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Session 2: Making a Living

By RoAnn Bishop
Former Curator of Agriculture, Industry, and Economic Life, North Carolina Museum of History

Before the Civil War, most North Carolinians made their living by farming. But some people, especially in the state’s southeastern counties, tapped the longleaf pine trees to produce tar, pitch, turpentine, and rosin, collectively called naval stores. Other people mined gold from rich veins of quartz in the Piedmont and Mountains. And still others fished the sounds or worked in commercial fisheries along the coast. A small number of residents—usually in urban centers—worked as skilled artisans, merchants, and professionals.

Still, the vast majority of antebellum North Carolinians were farmers. With access to few good roads or navigable rivers, most people lived 
on isolated farms, where work followed a seasonal cycle and family members shared the chores with the help of a few simple tools and an ox or mule. They grew food crops such as corn and wheat, raised livestock for meat and dairy products, kept sheep for wool to make clothing, and tended orchards and gardens for fruit, herbs, and vegetables. They also grew smaller amounts of cash crops, such as cotton and tobacco. Planters (farmers who owned at least five hundred acres of land and twenty slaves) grew much larger crops of cotton, tobacco, or rice on their plantations. But most North Carolinians were small-scale farmers who owned a hundred acres of land or less and had no slaves.

Cash Crops: Tobacco and Cotton

Tobacco and cotton were antebellum North Carolina’s major moneymaking crops. In 1860 the state ranked fifth in the nation in tobacco production and ninth in cotton production. American Indians had taught European settlers how to grow tobacco, a plant native to North Carolina. During the colonial period, tobacco became North Carolina’s most valuable export commodity.

Because of the many tasks and the amount of labor involved in growing tobacco, farmers sometimes called it the “thirteen-month” crop, because one year’s crop wasn’t sold until after the next year’s was started. The work cycle began in January, when a farmer cleared land for a plant bed and seeded it before breaking the land and running rows. In April or May, the seedlings were transplanted to the field. As the tobacco grew, the farmer picked off hornworms and suckers (extraneous shoots at the joint of each leaf and the stalk) and broke off the flowery tops of the stalks (called “topping”). These two actions diverted more energy into the tobacco leaves.

Farmers traditionally harvested tobacco by cutting the stalks off at the ground. They air cured the plants for five or six weeks, then stripped the leaves from the stalks and packed them by the thousand pounds into hogsheads (large barrels). Workers ran an axle horizontally through a hogshead and rolled it to market behind an ox or mule.

During the early nineteenth century, farmers started harvesting tobacco by pulling, or “cropping,” individual leaves off the stalks as they ripened, which occurred from the ground upwards. Beginning in July, workers called “primers” harvested three to four ripe leaves per stalk each week, and the process continued for five or six weeks. Mule-drawn sleds transported the harvested leaves to a shelter, where women and children unloaded and handed the leaves to workers called “stringers,” who tied the leaves to sticks. At the end of the workday, the primers hung the sticks of tobacco leaves across the rafters inside a barn for wood-fire curing. After harvest season, workers graded each leaf for quality and tied the leaves into bundles, or “hands,” for market. Sometimes, it was after Christmas before all the tobacco had been graded and sold.

In 1839 Caswell County slave Stephen Slade produced “bright-leaf” tobacco quite by accident. Napping while tending the fire inside a curing barn, Slade awoke to discover the fire nearly out and threw charcoals onto the dying embers. The heat rose fast, drying the tobacco leaves a bright yellow. After Slade’s owner, Abisha Slade, sold his “bright” tobacco for more money, other growers began curing their tobacco the same way.

Bright leaf tobacco grows on a farm in North Carolina's piedmont. Image courtesy of Learn NC.

When farmers also learned that growing tobacco in thin, sandy soil helped produce this golden leaf, those who previously had thought their land too poor to grow crops turned to planting tobacco. At the same time, a renewed interest in pipe smoking prompted experiments with new soils, curing practices, and hybrid types in an effort to produce milder-flavored tobacco. Farmers began moving from fire curing to a flue-cured method that involved piping heat from an outside furnace into a tightly closed barn.

Between 1850 and 1860, North Carolina’s tobacco production jumped from twelve million pounds to thirty-three million pounds, due partly to the rise of bright-leaf tobacco. Tobacco growing expanded especially rapidly in a line of counties along the North Carolina–Virginia border, which became known as the “Bright Belt.” Bright-leaf production increased until the Civil War, which disrupted cultivation.

