Sugarcane shaped the history of the River Region. As a labor-intensive crop, it was the driving force behind the high-demand for enslaved men, women and children. As a lucrative crop, it propelled the planter class to unimaginable levels of wealth.
Feeding this sugar boom was a rapidly growing demand for all things sweet. In the 1700’s the average man consumed 4 pounds of sugar a year, but by 1800 he consumed 18 pounds and by 1870 it was skyrocketed to 50 pounds. Granulated, molasses or rum—it was being consumed as fast as it was produced.
Planters rushed to take advantage of the market, but soon realized that the labor and resources the crop required meant they only saw a profit by committing to large production volumes. As a result sugar plantations became synonymous with large, rich estates and huge numbers of enslaved people. At Oak Alley, for example, 600 acres of sugarcane were cultivated and up to 80 field slaves (Slave Database) were tasked with planting, tending and harvesting the crop.
As a sugar plantation—and as a business--Oak Alley’s wealth lay not just in its sugar-producing abilities, but in its ability to use its production value to gain credit. Planter Jacques T. Roman repeatedly mortgaged his slaves and land, increasing his credit line until the sugar harvest came in. After it was sold and he paid off his most of his accumulated debt for the year, his credit line was increased and extended. This allowed Jacques to have the capital on hand to build such a palatial house, and position himself as a member of the elite planter class.
While sugar was a viable, sustainable (with slavery) commodity, the lending and mortgaging habits were not, and the bubble inevitably burst. Some economic reforms were put in place, but in the end, planters continued to rely on their land and slaves as a kind of credit card until the Civil War.