Monday, November 2, 2020

Virginia Agriculture before The Revolution

George Washington as Farmer by Junius Brutus Stearns. 1851

Virginia Agriculture 

...At the time that George Washington began to farm in earnest eastern Virginia had been settled for one hundred fifty-two years. Yet the population was almost wholly rural. Williamsburg, the capital, was hardly more than a country village, and Norfolk, the metropolis, probably did not contain more than five thousand inhabitants...

A large part of the settled land was divided up into great estates, though there were many small farms. Some of these estates had been acquired for little or nothing by...favorites of the colonial governors. A few were...enormous in size, and this was particularly the rule on the "Northern Neck," the region in which Mount Vernon was situated. The holding of Lord Thomas Fairfax, the early friend and patron of Washington, embraced more than a score of modern counties and contained upward of five million acres. The grant had been made by Fairfax's grandfather, Lord Culpeper, the coproprietor and Governor of Virginia.

The Virginia plantation of 1760 was much more sufficient unto itself than was the same plantation of the next century when methods of communication had improved, articles from the outside world were easier to obtain, and invention was beginning to become "the mother of necessity." Many of the large plantations, in fact, bore no small resemblance to medieval manors. There was the planter himself residing with his family in the mansion, which corresponded to the manor house, and lording it over a crowd of white and black dependents...on the plantation the slave worked under an overseer on his master's crops only and had nothing that he could call his own—not even his wife or children. In the matter of the organization of industries there was a closer resemblance. The planter generally raised the staple articles of food for his family and slaves, as did the lord, and a large proportion of the other articles used or consumed were manufactured on the place. 

A son of George Mason, Washington's close friend and neighbor, has left the following description of industry at Gunston Hall: "My father had among his slaves carpenters, coopers, sawyers, blacksmiths, tanners, curriers, shoemakers, spinners, weavers, and knitters, and even a distiller. His woods furnished timber and plank for the carpenters and coopers, and charcoal for the blacksmith; his cattle killed for his own consumption and for sale, supplied skins for the tanners, curriers, and shoemakers; and his sheep gave wool and his fields produced cotton and flax for the weavers and spinners, and his own orchards fruit for the distillers. His carpenters and sawyers built and kept in repair all the dwelling-houses, barns, stables, ploughs, harrows, gates, eta, on the plantations, and the outhouses of the house. His coopers made the hogsheads the tobacco was prized in, and the tight casks to hold the cider and other liquors. The tanners and curriers, with the proper vats, etc., tanned and dressed the skins as well for upper as for lower leather to the full amount of the consumption of the estate, and the shoemakers made them into shoes for the negroes. A professed shoemaker was hired for three or four months in the year to come and make up the shoes for the white part of the family. The blacksmiths did all the iron work required by the establishment, as making and repairing ploughs, harrows, teeth, chains, bolts, etc. The spinners, weavers, and knitters made all the coarse cloths and stockings used by the negroes, and some of fine texture worn by the white family, nearly all worn by the children of it. The distiller made every fall a good deal of apple, peach, and persimmon brandy. The art of distilling from grain was not then among us, and but few public distilleries. All these operations were carried on at the home house, and their results distributed as occasion required to the different plantations. Moreover, all the beeves and hogs for consumption or sale were driven up and slaughtered there at the proper seasons, and whatever was to be preserved was salted and packed away for distribution."

...a pound of tobacco would often bring in England more than a bushel of wheat, while it cost only a sixtieth part as much to send it thither. It is estimated that prior to the Revolution Virginia often sent out annually as much as ninety-six thousand hogsheads of tobacco. Tobacco took the place of money, and debts, taxes and even ministers' salaries were paid in it.

The disadvantages of tobacco culture are well known. Of all crops it is perhaps the most exhausting to the soil, nor was a large part of Virginia particularly fertile to begin with...

Washington himself described the character of the agriculture..."A piece of land is cut down, and left under constant cultivation, first in tobacco, and then in Indian corn (two very exhausting plants), until it will yield scarcely anything; a second piece is cleared, and treated in the same manner; then a third and so on, until probably there is but little more to clear. When this happens, the owner finds himself reduced to the choice of one of three things—either to recover the land which he has ruined, to accomplish which, he has perhaps neither the skill, the industry, nor the means; or to retire beyond the mountains; or to substitute quantity for quality in order to raise something. The latter has been generally adopted, and, with the assistance of horses, he scratches over much ground, and seeds it, to very little purpose."

The tobacco industry was not only ruinous to the soil, but it was badly organized from a financial standpoint. Three courses were open to the planter who had tobacco. He might sell it to some local mercantile house, but these were not numerous nor as a rule conveniently situated to the general run of planters. He might deposit it in a tobacco warehouse, receiving in return a receipt, which he could sell if he saw fit and could find a purchaser. Or he could send his tobacco direct to an English agent to be sold.

If a great planter and particularly if situated upon navigable water, this last was the course he was apt to follow. He would have his own wharf to which once or twice a year a ship would come bringing the supplies he had ordered months before and taking away the great staple. If brought from a distance, the tobacco was rarely hauled to the wharf in wagons—the roads were too wretched for that—instead it was packed in a great cylindrical hogshead through which an iron or wooden axle was put. Horses or oxen were then hitched to the axle and the hogshead was rolled to its destination.

By the ship that took away his tobacco the planter sent to the English factor a list of the goods he would require for the next year. It was an unsatisfactory way of doing business, for time and distance conspired to put the planter at the factor's mercy. The planter was not only unlikely to obtain a fair price for his product, but he had to pay excessive prices for poor goods and besides could never be certain that his order would be properly filled.