Like tobacco, cotton was a labor-intensive crop. Before Eli Whitney patented the cotton gin in 1794, most of the cotton grown in North Carolina had been produced on family farms for personal use. A person could clean only one pound of cotton by hand per day. Because of the large amount of time required to remove seeds from the cotton fiber so that it could be spun into thread, growing large amounts of the crop wasn’t feasible. But Whitney’s gin could clean fifty pounds of cotton per day.

"Cotton Team in North Carolina." From Harper's Weekly, May 12, 1866. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The rising demand for raw cotton by cotton mills in New England and England caused cotton production to boom almost overnight, and the area from North Carolina to Texas became known as the “Cotton Kingdom.” But with the increased demand for raw cotton came an increased demand for labor in the cotton fields. Consequently, the system of slavery became more entrenched in the South.

In antebellum North Carolina, most cotton was grown in the Piedmont counties bordering South Carolina. Work began in the spring with breaking the land, running rows, and planting. Hoeing weeds, or “chopping,” was hot, backbreaking summertime work. From August to early November, as the cotton bolls matured and burst open, workers handpicked the fluffy white puffs and stuffed them into sacks, which they carried along the rows. When full, a bag could weigh more than a hundred pounds. Because cotton bolls ripened gradually, as many as six pickings were needed. After it was picked, the cotton was ginned, compressed into four-hundred-pound bales, and sent to market.

Decreasing cotton prices, high marketing costs, and the state’s population loss due to the western movement of the 1820s and 1830s sent North Carolina’s cotton production into a downward spiral until about 1840, when farmers began using improved tools and techniques to cultivate the crop. Between 1840 and 1860, cotton production in North Carolina quadrupled, from about 35,000 bales to nearly 150,000. Because more manpower was needed to pick the additional cotton and get it to the gin, North Carolina’s slave population increased.

The textile industry also got its start in North Carolina during this period. Michael Schenck built the state’s first cotton mill near Lincolnton in Lincoln County in 1813. By 1860 North Carolina had thirty-nine textile mills (including woolen mills), though most were small operations.

Cotton Basket, circa. 1855. 
Image courtesy of the North Carolina Museum of History.


Food Crops: Corn and Wheat

Plow manufactured between 1810 and 1860. Image courtesy of the North Carolina Museum of History.

Just as tobacco and cotton were the main cash crops in North Carolina before the Civil War, corn and wheat were the main food crops. Planted in the spring and harvested in late summer, corn grew in every county of the state and had many uses. Corn kernels could be eaten either on or off the cob, ground into grits or meal, distilled into whiskey for social and medicinal purposes, fed to livestock, sold for cash, bartered for services, and used to pay taxes. Tar Heels turned corn shucks into dolls, hats, rugs, mops, mattresses, and chair seats, and used corncobs as pipes and to help start fires and plug containers. Some folks even used corncobs in lieu of toilet paper!

Planted in early winter and harvested in the spring, wheat provided flour for bread and feed for livestock. According to the 1860 census, farmers in all of North Carolina’s counties grew wheat, but the Piedmont was the leading wheat-producing region. Unlike other crops, wheat required little attention. After farmers planted the crop—usually in October, November, or December—they gave it no further attention until harvest time in early June. Consequently, the yield per acre was usually low.

Although the reaper and threshing machines came on the market in the 1830s, most North Carolina farmers continued to harvest (cut) wheat with a sickle, scythe, or grain cradle. They also continued to thresh it (separate the grain from stems and husks) by hand. First, they beat it with a flail (a jointed wooden tool) to knock the grain heads from the stalks, and then they winnowed (tossed in the air) the heads to separate the grain from the chaff (straw dust), which the air blew away. Farmers took the threshed grain to a local gristmill, where the miller ground it into flour that could be made into bread, cakes, and other baked goods. As the price of wheat rose during the 1850s, farmers planted more wheat and began using the new agricultural methods and implements to increase their yields.

