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The Virginia of George Washington’s youth and early manhood was an imperial domain reaching from Atlantic tidewater through a thousand leagues of forests, prairies and mountains “west and northwest” to the South Sea. Only a narrow fringe along the eastern coast was settled by white men; the remainder was a terra incognita into which Knights of the Golden Horseshoe and Indian traders had penetrated a short distance, bringing back stories of endless stretches of wolf-haunted woodland, of shaggy-fronted wild oxen, of saline swamps in which reposed the whitened bones of prehistoric monsters, of fierce savage tribes whose boast was of the number of scalps that swung in the smoke of their wigwams. Even as late as 1750 the fertile Shenandoah Valley beyond the Blue Ridge formed the extreme frontier, while in general the “fall line,” where the drop from the foothills to the coastal plain stops navigation, marked the limit of settlement.

At the time that Washington began to farm in earnest eastern Virginia had, however, 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. The population generally was so scattered that, as has been remarked, a man could not see his neighbor without a telescope or be heard by him without firing a gun.

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 Cavalier favorites of the colonial governors. A few were perfectly 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, corresponding to serfs. The servants, both white and black, dwelt somewhat apart in the quarters, rude log huts for the most part, but probably as comfortable as those of the Saxon churls of the time of the Plantagenets. The planter’s ownership over the persons of his dependents was, however, much more absolute than was that of the Norman lord, for on the manors the serfs could not be sold off the land, a restriction that did not apply in Virginia either to black slaves or indentured servants. On the manor, furthermore, the serf had his own bits of ground, for which he paid rent in kind, money or service, and the holdings passed from father to son; 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 us 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.”

Nevertheless the plantation drew upon the outside world for many articles, especially luxuries, and the owner had to find the wherewithal to make payment. The almost universal answer to this problem was—tobacco. It was not an ideal answer, and historians have scolded the departed planters vigorously for doing the sum in that way, yet the planters were victims of circumstances. They had no gold or silver mines from which to draw bullion that could be coined into cash; the fur trade was of little importance compared with that farther north; the Europe of that day raised sufficient meat and grain for its own use, and besides these articles were bulky and costly to transport. But Europe did have a strong craving for the weed and, almost of necessity, Virginians set themselves to satisfying it. They could hardly be expected to do otherwise when 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. Much land was speedily ruined, but nothing was so cheap and plentiful in that day as land, so the planter light-heartedly cleared more and let the old revert to the wilderness. Any one who travels through the long settled parts of Virginia to-day will see many such old fields upon which large forest trees are now growing and can find there, if he will search closely enough, signs of the old tobacco ridges. Only heroic measures and the expenditure of large sums for fertilizer could make such worn-out land again productive. Washington himself described the character of the agriculture in words that can not be improved upon:”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,” he 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 coud 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 woud not stand the least Wear.”

Another time he mentions that his clothes fit poorly, which is not strange considering that measurements had to be sent three thousand miles and there was no opportunity to try the garments on with a view to alterations. We may safely conclude, therefore, that however elegant Virginia society of that day may have been in other respects, it was not distinguished for well fitting clothes!

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.

Not all planters could speak so confidently of their ability to find means to discharge a debt, for the truth is that the profits of tobacco culture were by no means so large as has often been supposed. A recent writer speaks of huge incomes of twenty thousand to eighty thousand pounds a year and asserts that “the ordinary planter could count on an income of from £3,000 to £6,000.” The first figures are altogether fabulous, “paper profits” of the same sort that can be obtained by calculating profits upon the geometrical increase of geese as illustrated in a well known story. Even the last mentioned sums were realized only under the most favorable conditions and by a few planters. Much of the time the price of the staple was low and the costs of transportation and insurance, especially in time of war, were considerable. Washington himself had a consignment of tobacco captured by the French.

The planters were by no means so prosperous as is often supposed and neither was their life so splendid as has often been pictured. Writers seem to have entered into a sort of conspiracy to mislead us concerning it. The tendency is one to which Southern writers are particularly prone in all that concerns their section. If they speak of a lawyer, he is always a profound student of the law; of a soldier, he is the bravest tenderest knight that ever trod shoe leather; of a lady, she is the most beautiful that ever graced a drawing-room.

The old Virginia life had its color and charm, though its color and charm lay in large part in things concerning which the writers have little or nothing to say. 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. Virginians had their liveried servants, mahogany furniture, silver plate, silks and satins; an examination of the old account books proves that they often had these and many other expensive things, along with their Madeira and port wine. But the same books show that the planter was chronically in debt and that bankruptcy was common, while accounts left by travelers reveal the fact that many of the mansion houses were shabby and run down, with rotting roofs, ramshackle doors, broken windows into which old hats or other garments had been thrust to keep the wind away. In a word, a traveler could find to-day more elegance in a back county of Arkansas than then existed in tidewater Virginia.

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.

