Relevancy and Engagement

Cotton's American Journey (Grades 6-8)

Grade Level
6 - 8

Students investigate the impact of cotton on the history and culture of the United States. Students will discover the growth and processing requirements for cotton, recognize how the invention of the cotton gin affected slavery, explain how the plantation system was organized, and ultimately understand the role of cotton in the Civil War. Grades 6-8

Estimated Time
3 hours
Materials Needed


Supporting Question 1: Why did plantation owners in the South want slaves?

Supporting Question 2: How did the invention of the cotton gin affect slavery? 

*If you do not have local access to a cotton farm to obtain cotton bolls, the Cotton Boll Kit is available for purchase from

Supporting Question 3: How was the plantation system organized?

Supporting Question 4: What role did cotton play in the Civil War?


boll: the part of a cotton plant that contains the seeds; the pod or capsule of some plants, such as cotton and flax

gin: to separate cotton fiber from seeds and waste material

Did You Know?
  • Cotton has been cultivated and used to make fabrics for at least 7,000 years.1
  • Today, US cotton is entirely machine harvested.1
  • Some of today's high-capacity gins can turn out as much as 30,000 pounds of clean, cotton fiber in one hour.1
Background Agricultural Connections

Cotton's American Journey uses the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework's Inquiry Arc as a blueprint to lead students through an investigation of the impact of cotton on the history and culture of the United States. The Inquiry Arc consists of four dimensions of informed inquiry in social studies:

  1. Developing questions and planning inquiries;
  2. Applying disciplinary concepts and tools;
  3. Evaluating sources and using evidence;
  4. Communicating conclusions and taking informed action.

The four dimensions of the C3 Framework center on the use of questions to spark curiosity, guide instruction, deepen investigations, acquire rigorous content, and apply knowledge and ideas in real world settings to become active and engaged citizens in the 21st century.For more information about the C3 Framework, visit

C3 Table- Cotton's American Journey (Grades 6-8)

Cotton and Slavery

It’s common knowledge that slavery was a source of conflict between the North and South leading up to the Civil War. But why did the South want or need slaves? Cotton. By examining this important crop, your students will learn how cotton influenced the slave trade, slave culture, economic policies, the Civil War, and the industrial revolution.

Cotton picking was a job given to healthy, adult slaves. These slaves handpicked cotton in the fields all day. Then by candlelight, they would join the elderly, infirm, or children to gin the cotton by hand. Ginning cotton means removing the lint or fiber from the seed. The more lint one removed from the seed, the more profit could be made from each boll. It would have been important for slaves to remove as much lint as possible from each seed. Your students may find anywhere from fourteen to forty-two seeds per boll, as did the slaves. A slave could gin approximately one pound of cotton a day, or about 120 cotton bolls. After completing the following classroom activity, your students will be able to determine how many bolls of cotton they would need to make one pair of jeans.

Eli Whitney is generally credited with the invention of the cotton gin. His idea for this machine came while he was watching a cat try to catch a chicken in the barnyard. The cat’s unsuccessful attempt left him with a claw full of feathers and no chicken (more details about Eli Whitney’s machine can be found in the book Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond). Whitney decided to try a similar approach with cotton, creating a gin operated by hand-crank that would rake the seeds from the fiber. In 1794, his machine was patented, revolutionizing the production of cotton. One slave could now gin fifty pounds of cotton per day. Did this mean plantation owners needed fewer slaves? No, but it did make cotton a more profitable crop because less time was required for ginning. Plantation owners now wanted more slaves to grow more cotton.

Cotton production increased across the South following the invention of the cotton gin. At the same time, factories that could process cotton were being built across the north. Unlike wool, which is a very long and scale-like fiber, cotton is a short and smooth fiber. These physical differences make wool easier to spin into thread than cotton, either by hand or by machine. Spinning cotton by hand is time consuming and difficult. Wool, and to some extent linen, was the fabric of choice until machine technology made the production of cotton thread viable. Cotton production in the South was only economical or possible with the manufacturing industry of the North. The Southern economy had virtually no manufacturing and was based solely on production.

