Waterford: Agriculture to Industry – Chapter 4 (William B. Whitehead 1852-1879)

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NOTE: The following research material is included on this website courtesy of Entergy and was prepared in 1988 for Louisiana Power & Light Company (presently Entergy) following their purchase of one of the most historical properties in St. Charles Parish dating back to the earliest settlements on the German Coast. Originally known as the Darensbourg Tract, this site at the time of purchase was Waterford Plantation, one of the last surviving plantations in St. Charles Parish.

Scene in the Levee District
(From Waterford: Agriculture to Industry, November 1988)

The Grand Old South

The 1840s were years of general economic growth and expansion for the people of Southern Louisiana. The State Constitution was upgraded, ratified, and then changed again. Economic recovery was on-going with the implementation of a free banking system. Railroads stretched to connect new areas, the public school system strengthened by the establishment of Louisiana State University, and several regiments of volunteers were sent to assist in the Mexican War. Meanwhile, the Louisiana State Legislature concentrated on internal improvements, and a “Road and Levee Fund” and “Internal Improvement Fund” were created in 1848. Large sums of money were devoted to public works, and despite the tragic loss of thousands to the yellow fever epidemics of the early 1850s, general economic recovery was well underway.

City of New Orleans
Figure 4-1: City of New Orleans, Circa 1862. Source: Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (From Waterford: Agriculture to Industry, November 1988)

Production Leaders

In 1849, William B. Whitehead and Company became the owners of the Charles Perret, Sr., P. B. St. Martin, Delhonde, and Peroux property. The Whitehead Company remained in control until 1853 when Whitehead became the sole owner of the property. By 1860, Mr. Whitehead’s thriving plantation was producing more sugar each year than any other farm in St. Charles Parish.

Industrial Revolution

As the price of sugar increased from 5-1/4 to 8-1/8 cents per pound, the number of horse-powered mills decreased from 671 to 288, while the number of steam-powered mills increased from 865 to 1,009. A new furnace was developed in this period for igniting wet bagasse. The furnace worked well, but it still required a considerable supply of wood as a supplementary fuel. Sugar farmers continued to improve the land and increase the number of slaves, and the planters of St. Charles Parish continued to increase the average output of hogsheads of sugar correspondingly. This production could, in large part, be credited to the plantations’ workers.

The Sugar Culture

In 1850, 56.5 percent of the workers on the sugar plant­ations were men. Most of these men were between the ages of 18 and 30. The plantation women were key to household activities and the stereotype of the languorous southern girl, swooning fashionably and sighing, were purely fiction. The truth is that planters’ wives were busy, industrious women whose duties included those of mother, hostess, commander, and tutor of the household help. 

The sugar planters remained men of responsibility in the administration of local, state, and even federal government. Wealth and extensive property frequently took them to leadership positions where affluence was not the sole factor. Personality, common sense, and sometimes even a rare entrepreneurial genius were the powerful elements that gave them influence in the community. 

Negro slaves were the laboring force of the sugar plantations and the base of the social pyramid in many southern Louisiana parishes. Normally, the blacks on the sugar plantations lived in a village made up of cabins constructed of brick or wood. Sugar cane plantations served as schools where untrained slaves learned the techniques of farming and household routine, and where they would assimilate elements of the white man’s culture, language, myths, conceits, and habits. 

The economic impacts of the slave labor on the plantations were profound. Productivity increased as did the cultural influences of these people upon the southern society. Nowhere else in the nation did the close proximity of black people have such a positive influence on a culture’s language, food, religion, and social inter­action. Into the Louisiana society of French, German and Spanish came yet another culture, that of the black people, melding the existing racial stocks with the African heritage. 

Large plantations played a role not far removed from that of the present-day welfare state. On some plantations, Negro infants were born under the care of the plantation doctor and throughout their lives had access to the hospital located near their quarters. Day nurseries were also provided at some plantations for care of the young children during working hours.

Sugar & Cotton
Figure 4-2: Sugar & Cotton Vie for Wharf Space. Source: Down Among the Sugar Cane (From Waterford: Agriculture to Industry, November 1988)

Plantation Operations

The position of plantation overseer called for a man of great versatility, patience, and common sense. He was second-in-command for disciplining and managing the workers and held the general responsibility of running the entire plantation. After the Civil War, the change from slaves to hired labor brought a shift in criteria for employing overseers. Tact and the threat of docking wages replaced forced labor. 

The 1853-54 sugar crop in St. Charles Parish alone produced over 9,000 tons of sugar and over 900,000 gallons of molasses. From 1856 to 1860, the domestic price level attained near record heights. However, the 1856-57 crop was reduced sixty-five to seventy-five percent by an early frost. From 1860 to 1865, the number of hogsheads produced in Louisiana decreased significantly because of the Civil War.

In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States. The following year, 1861, Louisiana became the sixth state to succeed from the Union and join the Confederacy.

