An individual who owned a plantation was known as a planter. Historians of the antebellum South have generally defined "planter" most precisely as a person owning property (real estate) and 20 or more slaves. The wealthiest planters, such as the Virginia elite with plantations near the James River, owned more land and slaves than other farmers. Tobacco was the major cash crop in the Upper South (in the original Chesapeake Bay Colonies of Virginia and Maryland, and in parts of the Carolinas).
The later development of cotton and sugar cultivation in the Deep South in the early 18th century led to the establishment of large plantations which had hundreds of slaves. The great majority of Southern farmers owned no slaves or owned fewer than five slaves. Slaves were much more expensive than land.
In the "Black Belt" counties of Alabama and Mississippi, the terms "planter" and "farmer" were often synonymous; a "planter" was generally a farmer who owned many slaves. While most Southerners were not slave-owners, and while the majority of slaveholders held ten or fewer slaves, planters were those who held a significant number of slaves, mostly as agricultural labor. Planters are often spoken of as belonging to the planter elite or to the planter aristocracy in the antebellum South.
The historians Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman define large planters as those owning over 50 slaves, and medium planters as those owning between 16 and 50 slaves. Historian David Williams, in A People's History of the Civil War: Struggles for the Meaning of Freedom, suggests that the minimum requirement for planter status was twenty negroes, especially since a southern planter could exempt Confederate duty for one white male per twenty slaves owned. In his study of Black Belt counties in Alabama, Jonathan Weiner defines planters by ownership of real property, rather than of slaves. A planter, for Weiner, owned at least $10,000 worth of real estate in 1850 and $32,000 worth in 1860, equivalent to about the top 8 percent of landowners. In his study of southwest Georgia, Lee Formwalt defines planters in terms of size of land holdings rather than in terms of numbers of slaves. Formwalt's planters are in the top 4.5 percent of landowners, translating into real estate worth six thousand dollars or more in 1850, 24,000 dollars or more in 1860, and eleven thousand dollars or more in 1870. In his study of Harrison County, Texas, Randolph B. Campbell classifies large planters as owners of 20 slaves, and small planters as owners of between 10 and 19 slaves. In Chicot and Phillips Counties, Arkansas, Carl H. Moneyhon defines large planters as owners of twenty or more slaves, and of six hundred or more acres.
Many nostalgic memoirs about plantation life were published in the post-bellum South. For example, James Battle Avirett, who grew up on the Avirett-Stephens Plantation in Onslow County, North Carolina and served as an Episcopal chaplain in the Confederate States Army, published The Old Plantation: How We Lived in Great House and Cabin before the War in 1901. Such memoirs often included descriptions of Christmas as the epitome of anti-modern order exemplified by the "great house" and extended family.