular “coasting packet” comes along, the experienced eye of the captain detects, by the anxious group ashore, that something has gone wrong at the sugar house.  There are the negroes rushing up and down, hallooing and waving their arms for signals, long after the announcement is made that the boat will make the landing.  Then the planter, with his working clothes on, paces up and down the levee, his hands thrust in his pockets, his mouth grim, while he speculates upon his extraordinary “bad, bad luck,” when compared with his neighbors and “the rest of mankind.”

But the sugar house has other scenes:  frequently there are pleasant apartments fitted up for “the family,” and the socialities of life are displayed in the most delightful manner; the amenities of high civilization and out-door living blend in beautiful harmony.  Here, amid the bustle, the family meal is taken, and every appetite is increased by the bracing air of a Southern winter.  The invalid, white or black, that has long been confined to the sick bed, hastens to the sugar house, and in the rarefied air and sweetened steam that pervades a portion of the building, finds a balm for the pains in the chest, and a relief to the distressing cough.  The bloom of health not only deepens upon those who already possess it, but revives upon the faded cheek.

The healthful influence of the “boiling season” upon the sick and debilitated of the sugar plantation, and the invigorating qualities of the cane juice upon all who drink it from the kettles, or extract it themselves from the plant, has often been noticed and taken advantage of.  Grainger, the rural poet of Basseterre, near a century ago, thus apostrophizes:

“While flows the juice mellifluent from the cane,
Grudge not, my friend, to let thy slaves, each morn,
But chief the sick and young, at setting day,
Themselves regale with oft-repeated draughts
Of tepid nectar; so shall health and strength
Confirm thy negroes, and make labor light.”

As the medicinal qualities of the steam arising from the sugar kettles, and the use of the hot syrup as a drink for invalids, are beginning to attract the speculative attention of some eminent practitioners, we should perhaps be remiss if we did not mention a favorite sugar house beverage, very much in demand by those who, from all external appearance, seem to be any thing but victims of pulmonary complaints.  A tumbler of cane juice partially boiled down to the crystallizing point, is well “tempered with French brandy”—such is the term used—and drank with great precipitation, and is generally not considered unnecessary or unpalatable by gentlemen visitors.  There are some persons, however, who are obliged to add to this novel libation some of the acid from the innumerable sour oranges that load the trees in the neighborhood of the sugar house.  Persons who are good judges have pronounced this mixture as being nothing more or less than “hot punch;” but as it is never drank under that irreverent name, but is called “drinking hot syrup,” we prefer to use the technical term, and rest satisfied with the popular ignorance of what it is, beyond what its name implies.

To the children, “sugar rolling” is composed of halcyon days.  The little masters and misses, including those of every conceivable age, revel among the sweets, as bees buried in honeysuckles; along with them follow a train of every imaginable sized “little niggers,” that dabble in and devour the sugar and syrup, until they are literally loaded inside and out.