J.P. Benjamin
Figure 4-3: Louisiana’s J.P. Benjamin, First U.S. Attorney General. Source: Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (From Waterford: Agriculture to Industry, November 1988)

Civil War Divides the Nation

In 1861, sixteen out of the twenty-two regular commit­tees of the Congress were controlled by the southern states. Jefferson Davis, who at the time was a United States Senator from Mississippi and chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs, soon became President of the Southern Confederacy. Many other congressmen also became important leaders of the Southern Confederacy. On May 6, 1861, the Confederate government declared war on the United States and, within two years, changed Louisiana from a “slave state” of 50 years to a “free state”. Judah Benjamin of Louisiana (see Figure 4-3) held the position of Attorney General in the First Confederate Cabinet and later became the Secretary of the Confederacy. 

The Confederate Congress passed sweeping acts in February 1861, ordering the banishment of all aliens and the absolute confiscation of all their property, which would be given to the state. A war-tax of fifty cents per $100.00 was put on all real and personal property, including slaves. Also authorized was control of all communications passing across Confederate lines. Later that same year, the President of the Confederacy ordered Confederate troops to advance into Missouri. 

The United States Congress was determined from the outset of the war to devote itself to the work for which it had been called. The Chairman of Military Affairs, Senator Wilson of Massachusetts, introduced a series of bills to confirm the acts of the President for the suppression of insurrection and rebellion and called for a blockade of the ports of the Confederate States, including New Orleans. 

The North believed that the Confederacy had the advantage in the war because of its control of agriculture, especially cotton. The principal towns of the Confederacy were situated upon the banks of the Mississippi River, and New Orleans was one of great importance. It alone could be compared in commercial importance with the great cities of the northeast.

New Orleans Captured

In February of 1862, the U.S. government learned that the strength of the defenses of New Orleans had been greatly exaggerated. In April of 1862, Captain D. G. Farragut and his fleet steamed past Forts Jackson and St. Philip below New Orleans and held the city under siege. By the end April of 1862, Farragut’s Union fleet was anchored in New Orleans Harbor, allowing his troops to burn the cotton and ships situated along the Mississippi River. New Orleans was captured.

Effects on Sugar

During the war, many sugar planters lost their estates by foreclosure, which made the land available and inexpensive. Men with money looked at the land as a good investment close to the commercial center of New Orleans. The blockades from above and below cut off trade for New Orleans and created great distress among the people. By 1863, the sugar country fell victim to the war. This was a period of extended confiscations and seizures both by the Union and Confederate authorities. Wholesale looting occurred, and many plantations were abandoned and neglected, with houses and fields continually burned before the war ended in 1865. 

At the end of hostilities, Mr. Covode of Pennsylvania, a member of Congress, proposed to change the staple crops from sugar cane and cotton to corn because it was thought to be easier on the Negroes and more agreeable for them to raise. By 1873, it was estimated that one-third of the Louisiana sugar plantations were no longer planting sugar cane. 

By this time, sugar cane planting had become a semi­industrialized operation requiring a great deal of equipment. In the sugar house the juice was pressed from the cane, boiled down, and crystallized. Wood or bagasse had to be gathered as the fuel. Carts were needed to haul the wood in the summer and the sugar cane during the harvest. Oxen, horses, and mules were needed to haul the carts and plows in the fields. The most important development in the sugar industry during the Reconstruction Period was the logistical separation of sugar cultivation and harvesting from the refining process itself.


The sugar growers who remained in operation after the Union invasion of New Orleans had two request of the new government: the retention of slavery and_ the maintenance of the Louisiana Constitution of 1852. However, the war had brought the Louisiana sugar industry to the brink of extinction from the disruption caused by the transition from slavery to free labor. Eventually, the former slaves settled into the task of making a living and gradually the attitude of the plantation operators and owners softened to accept the change. The labor pattern which emerged on the sugar land was that of hiring labor by the month. 

By 1863, Whitehead abandoned portions of his land in the upper part of St. John the Baptist Parish and in 1865, he abandoned portions of the land in the lower part of St. Charles Parish. 

All abandoned lands at the time were transferred to Mr. Thomas W. Conway, Assistant Commissioner of the Bureau of Freedmen and Abandoned Lands. 

From 1861 to 1876, sugar production on the property that became Waterford merely dropped six percent. However, it was still producing more hogsheads of sugar per year than any other plantation in St. Charles Parish. During the last nine years that Whitehead owned the plantation, he had constructed a brick and shingle roof sugar house with steam kettles and an open strike pan for processing sugar.

R.A. Miliken Joins Whitehead

In March of 1866, portions of the land were sold to A. L. Cuthbat of St. Louis. The Reconstruction Acts of 1867 and 1868 restored the military rule over the ten ex­-Confederate states. In March 1868, the new Louisiana State Constitution, drafted in New Orleans, provided for universal manhood suffrage and guaranteed full civil rights to Negroes. In 1876, the Federal troops were withdrawn from the State of Louisiana and the remaining portions of the Plantation remained with Whitehead until 1877 when Richard A. Milliken became Whitehead’s partner. 

This concludes the research material on Waterford Plantation, originally the Darensbourg Tract.