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Backwoods Farming

THE ANONYMOUS AUTHOR of American Husbandry, the best surviving 18th-century survey of colonial agriculture, concluded in 1775 that “the American planters and farmers are in general the greatest slovens in Christendom.” He made this observation when Europe was in the full tide of an agricultural revolution, when England had been, for several decades, a center of new developments. There the accelerating “enclosure” movement—the fencing in of old common-lands and old pastures—which had long been going on, encouraged more efficient and more capitalistic methods. Jethro Tull invented a drill for planting seeds in rows, and in his Horse-Hoeing Husbandry (1733) he urged regular plowing to destroy weeds and to increase the nourishment of plant-roots. Lord “Turnip” Townshend, whose grandson was author of the Townshend Acts, following Tull’s suggestions improved the rotation of crops. Before mid-century, Robert Bake well made a science of stock-breeding; and by the end of the century Arthur Young was using his sharp powers of observation and his fluent pen to popularize these and other new techniques. Although the peasants and small farmers were slow to change their methods, agricultural experiment became a hobby for some wealthy landlords, and before the American Revolution it was a national fashion. Queen Caroline subscribed to Tull’s book, and George II heard Tull’s system explained at court. George III, “Farmer George,” who could be seen carrying about the latest volume of Young’s agricultural journal, said he owed more to Young than to any of his other subjects.

But in America, the colonial period was an age of stagnation in agricultural science. George Washington, who himself had been a pretty conservative farmer, surveyed the American situation in a letter to Arthur Young on December 5, 1791:

An English farmer must entertain a contemptible opinion of our husbandry, or a horrid idea of our lands, when he shall be informed that not more than eight or ten bushels of wheat is the yield of an acre; but this low produce may be ascribed, and principally too, to a cause … that the aim of the farmers in this country, if they can be called farmers, 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.

This was a fair summary. The proverbial ingenuity of the American backwoodsman produced a few improvements—in the axe and the rifle, for example. But most of what we know about colonial farmers suggests a prevailing backwoods conservatism. The natural abundance, which in later American history encouraged an experimental spirit, discouraged it during the colonial years.

“Waste” is, of course, a relative term. To the American colonists for whom labor was scarcer than land, it seemed more economical to use up the land and move on than to spend precious hours in cultivating and fertilizing. In their own way the colonists were very much interested in economy. But they wanted “labor-saving” devices. And in these early years the most obvious labor-saving device happened to be the wasteful use of land. Most of the new agricultural techniques being developed in England were aimed at making old land more productive—usually at considerable expense of labor.

Since few farmers kept detailed records, we have a lot to learn about the common farming methods of colonial America. But the European travelers, who looked for something new over here, were unanimous on the backwardness of American farming methods. “The Europeans coming to America,” the Swedish botanist Peter Kalm remarked of the middle colonies in 1748-51, “found a rich, fine soil before them, lying as loose between the trees as the best bed in a garden. They had nothing to do but to cut down the wood, put it up in heaps, and to clear the dead leaves away. They could then immediately proceed to plowing, which in such loose ground is very easy; and having sown their grain, they got a most plentiful harvest. This easy method of getting a rich crop has spoiled the English and other European settlers, and induced them to adopt the same method of agriculture as the Indians…. This is likewise the reason why agriculture and its science is so imperfect here that one can travel several days and learn almost nothing about land … except that from their gross mistakes and carelessness of the future, one finds opportunities every day of making all sorts of observations, and of growing wise by their mistakes. In a word, the grain fields, the meadows, the forests, the cattle, etc. are treated with equal carelessness…. their eyes are fixed upon the present gain, and they are blind to the future.” While Kalm probably exaggerated the natural fertility of the soil and the ease of its first cultivation, he did not exaggerate the widespread carelessness of American farmers.

Many other observers noticed the broken fences and the stunted cattle running at large, unfed and unprotected. Their manure was put to no use. Artificial pasture long remained a rarity, and few farmers stored feed for the winter. In Virginia a French traveler of the late 17th century saw “poor beasts of a morning all covered with snow and trembling with the cold, but no forage was provided for them. They eat the bark of the trees because the grass was covered.” Wild animals—wolves, bears, and savage dogs—attacked the helpless cattle, and made the raising of sheep difficult. The abundance of fish and game, while improving the colonial diet, was no incentive to better husbandry; yet the colonists of the English middle and lower classes were not skillful hunters. They had come from a country where the chase was an upper-class monopoly. English breeds deteriorated under American neglect. “Hogs swarm like Vermine upon the Earth, and are often accounted such,” Robert Beverley reported; they were not even inventoried in estates. The early settler was always tempted to seize whatever nature offered, especially if it was food, and so free himself to enlarge his capital by clearing more land.

