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Economic Activities of the Southern Colonies

Before the Declaration of Independence in 1776, America consisted of multiple colonies with differing religious perspectives, forms of land ownership, and economic activities. For instance, what were the main economic activities of the Southern colonies?

The main economic activities of the Southern colonies were agriculture-based. The colonies had ample land, which they used for cash crops like rice, tobacco, and indigo. However, the labor-intensive nature of these crops meant that slave and indentured servant labor became a common factor in the success of these farms and plantations.

The Southern colonies had a multitude of economic activities. To learn more about their success and problematic past, keep reading.

Main Economic Activities of the Southern Colonies

The Southern colonies consisted of what are now the five states of Virginia, Maryland, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia. Due to the geography of the land and the climate, the colonies were ideal for agriculture, which was their main economic activity.

Among the British colonies in America, the Southern colonies had longer, warmer seasons than the Northern ones, making them a good place for growing crops. 

These crops were in high demand in Great Britain, and farmers grew them as cash crops — crops they grew for sale only. Immigrants from Europe, especially England, rejoiced in the flat land for farming and mild weather, making agriculture a profitable enterprise.


In Virginia, settlers grew tobacco for export. As the main economic activity, tobacco was the primary commodity for almost all trade in the Chesapeake area.

While the native tobacco that settlers found in Virginia was not the most flavorful, the discovery of a milder strain of tobacco became a success and was a standard of tobacco sold in Europe for many years (source).

Virginia developed a large plantation economy, which is an economy based on large agricultural estates.


Maryland was another colony that thrived because of its strong tobacco trade (source). However, it was a time-consuming crop that required significant labor, so Maryland also developed a plantation economy (source).

South Carolina

Rice and indigo were essential for the Carolinas, and rice became important for Georgia as well. After the Colonial Period, Sea Island Cotton would become the major cash crop of the Southern States (source).

The proprietors of Carolina planned the colony around a plantation economy. Initially, the Carolina economy centered on producing food items for the West Indies and naval stores like turpentine and tar. Additionally, animal furs sold well in Europe.

Initial attempts at planting tobacco were not so profitable, mainly because Virginia and Maryland already had such a competitive advantage in the market. Instead, the two main cash crops of South Carolina were rice and indigo.

Livestock farming was a successful secondary economic activity, especially as they could export beef or pork to the Northern colonies.

Charles Town

English settlers founded Charles Town, now known as Charleston, in 1670. King Charles II of England was the inspiration for naming the Carolina colonies (“Carolus” being Latin for Charles), and Charles Town was a more obvious way to honor the king.

The early economy of the town revolved around lumber and deerskin. There were a lot of forests in the area, which made trees and animals easy to find and hunt, respectively. Carolinians sold the timber to make ships, and the deerskin trade took place with Native Americans.

The Native Americans would exchange deerskins and slaves for guns and other manufactured items from the English settlers (source).

Carolinians planted corn and tobacco, but it wasn’t until the introduction of rice in the 1680s that agriculture and the plantation system really took off. The commercial growth of indigo in the 1740s further expanded the plantation economy. Enslaved people from the Caribbean also taught local farmers how to use indigo for dyeing.

North Carolina

North Carolina is widely known for its fertile soil; hence, agriculture was also a major part of its economy. However, compared to the large plantation economy of South Carolina, the North Carolina economy consisted mainly of yeomen farmers — free men who typically owned small farms (source).


Georgia’s farms were also generally small and independent. It was not until the Trustees lifted the ban on slavery that Georgia shifted to a plantation-based economy focused on rice and indigo (source).

After independence, the focus shifted to cotton and tobacco to take advantage of the new markets available to them.

Native Americans

The Native Americans depended mainly on hunting, fishing, and gathering. Other economic activities included farming and mining. Trade between tribes focused on goods such as copper, shells, and stones, and they also traded perishable goods with neighboring tribes.

In addition to hunting and fishing, Native Americans grew corn, beans, and squash, which some tribes traded with the English settlers.

The Virginia settlers first encountered the Algonquian-speaking Powhatan Chiefdom, which depended on hunting, fishing, and farming. The settlers initially established Virginia mainly as a trading colony, so they relied heavily on the Native American population to supply goods and raw materials at first.

The Algonquian people were one of the most widespread tribes in America and included the Chowanoke, Roanoke, and Croaran tribes in North Carolina. The English settlers highly valued their knowledge of the land.

The Iroquoian-speaking Cherokee traded with the settlers in the eastern portions of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and northern Georgia.

The Muskogean-speaking Creek tribe of Georgia would grow and trade corn, beans, and squash. However, as the colonies grew and became more self-sufficient, the need for trade with Native Americans declined.

Initially, the furs they traded with settlers were a highly prized possession, especially in the colder Winter months. However, trade between the English colonists and the Native Americans spread many diseases, decimating the Native American population.

Because of this, Native Americans became increasingly reliant on trade with the colonists.

Agricultural Economy

The agricultural economy was the cornerstone of the success of the Southern colonies. Subsistence farming (farming to live) mainly occurred further inland, and most farmers thrived by selling cash crops.

This led to various agricultural practices, including small-scale farming and large-scale plantations.

Warm Climate

The Southern colonies were lucky enough to have long, hot summers and very mild winters. This weather gave crops the best chance to grow successfully, enabling large farms and plantations to develop.

The climate of South Carolina is noteworthy for its sudden changes in temperature and humidity (source).

Large Plantations

Plantations are essentially large farms, especially in locations with hot climates, where planters focus on a particular crop (source). A plantation is an agricultural estate where, typically, the individuals that work the land live there.

The plantations required dozens or hundreds of workers to run optimally, so they often had the most significant number of enslaved people. Aristocratic farmers owned large plantations, while the lower class farmers worked their own smaller plots of land.

