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|Indigo popular crop in Natchez country in 1700s|
DYE EXTRACTION PROCESS WAS COSTLY, LABORIOUS AND POLLUTED STREAMS
Two centuries ago in Natchez, one of the biggest crops was indigo, a plant from which a blue dye is extracted. European textile mills were the primary buyers but the product was widely used locally.
There were three major types of indigo plants grown in the Natchez region -- flotant, violet and copper, the latter of which was considered the best. While some plants grew wild, its cultivation became practical by the mid-1700s after planters from the Antilles in the Caribbean Sea provided hands-on instructions in the field and in the manufacture of the product.
Production began and ended in Natchez during Spanish possession and by the 1790s some of the product was being sold in the United States. In the early 1790s farmers earned as much as $2.50 per pound in the best of times. In 1794, Col. Anthony Hutchins made his last crop of indigo after receiving only a $1 per pound in New Orleans.
According to historian Jack D.H. Holmes, the 1784 Natchez "census shows little or no indigo having been produced in the previous year, but by 1792 the planters raised 35,006 pounds. Two years later because of the effects of blight, competition for tobacco and other crops, insect depredations, and lack of interest, the total yield had dropped to 24,274 pounds," and continued falling. In 1795, only 17,521 pounds was produced.
In St. Catherine's Creek area of Natchez, production totaled 10,350 pounds in 1792 but dropped in half to 5,400 pounds in 1794. Production along the Homochitto actually reversed the trend, jumping from 4,850 pounds in 1792 to 6,390 pounds in 1794. But at Cole's Creek (Villa Gayoso), production plummeted from 4,750 pounds in 1792 to a mere 27 acres two years later. The crop was also grown along Pine Ridge, Second and Sandy creeks, Bayou Pierre, Big Black, Buffalo Creek and Bayou Sarah.
For a few years, indigo was good for business throughout Natchez. According to Holmes, "Natchez artisans during the peak years of indigo production were often engaged in the manufacture of vats and other accouterments for the indigo industry," plus "a considerable quantity of indigo was used locally to dye the homespun cotton."
William Dunbar grew indigo on his plantation, The Forest, south of Natchez.
CULTIVATION A CROP OF INDIGO
According to Jean-Bernard Bossu, indigo "resembles the broom plant. One type grows wild on the hilltops and near the Louisiana forests, but the indigo plant which is cultivated comes from the islands." Bossu wrote about indigo production in 1762 in an article called, "Travels in the Interior of North America, 1751-1762."
Bossu said in Louisiana the plant "grows two and one-half feet high and is harvested twice a year. When the plant is ripe, it is cut down and brought to a 20-foot high shed that has a roof held up by poles instead of walls. In this shed there are three vats placed in such a way that water from one can run into the next. The indigo leaves and a certain amount of water, in which they are permitted to rot, are placed in the highest vat.
"When the man in charge of the operation decides, after frequent inspection, that the time is right, he opens a spout, and the water runs into the next vat. There is a precise moment when this must be done, for if the indigo remains in the first vat too long, it turns black.
"When all the water is in the second vat, it is beaten until the overseer, through his long experience, decides that the process is to stop. The water is then permitted to settle, and the indigo forms a sediment at the bottom of the vat. As the liquid becomes clear, it is run off in gradual stages through a series of spouts placed one beneath the other.
"The indigo is then removed from the vat and is placed in cloth sacks through which the remaining liquid is permitted to seep. It is then dried on boards and cut into little squares, which are packed into barrels for shipment to Europe.
"Seeds are obtained by permitting the necessary number of plants to grow to maturity. The quality of the plant depends upon the soil, which should be light. In the West Indies there are up to four crops a year, but in Louisiana there are not more than three, and even these are of inferior quality."
In Natchez in the 1780s and 1790s, historian and geologist B.L.C. Wailes, who lived in Washington outside Natchez, said the "seed was obtained at the cost of about fifty dollars per barrel, and some of the small farmers engaged in cultivating the indigo exclusively for the seed to supply those whose larger means enabled them to erect the necessary fixtures, and to prosecute the cultivation and manufacture on a profitable scale.
