Processing Sugar Cane in Antebellum Texas

Colonists who arrived in Texas with Stephen F. Austin began producing sugar to serve their needs in the 1820s. The acreage dedicated to sugar cane production and the amount produced continued to grow through the 1840s. In that decade, the first attempts at commercially producing sugar began. Advances in technology and farming practices throughout the decade increased crop return. In 1848, during this rapid growth in sugar production, Levi Jordan acquired his 2,222-acre plantation. In 1852, the state of Texas saw its antebellum peak of sugar growth reach more than 11,000 hogsheads. Brazoria County, where Levi Jordan Plantation is located, produced 75 percent of this total.

Antebellum sugar was generally considered to be of low quality and was primarily sold in its unrefined form throughout southern markets. Jordan built the largest sugar mill in Brazoria County to process his cane and the cane of neighboring planters.

Early production techniques involved using animal power to drive a roller mill and crush the cane. Extracted juices were heated, clarified, and evaporated in a series of sugar kettles (often of decreasing sizes) that were typically seated in a brick frame over a furnace or heat source. Lime was used to clarify the cane juice, and impurities that were cooked out were skimmed off the product. Once syrup was formed from the evaporation of juices, the sugar-making specialist would determine when sugar crystals had formed. This was referred to as a strike. The concentrated syrup was then staged in shallow wooden tanks for cooling. Often, visitors to Southern plantation sugarhouses or mills would be offered “hot punch” to drink—a product of partially boiled cane juice mixed with liquor. After slavery was abolished, sugar cane was largely abandoned as a commercial venture because of the intensive labor commitment required.