THE DELTA 321 Mississippi’s statehood. Small river towns came and went in the antebellum period. Slave owners and slaves made up nearly all members of this frontier society. The Delta’s great agricultural productivity had been only partially realized as thousands upon thousands of acres of land and forest remained to be drained, cut, and put to use for growing cotton. Then, the railroads came. Railroads not only shaped the Delta’s economy and society, but they also proved to be exciting. Delta residents marveled at the size and power of trains rushing across cleared Delta lands. The arrival of tracks and bustling locomotives transformed the Delta into a growing cotton kingdom with vibrant towns and an increasing sense of the modern life that took hold throughout much of post-Reconstruction America. Writers and boosters in southern cities like Atlanta and Nashville talked extensively about a “new” South emerging after the trauma of the Civil War. The Delta contained no Atlanta or Nashville, but it was certainly caught up in the powerful changes sweeping the post–Civil War South. Sharecropping Neither slavery’s death nor the Reconstruction amendments, however, led to King Cotton’s demise. In fact, the tumultuous years of war and reconstruction caused Delta planters to see cotton as a regional savior like never before. Once the war ended, landowners’primary concern was getting the cotton crop planted and cultivated. Delta farmers looked to King Cotton to bring the region out of the depths of economic despair. The chief concern of landowners, not surprisingly, was how to get the labor required to complete the tasks of cotton agriculture since slave labor was no longer available. Planters came to realize that they must engage in some form of negotiation with their former bondmen. Meanwhile, freed people yearned to own land. African Americans in the Delta were people of the soil. They knew the land; they worked it, and they now wanted it to be their own. The federal government, however, never launched a coordinated plan of land redistribution to former slaves, so African Americans seeking work had to negotiate individually with their old masters. Planters bankrupted by the war lacked access to cash, so payment in wages was out of the question. With planters seeking workers and freed people desiring a way to control their labor and own land in the future, the system of sharecropping emerged. Under this arrangement, the landowner provided a portion of the crop, usually between one-third and one-half, to the laborer known as a sharecropper. At the beginning of this contractual relationship, planters provided seed, tools, and housing to the sharecropper and his family. Planters and freed people understood sharecropping to be the best possible bargain during an uncertain time for the Delta’s agricultural economy. As time went on, though, sharecropping deteriorated into an exploitative system reaping considerable benefits for the landowners at the expense of the sharecroppers. By the turn of the twentieth century, sharecropping had become synonymous with debt and poverty among African Americans and a number of poor whites in the Delta. Transportation Water had long been the Delta’s chief source of transportation. The Mississippi River was the key outlet for travel and commerce in the Delta before and after 1817. Inland waterways such as Deer Creek and the Yazoo and Sunflower rivers connected early Delta residents to the vast world along the Mississippi River. The smaller tributaries often posed problems for shipping. Trees frequently blocked river paths, and overhanging tree branches made the use of large steamers a real challenge on the shallow, internal Delta waterways. Post-war, railroads were poised to make travel easier and cheaper. During the 1870s, Delta planters pooled together resources to build smaller, single-track lines covering approximately fifty to seventy miles. In the 1880s, railroad entrepreneur Collis P. Huntington sought to build a track to link Memphis to New Orleans and run through the heart of the Delta. Huntington’s company purchased more than 700,000 acres to give his railroad company the right- of-way to lay track. By 1886, Huntington’s Louisville, New Orleans, and Texas (LNO&T) Railroad traversed the Delta flatlands with cotton, other agricultural crops, and people. Major plantations had their own stops along the LNO&T, which was later renamed the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad as part of the Illinois Central rail system. As a result of this new wave of farmers, cotton production soared in the late nineteenth century. Although the cotton market never lost its volatility, cotton plantations brought in profits that the earliest Delta settlers could not have dreamed of realizing before the Civil War.