Cotton requires a long, warm growing season, meaning it cannot be grown in colder, northern climates. Today, cotton is grown across the southern United States from Virginia to California. Cotton also requires ample water but grows well in the arid southwest with modern irrigation technology. California is well-known for their America Pima cotton, which produces a finer, more expensive fiber than the more common American Upland cotton. Cotton gins are now very large machines that work much faster than Eli Whitney’s simple machine. What happens to all the cottonseed after it is ginned? Most of those fuzzy seeds are fed to dairy cattle or processed into cottonseed oil, which can be found in nearly every kind of snack food, including chocolate candy bars.


Compelling Question: How did cotton impact the history and culture of the United States?

  1. Tell students that the most commonly used phrase describing growth of the American economy in the 1830s and 1840s was "Cotton is King." Explain that cotton textiles were one of the first industrially-produced products world-wide. Three quarters of the world's cotton came from the American South.
  2. To begin to understand the process of growing cotton, inform students that you will be watching a short video clip about modern cotton production. Watch the segment from America's HeartlandCalifornia Cotton Harvest. As students watch the video clip, have them take note of what they would NOT have had in the 1800s for the process of growing and processing cotton. 
  3. Have students share their observations from the video of what we have today in cotton farming compared to what they likely had back in the 1800s. (Technology such as tractors, machinery, and highly sophisticated harvesting and processing machines.)
  4. Ask how cotton plantation owners accomplished the tasks that are now performed by machines.
  5. On the board display the question, "How did cotton impact the history and culture of the United States?" Explain to the students that they will be investigating this question.
Explore and Explain

Supporting Question 1: Why did plantation owners in the South want slaves?

Teacher Preparation: Find a local source for cotton bolls or order the Cotton Boll Kit from Note that the cotton in this kit has a longer fiber than the cotton harvested in the 1800s. Each cotton boll contains 4-5 sections of fiber. When hand ginning cotton, each student can remove the seeds from an entire cotton boll or one section.

  1. Provide each student with a copy of the Paul Smith, Ex-Slave Federal Writer's Project excerpt.
  2. Explain to the students that Paul Smith had been a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia when he was a child. When he was 74 years old, Mr. Smith was interviewed about his experiences as a slave.
  3. Read the excerpt to the class: 

    Us chillun sho did lak to see 'em run dat old gin, 'cause 'fore dey ever had a gin Marster used to make us pick a shoe-full of cotton seeds out evvy night 'fore us went to bed. Now dat don't sound so bad, Missy, but did you ever try to pick any seeds out of cotton?
  4. Ask the students if they have ever picked seeds out of cotton. Clarify that cotton, a common fabric for our clothing, comes from a plant. When the cotton is harvested, the cotton seeds have to be separated from the cotton fiber through a process called ginning. Let the students know that they will have the opportunity, if they would like, to experience first-hand the task of hand ginning cotton.
  5. Ask the students, "Why did plantation owners in the South want slaves?" After listening to the student ideas, use the following points to discuss how cotton was grown and harvested in the 1800s:
    • The cotton plant grows in climates with long, hot, dry summers.
      • Note: As the lesson progresses, students should recognize that cotton was only grown in the South. Northern climates are not suitable for cotton farming.
    • Cottonseed is typically planted in April when the soil is warm enough for the seeds to germinate.
    • Cotton fields need to be kept free from weeds, insects, and disease.
    • A healthy plant will flower, turning yellow-white and then red. When the flower dies, it leaves a boll which bursts open exposing the cotton to dry in the sun.
    • Cotton is fully mature and ready for harvesting approximately 160 days after it is planted.
    • After being picked, cotton bolls need to be ginned to remove the seeds from the cotton fibers.
  6. Project the Cotton Field Image onto a large screen. Give each student or group of students a cotton boll. Have the students examine the dry, woody stem of the cotton boll. Explain to the students that the sharp plant material makes it painful to pick cotton bolls by hand.
  7. Go through the Mapping History Module The Spread of Cotton and of Slavery 1790-1860. Point out that as more cotton was planted, more labor was needed to grow and harvest the cotton.
  8. Revisit the question, "Why did plantation owners in the South want slaves?" (Producing cotton required a lot of labor. Southern plantation owners believed that the path to wealth and opportunity was owning land and having slaves to work the land. Plantations were characterized by social and political inequality and the exploitation of slave labor.2)