A farmer would typically grow a primary cash crop while growing vegetables like corn, beans, and peas. While the bulk of economic activities in the Southern colonies centered around growing crops, some farmers also raised livestock like pigs, cows, or chickens (source).

A rancher is a farmer devoted to raising livestock, and in South Carolina, black slaves called “cowboys” tended cattle (source).

Slave Labor

The focus on labor-intensive crops like tobacco, indigo, and rice contributed to the rise of slave labor in the Southern colonies (source). English settlers in Virginia initially relied on indentured servants before they purchased African slaves from Dutch traders in 1619.

However, the Spanish were the first to use slave labor in America, bringing slaves San Miguel de Gualdape and Santa Elena into what is now South Carolina in 1526 (source).

The Spanish, Dutch, and English used slave labor from Native Americans, but the transatlantic slave trade provided access to African slaves, making up the majority of enslaved persons.

South Carolina relied the most on slave labor among the Southern colonies, having a majority black slave population by 1708. Unlike Virginia, the proprietors of Carolina intended it to be a slave colony from the beginning (source).

The introduction of Sea Island Cotton and the cotton gin led to a massive expansion of slave labor in the South after 1794. Unfortunately, this also saw an increase in the harsher gang-labor system.

Urban Slaves

Enslaved people that worked in towns and cities primarily worked in the production industry rather than agriculture. They worked as blacksmiths, bricklayers, tailors, and coopers (barrel makers). 

This also led to naming practices over time, with surnames like “Smith,” “Cooper,” “Taylor,” and “Mason” still being common today. Urban slaves generally worked under better conditions than their brethren in the agricultural industry.

Main Crops

Plantation owners usually chose one type of crop that they felt would be most profitable, and that is what they grew. We refer to crops produced only for sale as cash crops.

Cash Crops

The planters of the Southern colonies grew several different cash crops, including tobacco, rice, and indigo. 

The British control over the American economy through a mercantilist system meant they only permitted the colonies to produce raw materials and not finished goods. As a result, farmers would sell their crops in exchange for manufactured goods (source).


Tobacco was introduced to Europe through Christopher Columbus and had a reputation for being medically helpful for various ailments, from toothaches to general pain relief. Virginia and Maryland were best known for growing tobacco (source).

Because so many Europeans believed that tobacco had healing capabilities, the demand for it remained high throughout the existence of the colonies.


The Carolina colonies and Georgia were ideal for growing rice due to their natural wetness and fertility. It was the most important cash crop of the Carolinas. Plantation workers were also able to modify and move streams to flood rice paddies to make them grow stronger.

Rice was also very labor-intensive due to the long and arduous procedure of growing and processing the rice to make it ready for consumption. Nevertheless, the success and wealth of the Lowcountry region of South Carolina owed much to rice.


Indigo was a cash crop planters intended solely for export as a dye the British used for their textile industry. Indigo is a plant from which you can extract a blue dye, and after the 1740s, it quickly became one of South Carolina’s most valuable exports after rice (source).

Natural Resources

The land from Virginia to Georgia was diverse, with lots of different flora and fauna. Many forests provided settlers with plenty of animals to hunt and trees to chop down, the wood being perfect for naval stores to supply harbors. The many navigable rivers also meant plenty of fish and easy access to water for crops.

Most importantly, the rich and fertile farmland made the Southern colonies perfect for agriculture. Their weather was the warmest, and they also had the longest seasons for growing crops.

Fertile soil

The soil in the Southern colonies was very fertile, though some regions contained much sand and clay. Because there were a lot of rivers, marshes, and bays in the area, they naturally fertilized the soil. The Southern colonies also received a lot of rain, which helped grow crops (source). 


Mineral exploration was a small part of the colonial efforts in North Carolina and Virginia. These colonies were rich with minerals like iron and copper, but the early colonial settlers had mixed luck locating them (source). 

Copper was also an important commodity in Native American culture, and many tribes were able to mine copper veins in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. English settlers were able to mine and smelt bog iron by 1609.

Coastal Plains

The Coastal Plains of the Southern colonies were flatlands extending from the Atlantic Ocean to the piedmont regions at the foot of the mountains. 

The earliest settlements like Jamestown and Albemarle were in the coastal plains of Virginia and North Carolina, which gave them easy access to water and fish, both vital for survival as they set down roots.

The coastal plains contained many rivers, floodplains, and swamps. Coastal plain soils tend to be high in sand and clay, but they are still fertile and well-drained. Thus, it was in the coastal plains that most of the plantation agriculture occurred.

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Cultural Regions in Colonial America

The Southern colonies were part of the 13 American colonies. The Northern Colonies included New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, while New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey were the Middle Colonies.

The economic activities of the Northern and Middle colonies were somewhat different. Agriculture was initially a vital part of their economy, but they soon diversified into other economic activities like manufacturing and trade.

The history of the Southern colonies made it a unique part of America. There were many downsides to having such a large enslaved population, including the threat of slave revolts and the effect this system had on morals, work ethic, and family structure.

Compared to the New England colonies with large families and many small farms, the early indentured servants in the Southern colonies were largely single men.

Slavery also brought resentment from yeoman farmers in the South who owned land and had families but could not compete with the profits gained by plantation owners (source).

Read “Economic Activities of the New England Colonies” to learn more about how the Northern Colonies traded and grew and how they changed the course of America’s history.

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The vast number of enslaved people also changed the area’s demographics, changing the languages spoken, the foods eaten, and even the religions practiced in these colonies.

Final Thoughts

The climate and coastal plains of the Southern colonies were integral to their agricultural success. Unfortunately, the development of a plantation economy meant they depended heavily on enslaved persons to make producing tobacco, rice, and indigo profitable.