Web of Cotton

By the mid-1800s, the United States produced more cotton than any other nation in the world. Most of it left the country through New Orleans—to be spun, woven, cut, and sewn into clothing and countless other products. The cotton industry linked millions of lives. Its sprawling network included enslaved workers on cotton plantations, merchants in New Orleans, sailors and shipowners, textile workers in New England and Great Britain, and customers around the world.



Packet Ship Ohio

Built at Philadelphia, 1825

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Packet Ship Ohio

Coastal traffic between New Orleans and cities along the East Coast reflected the growing economic connections between American people and industries in the early 1800s. The Ohio carried passengers and cargo between Philadelphia and New Orleans. Cotton was the most common cargo shipped out of New Orleans in coastal packets like the Ohio in the 1830s.


Sold “Down River”

This reproduction of part of a ship’s manifest names and describes 83 enslaved African Americans taken aboard the schooner LaFayette in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1833. Bound for Natchez, Mississippi, via New Orleans, the people had been sold “down river” into the domestic slave trade that brought some 1.5 million people south to work the fields of the Cotton Belt. The Franklin and Armfield firm, which was responsible for this transaction, was a well-known and wealthy slave trading business in Alexandria.


Detail from lithograph by D. W. Moody

Courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection

New Orleans from the Lower Cotton Press, 1852

Ocean sailing ships tied up next to river steamboats in the busy port of New Orleans. To reach the city, seagoing vessels sailed roughly 100 miles up the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico.


Fancy power loom patent model

William Crompton’s invention allowed weavers to create more elaborate designs on power looms. Widely adopted in textile mills on both sides of the Atlantic, the power loom was used to produce fancy designs in silk, wool, and even in cotton.

Patent No. 491, November 25, 1837

Transfer from U.S. Patent Office


On the Levee, 1875

A steamship carrying 6,000 bales of cotton and 4,000 sacks of cottonseed could have its entire cargo unloaded and reloaded in as few as eleven hours. Gangs of African American dockworkers performed most of this work both before and after the end of slavery.


Cotton’s Harvest, about 1892

The cotton shipped through New Orleans came from thousands of plantations throughout the South. Until well into the 1930s, it was laboriously planted, tended, and picked by hand, often by sharecroppers and tenant farmers.

From a stereoview published by J. F. Jarvis, Washington, D.C.


Patent No. 203,401, May 7, 1878

Transfer from U.S. Patent Office

Cotton bale-tie patent model

Curran Battle of Warrenton, Georgia, submitted this model of a cotton bale when he applied for a patent in 1878. The model demonstrates how his “new and useful improvement in bale-tie fastenings” worked.


Cotton Aboard, 1878

Cotton was processed through a cotton gin, pressed, and baled at the plantation. For the trip to the “factors” or merchants in New Orleans, the bales were stacked into every available space aboard a river steamer. A staggering 7,818 bales of cotton were carried aboard the sternwheel steamer Chas. P. Chouteau, shown here in Natchez, Mississippi, in December 1878.


From John M. Woodworth, The Cholera Epidemic of 1873 in the United States, 1875

Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Deck Passengers

Deck passengers usually outnumbered cabin passengers three or four to one. The fares were cheap but the comforts few: without beds or shelter, they found room among the cargo crates. Diseases spread in such close quarters and were carried to unsuspecting communities along the steamers’ routes. The deck passengers in this image are suffering from cholera, an epidemic that spread along the Mississippi in 1873.


Steamboat J. M. White

Built at Jeffersonville, Indiana, 1878

Gift of John H. Leslie

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A Mississippi Riverboat

The sidewheel steamboat J. M. White was designed for passenger service between New Orleans, Louisiana, and Greenville, Mississippi. The vessel was a masterpiece of the gaudy, glamorous style known as Steamboat Gothic and was one of the largest, most expensive, and most powerful river steamers ever built. The boilers produced 2,800 horsepower and the ship could carry 250 first-class passengers and 10,000 bales of cotton. Yet it sat only 6 feet 6 inches deep in the water fully laden. The J. M. White burned at a Louisiana landing in December 1886.


Main Cabin of the J. M. White

First-class passengers traveled in luxury aboard the J. M. White. Like most large riverboats, it was covered with painted wood ornament, particularly on the inside. Such elaborate decoration was both fashionable and relatively inexpensive. It decorated middle-class homes as well as riverboats.