So much emphasis was laid upon tobacco that many planters failed to produce food enough. Some raised none at all, with the result that often both men and animals were poorly fed, and at best the cost of food and forage exhausted most of the profits. A somewhat similar condition exists in the South to-day with regard to cotton.

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 labourers 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.” It was this cheapness of land that made it almost impossible for the Virginians to break away from their ruinous system—ruinous, not necessarily to themselves, but to future generations. Conservation was then a doctrine that was little preached. Posterity could take care of itself. Only a few persons like Washington realized their duty to the future.

In the matter of stock as well as in pure agriculture the Virginians were backward. They showed to best advantage in the matter of horses. Virginia gentlemen were fond of horses, and some owned fine animals and cared for them carefully. A Randolph of Tuckahoe is said to have had a favorite dapple-gray named “Shakespeare” for whom he built a special stable with a sort of recess next the stall in which the groom slept. Generally speaking, however, even among the aristocracy the horses were not so good nor so well cared for as in the next century.

Among the small farmers and poorer people the horses were apt to be scrubs, often mere bags of bones. A scientific English agriculturist named Parkinson, who came over in 1798, tells us that the American horses generally “leap well; they are accustomed to leap from the time of foaling; as it is not at all uncommon, if the mare foal in the night, for some part of the family to ride the mare, with the foal following her, from eighteen to twenty miles next day, it not being customary to walk much. I think that is the cause of the American horse having a sort of amble: the foal from its weak state, goes pacing after the dam, and retains that motion all its life. The same is the case with respect to leaping: there being in many places no gates, the snake or worm-fence (which is one rail laid on the end of another) is taken down to let the mare pass through, and the foal follow: but, as it is usual to leave two or three rails untaken down, which the mare leaps over, the foal, unwilling to be left behind, follows her; so that, by the time it is one week old, it has learned to leap three feet high; and progressively, as it grows older, it leaps higher, till at a year old, it will leap its own height.”

Sheep raising was not attempted to any great extent, partly because of the ravages of wolves and dogs and partly because the sheep is a perverse animal that often seems to prefer dying to keeping alive and requires skilled care to be made profitable. The breeds were various and often were degenerated. Travelers saw Holland or rat-tailed sheep, West Indian sheep with scant wool and much resembling goats, also a few Spanish sheep, but none would have won encomiums from a scientific English breeder. The merino had not yet been introduced. Good breeds of sheep were difficult to obtain, for both the English and Spanish governments forbade the exportation of such animals and they could be obtained only by smuggling them out.

In 1792 Arthur Young expressed astonishment when told that wolves and dogs were a serious impediment to sheep raising in America, yet this was undoubtedly the case. The rich had their foxhounds, while every poor white and many negroes had from one to half a dozen curs—all of which canines were likely to enjoy the sport of sheep killing. Mr. Richard Peters, a well informed farmer of Pennsylvania, said that wherever the country was much broken wolves were to be found and bred prodigiously. “I lay not long ago at the foot of South Mountain, in York county, in this State, in a country very thickly settled, at the house of a Justice of the Peace. Through the night I was kept awake by what I conceived to be a jubilee of dogs, assembled to bay the moon. But I was told in the morning, that what disturbed me, was only the common howling of wolves, which nobody there regarded. When I entered the Hall of Justice, I found the ‘Squire giving judgment for the reward on two wolf whelps a countryman had taken from the bitch. The judgment-seat was shaken with the intelligence, that the wolf was coming—not to give bail—but to devote herself or rescue her offspring. The animal was punished for this ‘daring contempt, committed in the face of the court, and was shot within a hundred yards of the tribunal.”

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 and were probably no better in appearance than the historian Lecky tells us were the wretched beasts then to be found in the Scottish Highlands.

Hogs received even less care than cattle and ran half wild in the woods like their successors, the famous Southern razor-backs of to-day, being fed only a short period before they were to be transformed into pork. Says Parkinson: “The real American hog is what is termed the wood-hog: they are long in the leg, narrow on the back, short in the body, flat on the sides, with a long snout, very rough in their hair, in make more like a fish called a perch than anything I can describe. You may as well think of stopping a crow as those hogs. They will go a distance from a fence, take a run, and leap through the rails, three or four feet from the ground, turning themselves sidewise. These hogs suffer such hardships as no other animal could endure. It is customary to keep them in the woods all winter, as there is no thrashing or fold-yards; and they must live on the roots of trees, or something of that sort, but they are poor beyond any creature that I ever saw. That is probably the cause why American pork is so fine. They are something like forest-sheep. I am not certain, with American keeping and treatment, if they be not the best: for I never saw an animal live without food, except this; and I am pretty sure they nearly do that. When they are fed, the flesh may well be sweet: it is all young, though the pig be ten years old.”

“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.”

No clearer statement of the differences between American and European agriculture has ever been formulated. Down to our own day the object of the American farmer has continued to be the same— to secure the largest return from the expenditure of a given amount of labor. But we are on the threshold of a revolution, the outcome of which means intensive cultivation and the realization of the largest possible return from a given amount of land.

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