The plentifulness of land and game were not the only facts which had discouraged the improvement of American farming. The man who farmed in America was likely to be an amateur: “all sorts of people turn farmers … no mechanic or artizan—sailor—soldier—servant, &c. but what, if they get money, take land, and turn farmers.” Although the English farmer may have looked advanced by colonial standards, his methods left a good deal to be desired when compared to those of his European contemporaries, German farmers, for example. The techniques exported to the colonies from Great Britain were seldom the best.

The arriving colonists used any method which would produce quick results, regardless of how it exhausted the land. Their first need was an assured supply of food, and they learned their first lessons in husbandry from the natives. Indian corn—Europeans called it “maize”—remained the main bread-crop all over the colonies. Although the Indians had perfected a high-yielding strain, their techniques of cultivation were primitive; the colonists long followed their example. Moreover, uninterrupted crops of corn soon exhausted the soil. “The land, in their system, after it is done with corn,” the author of American Husbandry observed, “is of no more value than the sky to them.”

The recurrent colonial wars made planning difficult, increased the scarcity of manpower, and kept American farmers conservative. “We are all military Men, as well as Farmers,” Jared Eliot complained in 1759, “our Circumstances being like that of the old Romans, from the Plow to the War, and from the War to the Plow again.” In the preceding year alone, he figured, at least 5000 men had left their farms to fight the French or the Indians—“which, together with heavy Charges consequent upon it, renders it neither safe nor prudent, to leave the old beaten Paths, for new Inventions…. having neither Hands nor Money to spare, for the Prosecution for any New Schemes, or untry’d Methods.”

The range of farming problems, from those of the unfamiliar heavy winters of the northern colonies to those of the equally unfamiliar heat of the Carolinas, was far wider than in little England. And there were as many different kinds of bad husbandry as there were soils and crops and climates. The snowy New England winters, covering the frozen land for several months, made it impossible to follow the advice of English theorists who told the frugal farmer to spend his winter dressing and plowing his fields; the New England farmer had to crowd his manuring, fencing, and harrowing into a short spring. This system was self-perpetuating, because low yields made the New Englander spend whatever time he could spare on clearing another acre which in its turn would soon be used up.

In the middle colonies, and especially in Pennsylvania, where farming methods may have been somewhat better, the temptations to overextend—“taking too much land for their money”—were especially corrupting. Draft animals were needed, but they were scarce, and the colonists did not know how to care for them. “They clear a field and have not strength of ploughs and cattle and men to crop more than that; they therefore stick to it as long as they can get any corn, and when the land will no longer bear it, they clear another piece and serve that in the same manner…. this must necessarily be the system while the settlers spend half their fortune in buying the land, that is, in paying the province fees for it: if a man has a hundred pounds in his pocket, and was able with it to cultivate properly forty or fifty acres, and he takes three or four hundred, which in patent fees costs him half his fortune, he then plainly lessens his ability to cultivate.”

We have already seen how tobacco-culture in Virginia exhausted the soil, making plantation-owners into land-speculators, and how this was reflected in the government of the colony. Farther south, farming methods were even worse. The sparseness of population in North Carolina, which lacked a good seaport, increased incentives to use up land and move on. A wealth of pitch, tar, and turpentine could be taken from the wild growth. In South Carolina, the rice grown in swamps was a crop unfamiliar to Englishmen; its cultivation involved expensive irrigation and drainage problems which the colonial planters showed no special ingenuity in solving. Indigo, also strange to English farmers, quickly exhausted the soil.

