A Kentucky Cotton Planter, Part Three

taylor-gravestone

Commodore Taylor was John Martin Taylor’s Great Uncle. There are many Taylor family members that settled in Oldham County after the Revolutionary War. Most was slave owners and brought these enslaved laborers with them when they came to Kentucky.

This column continues with the story of Dr. John Martin Taylor (1819-1884) and his wife, Mary Elizabeth Robertson Rives Taylor (1824-1868). The Taylor’s owned a palatial 18 room brick mansion called “Mauvilla” by the Ohio River close to Westport from 1855 to 1878 (which was razed in the 1950s) as well as a very large dogtrot log home (recently purchased by the University of Arkansas) by Bayou Bartholomew in close proximity to the Mississippi River. The couple along with their children and enslaved laborers, traveled back and forth by steamboat, several times a year between their homes. In May this year, I travelled to the Arkansas site and met with the Drew County Historical Society, a Taylor descendant, Robin Loucks, and staff from the University of Arkansas which included archaeologist, Dr. Jodi Barnes. There are many interesting aspects of this family that are insightful to life in the Antebellum South and their homes in Kentucky and Arkansas.

The economics of this family was driven by the increased demand for cotton that gave highly lucrative returns on investments. The textile industry in Great Britain was at an all-time high by the mid-19th century with 75% of the cotton produced coming from the southern cotton fields in the United States. Increased output in the South was pushed by several factors such as the invention of the cotton gin, new cultivars of the cotton plant, enslaved laborers and cheap land.
The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 separated the seeds from the cotton fiber so less labor was needed to pick out the seeds and could be redirected toward field production. Another aspect of cotton production was new cultivars of the plant. The new cultivars of cotton plants grew higher so that laborers could pick easier and faster, without having to bend down over the plants. The term “high cotton”, often used as referring to the “good life”, came from the enslaved laborers who appreciated the taller cotton plants that were easier to pick.

The cheap land was provided by the federal government through the forced migrations of Native Americans from the South by establishing a systems of reservations west of the Mississippi River. The push for this forced migration came primarily from Andrew Jackson.

Even before Jackson was elected President of the United States in 1828 he had been a major proponent of Indian removal in the southern United States. He had previously led military forces that resulted in acquisition of lands from the Creek Indians in Alabama and Georgia. Jackson’s authorized raids on the Seminole Indians, accused of harboring fugitive slaves, in what is now part of Florida, influenced the sale of the Spanish held 22 million acres to the U. S. Two years after Jackson took office as President he was able to influence Congress to pass the Indian Removal Act of 1830. This act allowed for the government to survey, divide and auction off millions of acres at bottom low prices. Owning a large plantation became a reality for many with little means. The rich delta lands along the fertile soils of the Mississippi Delta cost pennies per acre.

Mary Elizabeth’s stepfather, Peter Gilman Rives (b. 1793 in Virginia) followed land sales and became a land surveyor taking advantage of the government tracts of land available in Arkansas which was still wilderness land until reaching statehood in 1836. Rives was attracted to the rich soils along the Mississippi River in Drew, Desha and Lincoln Counties. This included the world’s longest bayou, Bayou Bartholomew that ran parallel to the Mississippi River. The Bayou, stretching 364 miles, became the most the important inland stream in the interior Delta until the advent of the railroad. Cotton and timber could be easily transported to the Mississippi River to the markets in New Orleans.

Rives patented large parcels of land through partnerships such as his association with the American Land Company. He cleared a parcel of land and built a small log cabin where he could operate from and farm. By the time Arkansas became a state, Rives built a comfortable home on the Mississippi River and married the twice widowed Martha Goodloe Robertson Arnold who was Mary Elizabeth Taylor’s mother. Through this association, Mary Elizabeth and her husband, John Martin Taylor, bought their initial acreage for their cotton plantation. By that time, the cotton boon was in full force.

The Taylor’s “Hollywood” home became the center of their cotton operation. Among some of the outbuildings that have been documented include a cotton gin, log stable, outdoor kitchen, barns and a large smokehouse. A small cemetery close to the house includes John Martin’s grave and some family members.

The Taylors used enslaved labor for their cotton operation in Arkansas as well as their 600 acre farm operation in Kentucky. The 1860 Census records of slave schedules for John Martin Taylor from Drew and Desha County in Arkansas indicate listings for 184 slaves. In Oldham County in Kentucky, tax census, at the same period, show the Taylors listed a total of 23 slaves, 8 over the age of 16 years with a total value of $8,050. Associations of their enslaved labor force between their two homes in Arkansas and Kentucky highlights the enterprise of the internal slave trade.

Next Week: Continues with interviews, research and stories about the Taylors and their associations.

You can contact Nancy at nancystheiss@gmail.com