Supporting Question 2: How did the invention of the cotton gin affect slavery?


The purpose of this activity is to investigate cotton, the process of hand ginning cotton, and the impacts of the cotton gin. Adjusting this investigation into a role-play or simulation of a slave activity is absolutely discouraged. In addition, no student should be required to participate in hand ginning cotton. We recommend consulting your administrator and/or communicating with parents prior to presenting this lesson. You may want to consider hand ginning cotton as a teacher demonstration if you anticipate tension or uncomfortable feelings from your students. For more information concerning teaching about the history of African Enslavement, refer to research conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center Teaching Hard History: American Slavery.

  1. Discuss the following points about cotton and slavery:
    • After hand picking cotton in the fields all day, slaves would join the elderly, infirm, and children to gin the cotton by hand.
    • Slaves were required to remove as much lint as possible from each seed. The more fiber removed from the seeds, the more profit could be made from each boll.
    • A slave would typically hand gin about one pound of cotton (about 120 cotton bolls) a day.
  2. Using the cotton bolls from the previous activity, ask the students to predict how many seeds are in each boll. After recording their predictions, allow time for any students who would like to hand gin the cotton.
  3. After ginning, have the students compare their prediction to the actual number of seeds from their cotton boll. Refer back to the excerpt of the Paul Smith interview (from Supporting Question 1 of the lesson). Ask the students to consider the work involved in filling a shoe with ginned cotton seeds.
  4. Have the students weigh the fibers from one boll and compare it to a pair of jeans. A pair of jeans is almost one hundred percent cotton (minus the zipper and buttons).
  5. Ask the students to guess how many cotton bolls are needed to produce a pair of jeans. (approximately 360 bolls)
  6. Read the book Eli Whitney's Cotton Gin by Jessica Gunderson.
  7. While discussing how Eli Whitney's cotton gin worked, show the Animation of Eli Whitney's Cotton Gin. Use the Linking History and Technology handout to provide additional information.
  8. Give each student a copy of the Cotton Gin Diagram. Instruct them to write a description of how Eli Whitney's cotton gin worked on the back of the diagram. Using the cotton and seeds the students ginned, glue the fiber and seeds to the appropriate spots on the diagram.
  9. Ask the students, "How do you think the invention of the cotton gin affected slavery?" After listening to the student ideas, watch the video How Inventions Change History (for better and for worse).
  10. Give each student or small group of students a copy of the Cotton Gin Before and After graphic organizer and cards. Instruct the students to cut out the cards and then decide if each statement is descriptive of the time before the invention of the cotton gin or after. Have the students place the cards in the appropriate section of the graphic organizer and check their work.
  11. Revisit the question, "How did the invention of the cotton gin affect slavery?" (The cotton gin made cotton more profitable and farmers in the South began to grow more cotton. Growing more cotton meant an increased demand for slaves.)

Supporting Question 3: How was the plantation system organized?