This wide variety of climates, soils, and products was itself an obstacle to concerted efforts for improving American agriculture. Each region had to learn its own lessons. The difficulties of inland communication and the scarcity of useful books kept methods stagnant. Costly experiments in such things as silk and wine were repeated partly because later experimenters lacked reliable accounts of earlier failures. But nothing was more obstructive than the sheer novelty of American conditions which made useless much of the advice found in English books. It was remarkable that any progress had been made, Jared Eliot observed in 1748, “When we consider the small Number of the first Settlers, and coming from an old Cultivated Country, to thick Woods, rough unimproved Lands; where all their former Experience and Knowledge was now of very little service to them: They were destitute of Beasts of Burthen or Carriage; Unskill’d in every Part of Service to be done: It may be said, That in a Sort, they began the World a New.”

What English agriculturalists meant by improvement in the colonies did not necessarily mean a better life for the colonial farmers. From the British imperial point of view, it was most desirable to encourage the production of staples like hemp, sugar, indigo, silk, and wine, which would not grow in the British Isles and for which British gold had to be sent abroad. We have already seen the effect in Georgia of this doctrinaire approach to colonial agriculture. In nearly every colony, costly and futile efforts were made to increase the production of exotic staple crops. “There is all the reason in the world to think that the nation’s expectations of having hemp from the colonies will at last, after so many disappointments, be answered by the lands on the Ohio,” the author of American Husbandry optimistically remarked. “This is precisely what has been so long wanted…. Neglect of this sort sometimes gives rise to ideas of incapacity in a country, when the fault is only in the cultivator … they ought to have been bound to supply the navy with a given quantity of hemp, the growth of the colony, annually: this would have forced them to give a degree of attention to this important article.”

More realistic, organized efforts to improve American agriculture came slowly. From New England in the mid-18th century, when land had ceased to seem so rich or plentiful and when wood shortage had become a problem, came the first important American treatise on agriculture. The Rev. Jared Eliot’s six essays, first published between 1748 and 1759, were collected into a volume, Essays upon Field Husbandry in New England, as it is or may be Ordered (Boston, 1760). Eliot, a Connecticut clergyman and the grandson of the apostle John Eliot who had tried to convert the Natick Indians, was also the leading physician of his colony. Many Connecticut doctors served their apprenticeship under him. His long career as a clergyman-physician—“more than Thirty Years in a Business that required a great deal of Travel”—provided him, he said, with the information for his essays and his own experiments. “An Ounce of Experience is better than a Pound of Science,” Eliot observed. His essays contributed little that was new to agricultural science but he did collect useful hints on drainage, crop-rotation, manuring, stock-breeding, and dozens of other subjects. He improved Jethro Tull’s planting-drill and adapted Tull’s method to American conditions. But even Eliot still hoped for a large silk-making industry in Connecticut, and he argued for small landholdings as the best means of defending the borders of empire.

It was several decades before many others joined Eliot in an effort to improve American agriculture. Local agricultural societies in Great Britain, even before mid-century, were pooling the experience of gentlemen-farmers and exchanging the results of experiments. But it was not until 1785 that an effective organization for agricultural improvement was founded in America. Earlier in the century the American Philosophical Society at Philadelphia had announced agricultural improvements among its objectives, but it accomplished very little. Jefferson’s main contributions—for example, his famous mould-board plow (1798)—came only late in the century. Progress in American agriculture came during the years after the Revolution.

Of course, there were exceptions to this laggard character of colonial farming. The famous Narragansett pacers of Rhode Island—“some of them pace a Mile in little more than two Minutes, a good deal less than three”—showed that it was possible here to breed first-class stock for export. The German farmers who came in the early 18th century, arriving mostly at Philadelphia on their way westward to the rich farmlands of Pennsylvania and toward the Ohio Valley, showed a frugality which contrasted sharply with the slovenliness of other American farmers. They made their Conestoga Valley famous—not only by the “Conestoga Wagons,” the heavy, broad-wheeled covered wagons which later symbolized the westward movement—but by the “Conestoga Horse” which they developed from English stock into the finest draft animal of the colonial age. Their methods, as Benjamin Rush surveyed them toward the end of the 18th century, were a catalogue of the omissions of other American farmers. “A German farm may be distinguished from the farm of the other citizens of the state, by the superior size of their barns; the plain, but compact form of their houses; the height of their inclosures; the extent of their orchards; the fertility of their fields; the luxuriance of their meadows, and a general appearance of plenty and neatness in everything that belongs to them.” In their efficient farming methods the Germans were using the specialized skills they brought with them. They were simply being conservative after their fashion.

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