When Cotton Was King In Richmond County

The Early Days

John Abraham Collet, famous for his 1770 map of North Carolina, described the agriculture and sustenance of the Anson County area in a 1769 promotional essay. “The soil is rich, fruitful and fit for every production such as Indian corn, wheat, barley, peas, oats, etc.,” the wrote. One of the products enumerated by Collet was cotton, the full potential of which would be realized by planter Henry W. Harrington, Sr. at the end of the century.

Harrington moved to what would become Richmond County from South Carolina in 1776, (Richmond from Anson in 1779) and commenced the cultivation of indigo using slave labor (he owned 60 slaves in 1790). By 1801 he had purchased a cotton gin. For the next 60 years slave labor and cotton plantations grew ever more common, and Richmond became one of the wealthiest counties in North Carolina. Richmond was the state’s third largest producer of cotton in 1850. The census of that year shows 4,704 slaves and 225 free blacks; 4,889 whites

Prior to the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793, the task of removing the seed from cotton kept it a minor crop, raised only for local use in weaving cloth for clothing. The cotton gin changed that. It could do the separation as fast as ten men.


Harrington not only was quick to turn to cotton as a major money crop, he was responsible for others, such as Thomas little, to learn the trade. Little was a supervisor for Harrington, but left in 1846 to develop his own plantation, acquiring more than 2,000 acres in Richmond County west of Hurricane, now Ellerbe.

A portrait of Thomas Little has been donated to the Historical Society. Thomas, with the help of his son John Phillips Little, became one of the region’s wealthiest cotton planters. His plantation contained 18 slave houses for his 69 slaves. The plantation had a store and a grist mill, the mill giving the community its name of Little’s Mill. The plantation house still stands..

In 1790 Richmond County listed 585 slaves. By 1860, the number had jumped to 4,870, very close to the total white population.

In 1850, Richmond County was the third largest producer of cotton in North Carolina.

After The Civil War

The end of the Civil War brought drastic changes in Richmond County cotton agriculture. Cotton was still being grown and those with gin mills, such as the Little family, were able to bring in some income.

The loss of slave labor following the Civil War brought changes to the growing and harvesting of cotton in Richmond County. Introduced was tenant farming, also called share cropper farming. Land owners would sometimes hire workers for their cotton farms, depending on the price cotton was bringing. If the price dropped below a certain point, the land owners would, in effect, “rent” their land.

Cotton quickly regained its economic importance in Richmond County due to two developments: The expansion of railroads and the growth of cotton textile mills. The textile mills provided a ready market for cotton. The railroads opened new markets, often in distant places.

A feature story in the March 30, 1898 issue of the Charlotte Observer gives a graphic picture of the importance of cotton in Richmond County following the Civil War. The article, written by H. E. C. “Red Buck” Bryant begins by stating:

“Richmond County has some of the finest cotton farms in the World. The plantations are not as large as before the War, but they produce much more cotton.”


Harrington Plantation

Over a century ago, Gen Henry William Harrington established the old Harrington estate in Wolf Pit township. Afterwards, his son. Col. Henry William Harrington, added to the estate and, at his death in 1868, the land measured over 13,000 acres.”

“From his immense landed estate he (each year) grew from 60 to 125 bales of cotton, each bale weighing 375 pounds. His largest annual crop was 125 bales.”

“Today, that is quite a different story. The plantation that in 1868 yielded but 125 bales of cotton, weighing but 375 pounds each, last year (1897) produced 2,290 bales weighing 500 pounds each.”

“(Col. Harrington’s lands) are now owned by many people. They are divided as follows: Harrington, Rodges and Diggs, 1,775 acres; Mrs. J. K. Diggs, 1,705 acres; Crosland and Everett, 7,476 acres; Dr. J. H. Williamson, 1,400 acres; Mr. Henry Clay Wall, 1,300 acres, a total of 13,655 acres.”

“A year or two ago, Mr. Henry Clay Wall, of Rockingham, bought 1,300 acres of the Harrington estate for $15,000.(Note: In 2010 values, the $15,000 would equal $381,701.91). In 1897 he worked a 21 horse farm in cotton and made 292 bales of 500 pounds each. For the crop of cotton he received $8,000.”

“Nineteen years ago Messrs. Crosland and Everett bought over a thousand acres of the Harrington lands. They farm in a business like-way. There is method in their work. When prices are high, they work wage hands; when low, (share) croppers. The size of the farms varies from one to five horse, the two horse croppers being the most numerous. These croppers are allowed $10 per horse for seven months of the year in the way of supplies. During cotton picking season they ar paid $4.50 in cash per bale for gathering.”

“These gentlemen have been successful. They have made money. Look at the contrast: the plantation that produced but 4,875 pounds of lint cotton in 1868 in 1877 produced 1,145,000 pounds.”

Note: For 2,500 acres owned by Crosland and Everett, 450 tons of fertilizer were applied.. The fertilizer was a mixture of cotton seed meal, nitrogen, potash, lot and stable manure.

In 1880, Richmond ranked sixth in the state for the amount of cotton grown.

In 1890, Richmond had ten textile mills with a total of 62,608 spindles and 1,651 looms. It was outranked only by the counties of Durham, Gaston, Mecklenburg, Rutherford, Alamance and Cabarrus,

Covington Cotton Office

T. Covington Company cotton firm was started in 1875 in a frame building on the northwest corner of the old (1840?) courthouse. The founders were James H. Covington, born Sept. 25, 1844 died Feb. 7, 1931 and his brother

William Covington was born July 18, 1846 and died Nov. 23, 1931 The third partner was John Watson. The two Covingtons soon bought out the Watson interest.. The big fire of 1887 destroyed the Covington frame building. In 1888, the Covingtons erected a brick one-story cotton building, with bricks made between the office and Hitchcock Creek.

The Covingtons bought cotton from the wagons of farmers. Until automobiles took the day, around World War One, there could be seen a line of cotton wagons extending half a mile, waiting for the Covingtons to buy.

Upon the death of the two original Covingtons, their nephews took charge. James H Covington Jr., Stansill Covington and Walter Steele Covington, all first cousins. In 1959, James and Walter were still carrying on the original firm name and business.

E. Vuncannon in Ellerbe


In 1910, Richmond County farmers had 22,000 acres of cotton planted, ranking 20th in the state.


  1. E. Vuncannon began an agricultural complex in Ellerbe in 1919. It included a corn mill, roller mill and a cotton gin. He also had cotton warehouses for the storage of cotton waiting for better prices. His cotton gin was steam powered at first. Later it was converted to diesel power. In the 1930s a second, electric powered gin was installed.


In 1924, over 50,000 acres of cotton were planted—12th in the state. Falling cotton prices and boll weevil infestation hurt cotton growing in 1922.


In 1926 there were 23,984 bales of cotton produced. By 1932 the crop dropped to 6,128 bales. By 1939, the number of bales dropped to 4,000. While peaches thrived, cotton production was in decline during the Great Depression, the boll weevil being a major factor.


In 2009, farmers had 4,784 acres in cotton, 2,243 in corn, wheat, soy beans, vegetables and orchards.


-Neal Cadieu