  1. Ask students to define the word, plantation. As you discuss, ask guiding questions to stimulate thought. Examples include:
    • What kind of buildings would you see on a plantation?
    • Who lived on plantations?
    • What did they grow?
    • Who performed the labor?
    • What kind of labor was necessary to perform?
  2. Give each student one copy of the Plantation System doodle notes. Instruct them to take notes as you continue your discussion.
  3. Define a plantation as an estate on which cash crops such as coffee, sugar, cotton, or tobacco were cultivated by resident labor. Clarify that a cash crop is a crop produced for its commercial value rather than for use by the grower. 
  4. Continue describing the plantation system and encouraging students to continue adding to their doodle notes with the following resources:
  5. Summarize and share answers to the question, "How was the plantation system organized?"

Supporting Question 4: What role did cotton play in the Civil War?

  1. Ask the students, "What role did cotton play in the Civil War?" After listening to the student ideas, show the US Secession Map. Explain that the Civil War began on April 12, 1861 and was fought between the Union (the Northern states) and the Confederates (the Southern states that seceded from the United States).
  2. Ask the students, "What was the central cause of the Civil War?" After listening to the student ideas, organize the class into small groups. Assign each group one of three topics about events leading up to the Civil War—The Tariff of 1828, Westward Expansion, and the Election of 1860. Provide each group with the Civil War Topic Page for their assigned topic.
  3. Have the groups read through the information, click on the QR codes for more information, and discuss their topic. Civil War Topic QR Code URLs:
  4. Bring the whole class back together. Ask the students, "What issue was central to each of the topics?" (Slavery) Revisit the question, "What was the central cause of the Civil War?" (Slavery)
  5. Project the Slave Advertisement and Cotton Plantation primary sources onto a large screen and examine each primary source.
  6. Use the following talking points to lead a discussion about the main cause of the Civil War—slavery:
    • The North and South had very different opinions about slavery.
    • In 1860, there were almost 4 million slaves in the South.
    • Slavery existed for a time in the North.
    • By the 1800s, there were very few slaves in the North.
    • Many in the North opposed slavery and even helped runaway slaves escape from the South.
    • Agriculture in the South, especially the production of cotton, relied heavily on the use of slaves.
    • Many people in the South felt that they would be financially ruined if the right to own slaves was taken away from them.
    • The Confederate states went to war to preserve the institution of slavery.
    • The Northern states went to war to preserve the United States as a whole unit.
  7. Revisit the question, "What role did cotton play in the Civil War?" (The cotton industry was the greatest contributor to the Southern economy. The South depended on slave labor for the production of cotton. The Confederate states went to war to preserve the institution of slavery. Slavery was the central cause of the Civil War.)

Summative Performance Task 

Using evidence from historical sources, construct an argument (e.g., essay, project, video production, portfolio, detailed outline, poster) that addresses the compelling question, "How did cotton impact the history and culture of the United States?"

  • Taking Informed Action

    • Understand: Create a list of currently available consumer products that might be produced through inhumane means.
    • Assess: Choose one product of focus and determine the inhumane practices used to produce the items.
    • Act: In small groups, create a public awareness campaign to raise awareness of the inhumane production practices of the chosen product.
  • Watch the How It's Made episode, How Cotton is Processed in Factories

  • Visit the Interactive Map Project website and view the map representing Cotton Production in the United States. Identify the state that produces the most cotton, then find where your state ranks for cotton production. Many states do not produce cotton. Based upon the map, what climate does cotton grow best in? 

  • Share the slide show Cotton: From Field to Fabric in Forty Frames, which describes the major steps of modern cotton production and processing.

  • Read Working Cotton by Sherley Anne Williams. The African American dialect used in the book can provide language arts integration by stimulating discussion of regional dialects and cultural differences. Other resources to share may include the book Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor or the video Cotton, the Perennial Patriot.


Statistics and graphics from the National Cotton Council's Cotton Counts educational materials.

Paul Smith, Ex-Slave Federal Writer's Project full interview

Debra Spielmaker, Rose Judd-Murray, Lynn Wallin, Andrea Gardner
Utah Agriculture in the Classroom and National Center for Agricultural Literacy
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