Because of the amount of corn and wheat produced in antebellum North Carolina, milling became the state’s second-largest industry. Mills harnessed the power of fast-flowing rivers and streams to grind corn into meal and wheat into flour. Some mills also sawed lumber and carded wool. Operating a mill required much skill. Water from the millpond turned the mill’s large waterwheel, which transferred power through a complex series of belts, pulleys, and gears to the heavy millstones that ground the grain. The miller usually took a toll of from one-twelfth to one-eighth of the grain he ground. By the time of the Civil War, the state boasted more than six hundred gristmills, valued at more than $4.3 million.

Wheat. Image courtesy of North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Naval Stores

North Carolina’s largest industry before the Civil War was concentrated in the Coastal Plain, where some residents harvested resin (sap) from the longleaf pine trees to produce tar, pitch, turpentine, and rosin. These products were used to seal and preserve wooden sailing ships. It is from their use on naval, as well as merchant, vessels that they gained the name naval stores. Eastern North Carolina had vast longleaf pine forests, especially along the Cape Fear River in Bladen and New Hanover counties, and the state led the world in the production of naval stores from about 1720 to 1870. Primarily because of this industry’s long association with North Carolina, the nickname “Tar Heel State” developed and North Carolinians became known as “Tar Heels.”

Turpentine production required the efforts of many specialized workers throughout the year. The process began in winter, when woodsmen with box axes cut “boxes” into pine tree trunks to catch the resin. Other workers then used felling axes to chip notches, called “catfaces,” just above the boxes to start the resin flowing. When the resin slowed, workers chipped new streaks above the catfaces using round shaves or turpentine hacks. When a catface reached the height of a worker’s shoulder, he replaced the hack with a puller. Workers called “dippers” used dip irons to collect resin from the pine tree boxes in wooden buckets, which they emptied into fifty-gallon barrels strewn throughout the forest. Ox-drawn wagons hauled the full barrels to a turpentine distillery. This process continued into late fall. At the turpentine “still,” workers distilled the raw pine sap into spirits of turpentine and rosin, a process that required about three hours. The final products were loaded into barrels for market.

Title: "Raleigh, North Carolina." North Carolina's Turpentine Industry. From The New South, a supplement to Harper's Weekly. Published on April 9, 1887. Image courtesy of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, NC.

After a pine tree had run for about three years, it gradually died and fell to the ground. In winter, workers harvested the resin-rich wood, called lightwood, from dead trees and use it to fire a tar kiln, or “tarkel.” A tar kiln was a smooth, shallow, circular pit made in the ground, usually atop a small rise. Workers piled lengths of split lightwood in the center of the pit to a height of eight to ten feet, covered the entire pile with earth and timbers, and set it afire. As the lightwood burned, its resinous matter produced tar.

Burning a tar kiln required considerable skill. Too much air allowed in reduced the amount of tar produced; too little air could cause an explosion. The tar collected in the pit’s center and ran through a pipe buried beneath the pile into either a barrel or a tar pit. It took four to ten days to run off all the tar. The fire would burn itself out after about two days, and the pile would collapse. To produce pitch, workers simply ignited the tar pit and let the turpentine burn off. The remaining sticky black residue—pitch—was transferred to thirty-two-gallon barrels for market.

By the time of the Civil War, technological advances such as ironclad ships and synthetic substitutes for turpentine had begun to weaken the world’s demand for naval stores. Moreover, years of destructive harvesting practices had taken a toll on the state’s pine forests. After more than a century of world dominance, North Carolina’s naval stores industry went into decline.

Gold Mining

The discovery of gold on John Reed’s Cabarrus County farm in 1799 sparked America’s first gold rush. During the late 1820s and early 1830s, thousands of prospectors from around the nation and from many foreign countries poured into the state’s western Piedmont and Mountains, hoping to tap this mineral wealth. Farmers in some North Carolina counties—particularly Halifax, Guilford, Cabarrus, Mecklenburg, Montgomery, and Burke—augmented their income by panning and digging for gold. At its peak, gold mining ranked second only to farming in the number of North Carolinians it employed. The estimated value of gold mined in the Tar Heel State reached over $1 million a year. Until the California gold rush in 1848, North Carolina led the nation in gold production.

Check out this map pertaining to North Carolina’s gold mining regions. Additional map here.

