The best books on plantation life in the Antebellum South (Colonial and early federal America)

Who am I?

Lori Benton is an award-winning, multi-published author of historical novels set during 18th century North America. Her literary passion is bringing little-known historical events to life through the eyes of those who lived it, either set along the Appalachian frontier, where European and Native American cultures collided, or amidst the conflict-laden setting of the southern plantation. Her novel, Mountain Laurel, begins an epic family saga that immerses readers in 1790s North Carolina plantation life and the moral dilemmas created by the evils of slavery.

I wrote...

Mountain Laurel

By Lori Benton,

Book cover of Mountain Laurel

What is my book about?

Ian Cameron, a Boston cabinetmaker turned frontier trapper, has come to Mountain Laurel hoping to remake himself yet again--into his planter uncle's heir. No matter how uneasily the role of slave owner rests upon his shoulders. Then he meets Seona--beautiful, artistic, and enslaved to his kin.

Seona has a secret: she's been drawing for years, ever since that day she picked up a broken slate to sketch a portrait. When Ian catches her at it, he offers her opportunity to let her talent flourish, still secretly, in his cabinetmaking shop. Taking a frightening leap of faith, Seona puts her trust in Ian. A trust that leads to a deeper, more complicated bond.

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The books I picked & why

Life on a Plantation

By Bobbie Kalman,

Book cover of Life on a Plantation

Why did I love this book?

When I begin researching a new historical subject I usually turn first to children’s books for a quick, broad overview. For Southern USA plantation life, Kalman’s book, part of the Historic Communities series, is a perfect introduction to the subject of southern plantations, with splendidly detailed drawings of homes and outbuildings, a glossary of terms, and many photographs from the latter decades before emancipation. Its focus is split between the planters’ lives and the lives of those they enslaved, introducing readers to every facet of this setting and the challenges faced by those who lived there. A great springboard into the subject for homeschooling.

By Bobbie Kalman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Life on a Plantation as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Describes the plantations that existed in the southern United States into the nineteenth century, examining what life was like for the owners of these large farming communities, their children, and the slaves.

Book cover of Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery

Why did I love this book?

Though it was wealthy white planters who built plantations, the enslaved people who worked them imbued these landscapes with their own meanings. With over 200 photographs and drawings of Antebellum plantations, Vlach leads readers on a tour of plantation outbuildings, providing examples of how slaves used these spaces despite—and in defiance of—their masters’ intentions. Testimonies of former slaves (drawn from the Federal Writers’ Project collection) give the reader a sense of what it was like to live and work in these settings.

By John Michael Vlach,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Back of the Big House as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Behind the ""Big Houses"" of the antebellum South existed a different world, socially and architecturally, where slaves lived and worked. John Michael Vlach explores the structures and spaces that formed the slaves' environment. Through photographs and the words of former slaves, he portrays the plantation landscape from the slaves' own point of view. The plantation landscape was chiefly the creation of slaveholders, but Vlach argues convincingly that slaves imbued this landscape with their own meanings. Their subtle acts of appropriation constituted one of the more effective strategies of slave resistance and one that provided a locus for the formation of…

Book cover of Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South

Why did I love this book?

This extensive and prize-winning narrative of Southern women’s daily existence in the antebellum era covers all the bases on this subject. With the following chapter titles, how could it not? Southern Women, Southern Households; The View from the Big House; Between Big House and Slave Community; Gender Conventions; Women Who Opposed Slavery; And Women Who Did Not. A must-read for anyone wishing to delve into the subject of women’s lives in the antebellum south.

By Elizabeth Fox-Genovese,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Within the Plantation Household as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Documenting the difficult class relations between women slaveholders and slave women, this study shows how class and race as well as gender shaped women's experiences and determined their identities. Drawing upon massive research in diaries, letters, memoirs, and oral histories, the author argues that the lives of antebellum southern women, enslaved and free, differed fundamentally from those of northern women and that it is not possible to understand antebellum southern women by applying models derived from New England sources. |A powerful historical study in which the author's use of letters, memoirs, oral histories, as well as extensive archival sources bring…

Book cover of Women's Life and Work in the Southern Colonies

Why did I love this book?

A classic work on the social history of women in the colonial south (originally published in 1938), this book examines the daily lives of 17th and 18th century American women, how they “lived and worked and passed their time; what they ate and what they read; how courtships were conducted, who married whom, and the perils and joys of married life.” Spruill drew extensively from colonial manuscripts, court records, and newspapers for firsthand accounts, because in 1938 there were few (if any) works of this sort to draw from. In my research for novels I try to find a source like this on a given subject written by someone more than a generation before me. It helps give the subject a balanced view. Spruill’s is the book of this sort I choose for this subject.

By Julia Cherry Spruill,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Women's Life and Work in the Southern Colonies as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Out of a wealth of documentation, and often from the words of the people themselves, Spruill's account brings these women's lives out of the shadows-opening a usable past that was not there before.

In the words of Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., it is "an important contribution to social history to which students will constantly turn."

Book cover of The Plantation Mistress: Woman's World in the Old South

Why did I love this book?

Another in-depth examination of the topic, this book focuses on the fifty-five years following the Revolutionary War, exploring the swift and sweeping changes in American society during this early Federal period and how they influenced the daily lives of planters’ wives. Clinton drew on hundreds of memoirs, diaries, and women’s letters to explore the issue of gender in antebellum Southern culture. This book makes a good follow up to Spruill’s work on the lives of Southern colonial era women.

By Catherine Clinton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Plantation Mistress as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This pioneering study of the much-mythologized Southern belle offers the first serious look at the lives of white women and their harsh and restricted place in the slave society before the Civil War. Drawing on the diaries, letters, and memoirs of hundreds of planter wives and daughters, Clinton sets before us in vivid detail the daily life of the plantation mistress and her ambiguous intermediary position in the hierarchy between slave and master.

"The Plantation Mistress challenges and reinterprets a host of issues related to the Old South. The result is a book that forces us to rethink some of…

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Interested in the Antebellum South, plantations, and the South?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Antebellum South, plantations, and the South.

The Antebellum South Explore 16 books about the Antebellum South
Plantations Explore 27 books about plantations
The South Explore 167 books about the South