"It was cultivated in drills, and required careful handling when young and tender, the subsequent cultivation being similar to that of the cotton plant. When mature, in good land, it attained the height of about three feet. It was then, previous to going to seed, cut with a reap-hook from day to day, tied in bundles in quantities suited to the capacity of the steeping-vats, to which it was immediately transferred."
EXTRACTION A SMELLY PROCESS
Wailes said these "vats or uncovered reservoirs were constructed in pairs above ground, of thick plank dovetailed together in such a manner as to be perfectly water-tight; the larger one, or steeping-vat, so elevated as to permit the draining off of the liquid into the smaller, or beater, in which it is churned or agitated.
"This vat was usually about four feet deep, eight feet wide, and about fifteen feet in length. Two or three pairs of these vats were sufficient for the largest indigo establishments in the country. One pair ordinarily sufficed."
The production of the plant and extraction of the dye required great labor, one reason the institution of slavery grew rapidly in Natchez. Holmes said a worker "would generally plant and attend two acres of plants while at the same time furnishing his provisions. The planters at Pointe Coupee, with 20 to 100 slaves each, produced 50,000 pounds of copper indigo, which represented one-fourth of all indigo raised along the Mississippi in 1775."
The stench from the extraction process was nauseating and obviously unhealthy to the workers. In production regions in the South and Central Americas, indigo manufacturing sites were located a quarter-mile from settlements because of its "obnoxious odor." This foul waste water and debris also polluted creeks and streams.
Wailes said "the whole process was of the most disgusting and disagreeable character. Myriads of flies were generated by it, which overspread the whole country. The plant itself, when growing, was infested by swarms of grasshoppers, by which it was sometimes totally destroyed, and the fetor (odor) arising from the putrid weed thrown from the vats was intolerable. The drainings from these refuse accumulations into the adjacent streams killed the fish. Those in Second Creek, previously abounding in trout and perch, it is said were destroyed in this way.
"It is not surprising, therefore, that the cultivation of indigo was abandoned in a few years, and gave way to that of cotton, so remarkable for its freedom from the disagreeable concomitants of tobacco and indigo culture, and comparatively so light, neat, and agreeable in its handling."
ANTI-POLLUTION LAWS ENACTED
But before indigo production was abandoned, Spanish Gov. Manual Gayoso realized that he had to do something about the pollution. A few years later, the environmentally-minded Gayoso gave orders reducing the harvest of cypress on the west bank of the river on what became Concordia Parish.
The governor met with indigo farmers to discuss the pollution issues which also were of great concern to ranchers as the pollution of creeks and streams threatened to ruin the water sources for their livestock. A short time later, he announced two laws to regulate the industry, possibly the first environmental laws ever written in this region. One law stated:
"It is hereby ordered and directed: That every person who shall make Indigo, shall cause the weed to be burned, as soon as it possibly can be burnt, after coming out of the Vat or Steeper, and no person shall be permitted to convey the water, from his or her vat into any Creek or other Waters, made use of by the inhabitants, for the use of their family or stock, and if any indigo works have already been erected, without attention to this important measure, such works shall be removed, or so differently constructed as to remedy this great evil of injuring the water."
Victor Collot, a French military officer who was sent on a reconnaissance mission down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in 1796, had a glimpse of the industry in its final days.
"Independently of the variety of accidents which render the cultivation of the plant very hazardous in the country where the indigo grows," wrote Collot, "the root of that...is liable to be pricked by a small worm, which, from the extreme humidity of the ground, abounds in this part and destroys the plant. The harvests have been known to fail two or three years successively."
Collot saw some "indigo works in ruins, and the planters reduced to growing maize and yams..."
Holmes said the exhaustion of the soil was another reason for the decline.
"Weather was always a factor because unless growing conditions were ideal," he said, "the indigo plant suffered. Blight and insects virtually ruined the entire indigo crop of 1796. Planters realized that indigo was too uncertain a business, and they gradually turned their attention to more lucrative and less risky crops such as cotton and sugar."
Holmes reported that by 1800 "a single ship sometimes carried...indigo to the world markets, but it was just as likely that a ship would arrive at New Orleans with foreign indigo for Louisiana settlers."
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