By the mid-1830s, much of the gold available through placer (surface) mining had been claimed. But underground mining, which had begun in 1825, when veins of gold-bearing quartz were found in Stanly County, was increasing. During the 1840s, Gold Hill in Rowan County became a genuine gold rush town, with more than a thousand miners extracting ore from underground veins. Reed Gold Mine State Historic Site in Midland—the original location of John Reed’s farm and later gold mining operation—still allows visitors to get a feel for gold mining. Here they can explore restored mine tunnels, see a restored ore-crushing stamp mill, and learn more about North Carolina gold mining from exhibits in the site’s visitor center.

While antebellum North Carolinians could sometimes get their hands on gold ore, gold coins were harder to come by. In the 1830s, cash of any kind was scarce due in part to President Andrew Jackson’s dispute with the Bank of the United States. The nearest mint was in Philadelphia, and the roads leading there were bad and the highwaymen good. Gold dust became the poor man’s currency. Many a miner picked out his supplies in a country store while the storekeeper got out his scales and measured pennyweights of gold dust in payment.

Eventually, demand for a convenient and practical way to convert gold into reliable money led to the enormously successful Bechtler mint. Christopher Bechtler, a German immigrant, began operating his private mint near Rutherfordton in 1831. He produced one-dollar, two-and-a-half-dollar, and five-dollar gold coins. His one-dollar coins were the first gold dollars minted in America. Because of their consistent quality and gold content, Bechtler’s coins became the state’s de facto currency for several decades.

Image on the left: Gold roller manufactured between 1831 and 1851. This set of rollers was used at the Bechtler Mint in Rutherfordton, North Carolina, to roll gold bards out into thin strips. Image on the right: Bechtler made $1 goldpiece manufactured between 1831 and 1851. Both images courtesy of the North Carolina Museum of History.

The Southeast was the nation’s major gold-producing region at this time, and so the United States Mint in 1837 opened a branch in Charlotte, near the heart of North Carolina’s gold mining industry. The Charlotte mint began producing gold half eagles (worth five dollars) and quarter eagles (worth two-and-a-half dollars) in 1838. A gold dollar was added in 1849. The mint issued more than five million dollars in gold coins before 1861, when the Civil War halted operations. All gold coins from the Charlotte mint bear a “C” mint mark.

At its peak, North Carolina’s gold mining industry employed some thirty thousand workers. Even after placer mining declined, investment capital and technology for underground mining sparked a second boom in the 1850s. But yields were dropping again by the end of that decade. After the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in California in 1848, many Carolina gold miners went west to become forty-niners. By the start of the Civil War, most of the mining operations in North Carolina had been abandoned.


Cotton in North Carolina
This article examines current trends in cotton production in North Carolina.

The Cotton Economy of the Old South

A Lesson in Examining Cotton Monoculture in the Antebellum South

History of Tobacco
From PBS, a timeline of the history of tobacco in North Carolina.

Tobacco Today
From the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, some information on tobacco production in North Carolina today.

Naval Stores in North Carolina

Reed Gold Mine

Gold Mining in North Carolina 
Article about antebellum gold mining from the North Carolina History Project.

Assignment 2

Complete one of the following assignments:

Option 1:
Design a lesson plan examining the role of agriculture in antebellum North Carolina that is appropriate for the grade you teach. You might want to combine this lesson with a science lesson about a plant’s life cycle or discuss the kinds of food people ate or the recipes they used.

Option 2: (Choose this option if you are seeking technology credits.)*
Test your online investigative skills by researching the following four items using only the Internet. After each answer, list the steps you took to find it and your opinion on fact-finding webquests for students.

  1. Name two companies in North Carolina that export currently or used to export cotton or tobacco. Where are they located?
  2. List two uses of naval stores not presented in this workshop.
  3. In the 1850s a journalist and landscape architect traveled throughout the South. He later wrote A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States; With Remarks on Their Economy, a book that detailed southern life and described how naval stores were harvested. What is his name? What North Carolina’s mansion gardens did he design in the early 1900s?
  4. Name a gold mine in North Carolina not mentioned in this workshop.

Option 3:
Compile a list of vocabulary words with definitions associated with the gold rush era for your students to learn. Terms associated with gold mining in North Carolina include adit, assay, claim, flake, fool’s gold, lode, nugget, ore, pan, rocker, shaft, and vein. Construct an activity to help them learn these words.

Submit your answers via e-mail to

* If you are interested in this option, we encourage you to contact your principal or LEA to receive prior approval. If questions arise, please contact Sally Bloom at 919-807-7965 or

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