Washington's experiences with his English agents were probably fairly typical. Near the close of 1759 he complained that Thomas Knox of Bristol had failed to send him various things ordered, such as half a dozen scythes and stones, curry combs and brushes, weeding and grubbing hoes, and axes, and that now he must buy them in America at exorbitant prices. Not long afterward he wrote again: "I have recieved my goods from the Recovery, and cant help again complaining of the little care taken in the purchase: Besides leaving out half and the most material half too! of the Articles I sent for, I find the Sein is without Leads, corks and Ropes which renders it useless—the crate of stone ware dont contain a third of the Pieces I am charged with, and only two things broken, and everything very high Charged."

In September of the same year he ordered, among other things, busts of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Charles XII of Sweden, Frederick the Great, Prince Eugene and the Duke of Marlborough; also of two wild beasts. The order was "filled" by sending him a group showing AEneas bearing his father from Troy, two groups with two statues of Bacchus and Flora, two ornamental vases and two "Lyons."

"It is needless for me to particularise the sorts, quality, or taste I woud choose to have them in unless it is observd," Washington wrote a year later to Robert Cary & Company of London apropos of some articles with which he was dissatisfied, "and you may believe me when I tell you that instead of getting things good and fashionable in their several kind, we often have articles sent us that could only have been used by our Forefathers in the days of yore— 'Tis a custom, I have some reason to believe, with many Shop keepers, and Tradesmen in London when they know Goods are bespoke for Transportation to palm sometimes old, and sometimes very slight and indifferent goods upon us taking care at the same time to advance 10, 15, or perhaps 20 pr. Ct. upon them."

To his London shoemaker he wrote, November 30, 1759, that the last two pairs of dog leather pumps scarce lasted twice as many days. To his tailor he complained on another occasion of exorbitant prices. "I shall only refer you generally to the Bills you have sent me, particularly for a Pompadour Suit forwarded last July amounting to £16.3.6 without embroidery, Lace or Binding—not a close fine cloth neither—and only a gold Button that would not stand the least Wear..."

Most Virginia planters got in debt to their agents, and Washington was no exception to the rule. When his agents, Robert Cary & Company, called his attention to the fact, he wrote them, that they seemed in a bit of a hurry considering the extent of past dealings with each other. "Mischance rather than Misconduct hath been the cause of it," he asserted, explaining that he had made large purchases of land, that crops had been poor for three seasons and prices bad. He preferred to let the debt stand, but if the agents insisted upon payment now he would find means to discharge the obligation.

...The planters were by no means so prosperous as is often supposed and neither was their life so splendid as has often been pictured...It is true that a few planters had their gorgeous coaches, yet Martha Washington remembered when there was only one coach in the whole of Virginia, and throughout her life the roads were so wretched that those who traveled over them in vehicles ran in imminent danger of being overturned, with possible dislocation of limbs and disjointing of necks.. 

The tobacco industry was a culture that required much labor. In the spring a pile of brush was burned and on the spot thus fertilized and made friable the seed were sowed. In due course the ground was prepared and the young plants were transplanted into rows. Later they must be repeatedly plowed, hoed and otherwise cultivated and looked after and finally the leaves must be cut or gathered and carried to the dry house to be dried. One man could care for only two or three acres, hence large scale cultivation required many hands—result, the importation of vast numbers of indentured servants and black slaves, with the blighting effects always consequent upon the presence of a servile class in a community.

Although tobacco was the great staple, some of the Virginia planters had begun before the Revolution to raise considerable crops of wheat, and most of them from the beginning cultivated Indian corn. From the wheat they made flour and bread for themselves, and with the corn they fed their hogs and horses and from it also made meal for the use of their slaves. In the culture of neither crop were they much advanced beyond the Egyptians of the times of the Pyramids. The wheat was reaped with sickles or cradles and either nailed out or else trampled out by cattle and horses, usually on a dirt floor in the open air. Washington estimated in 1791 that the average crop of wheat amounted to only eight or ten bushels per acre, and the yield of corn was also poor.

Almost no attention was paid to conserving the soil by rotation of crops, and even those few planters who attempted anything of the sort followed the old plan of allowing fields to lie in a naked fallow and to grow up in noxious weeds instead of raising a cover crop such as clover. Washington wrote in 1782: "My countrymen are too much used to corn blades and corn shucks; and have too little knowledge of the profit of grass land." And again in 1787: "The general custom has been, first to raise a crop of Indian corn (maize) which, according to the mode of cultivation, is a good preparation for wheat; then a crop of wheat; after which the ground is respited (except for weeds, and every trash that can contribute to its foulness) for about eighteen months; and so on, alternately, without any dressing, till the land is exhausted; when it is turned out, without being sown with grass-seeds, or reeds, or any method taken to restore it; and another piece Is ruined in the same manner. No more cattle is raised than can be supported by lowland meadows, swamps &c. and the tops and blades of Indian corn; as very few persons have attended to growing grasses, and connecting cattle with their crops. The Indian corn is the chief support of the laborers and their horses."

As for the use of fertilizer, very little was attempted, for, as Jefferson explained, "we can buy an acre of new land cheaper than we can manure an old one..." 

Virginians had not yet learned the merits of grass and pasture, and their cattle, being compelled to browse on twigs and weeds, were often thin and poor. Many ranged through the woods and it was so difficult to get them up that sometimes they would not be milked for two or three days. Often they gave no more than a quart of milk a day...

"The aim of the farmers in this country (if they can be called farmers)," wrote Washington to Arthur Young in 1791, "is, not to make the most they can from the land, which is or has been cheap, but the most of the labour, which is dear; the consequence of which has been, much ground has been scratched over and none cultivated or improved as it ought to have been: whereas a farmer in England, where land is dear, and labour cheap, finds it his interest to improve and cultivate highly, that he may reap large crops from a small quantity of ground."

From: George Washington: Farmer 1915 by Paul Leland Haworth (1876-1936)