The Culture and History of an American Region


Copyright © 2005 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10027-3

Chapter One


J. Ritchie Garrison, Section Editor Hal S. Barron, Consulting Editor

Section-opening image: Mucking out at the Rancourt Dairy Farm,assalboro, Maine, 1987

Introduction Overviews Agriculture in the Precolonial and Colonial Eras Agricultural Settlements, 1750- 1850 Decline of Agriculture, 1920-50 Contemporary Agriculture Abandoned Farms Acid Rain. See Geography and Environment Agricultural Press Apples Apples, Cider, and Applejack. See Folklife Aquaculture Barns and Farm Buildings. See Architecture Ben and Jerry's. See Industry, Technology, and Labor Blueberries Brighton Market Climate. See Geography and Environment Commercialization Connected Farm Buildings. See Architecture Connecticut River Valley. See Geography and Environment Corn Country Life Essayists Country Life Movement Cranberries Dairying Eastern States Exposition (Big E) Environmentalism. See Geography and Environment Extension Agencies Farmland Preservation Field Patterns Floods. See Geography and Environment Gardening. See Sports and Recreation Gentleman Farmers Global Warming. See Geography and Environment The Grange Hay Horticulture H. P. Hood and Sons Ice. See Industry, Technology, and Labor Intervales Labor Maple Syrup Massachusetts Horticultural Society Merrimack River Valley. See Geography and Environment Migrant Labor Morgan Horse Morrill Act Old Farmer's Almanac. See Images and Ideas Out-migration and Rural Depopulation Oxen Plants. See Geography and Environment Potatoes Poultry Rural Communities Rural Schools. See Education Sheep Societies and Fairs Stone Walls Tobacco Women's Farmwork


The Pilgrims' first effort to plant a crop is a familiar grade-school tale. Half the company, having arrived in November 1620, were dead by the early spring of 1621. The Mayflower was still anchored in Plymouth Harbor, its crew awaiting the return of fair weather, better health, and the trip back to England. Many of the adults, including William Bradford, were still sick, but if the plantation were to survive, it was essential to get in a crop. Bradford remembered that "they (as many as were able) began to plant their corn, in which service Squanto served them in good stead, showing them both the manner how to set it, and after how to dress and tend it. Also he told them, except they got fish and set with it in these old grounds it would come to nothing." The settlers also planted English crops such as wheat and peas, "but it came not to good, either by the badness of the seed or the lateness of the season or both, or some other defect." This is a useful story. It embodies national myths of persistence in the face of hardship, adaptation to new ways of understanding and doing things, and contact with native groups who had much to teach Europeans. But it also tells about agriculture in New England, about efforts to grow things on a landscape that is often perceived as marginal or hostile to productive farming, and about a way of life that now seems quaint and vaguely romantic, but persists.

The visible remains of the agricultural past-the artificial lines of stone walls in the woods, the barns behind old farmhouses, and the few remaining pastures that extend up the slopes of the region's uplands-remind us of how important farming was for most who lived there. Yet those same cultural relics reinforce the public perception that farming was unprofitable and hard, that people abandoned agriculture as soon as better alternatives became available, and that industry and technology rapidly reordered an older way of life. These perceptions often oversimplify complex events and trends that varied by subregion and over time. Scholars have debated about when New England's economic changes became visible and are divided over the degree and extent to which New England's early agricultural production was driven by commercial motivations and the basic need to provide subsistence for family and community. The result is a lively interest in New England farming.

These debates are understandable given the nature of the evidence. Commercial and subsistence motives were entwined in New England from the early 17th century. Bradford's history, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647 (1630-50), reminds us of the dualism. If the more religious of the first Pilgrim settlers had risked their lives to establish a place for their families to worship God as they saw fit, the realities of moving to and living in a non-European world required certain compromises. The survival and prosperity of the colony's households depended on building shelter and growing food. The colony's existence also depended on the willingness of London merchant "adventurers" to pay the freight for carrying settlers across the Atlantic in exchange for profits on marketable products. Thus, Bradford's remarks on planting the first crop of Indian corn responded to urgent needs of the colonists and their initial dependence on Native Americans, while the letters that he often copied into his history of Plymouth captured his sponsors' impatience with the rate of return on their investment.

This return was slow in coming, for the kinds of agricultural products the New England environment was best suited to produce largely duplicated those available from English farms. The cost of freighting livestock and grain across the Atlantic to Europe rarely rendered such cargos profitable in the 17th century. Merchants could successfully export forest products, fish, and some manufactured items (such as ships) in various ports around the Atlantic world, but except for livestock and some specialty items such as cranberries, blueberries, and maple syrup, the agricultural market for New England foodstuffs would remain largely local throughout its history.

Once established, New England farms did produce abundantly despite the land's reputation for thin, rocky soils. The region sustained a very high rate of population growth and enjoyed one of the best longevity rates in the world during the colonial period. This growth rate alone would have required modest surpluses as the region expanded. Nevertheless, it is clear that 17th-century New England showed signs of specialized development, partly because the New England environment differed from one section to another, and partly because settlement proceeded at uneven rates. Even a preliminary study of the dates of incorporation for New England towns shows wide variation. Not surprisingly, the earliest settlement occurred along the coast, where land was accessible from the sea or by river, but within a few years of the landings at Plymouth and Boston, farmers and their families moved inland in search of high-quality soil.

Wethersfield, Conn., and Springfield, Mass., were among the earliest inland destination points in the Connecticut River valley during the mid-1630s and were far removed from coastal contact. That the settlers in these communities bypassed the upland terrain of inland Massachusetts and Connecticut to claim land on New England's most fertile soils suggests that their choices were influenced by future prospects, not just short-term expediency. Moreover, these valley landscapes and those on the other major New England river valleys yielded better crops and more animal fodder than farms on thinner soils or steeper slopes. This selective settling of the region's agricultural landscape contributed in important ways to the rapid growth rates of the region as well as to its general health, as people moved first onto the lands best able to support agricultural yields. That growth also contributed to growing conflicts with Native Americans who did not share European views on private property ownership or the proper means of farming.

Europeans were puzzled by native husbandry. For one thing, planting and tending crops was largely the responsibility of native women rather than men. For another, their fields seemed messy to Englishmen trained in traditions of monocropping, in which a wheat field was a wheat field and everything else was a weed. Picture their astonishment when they confronted Native American fields in which corn, beans, pumpkins, and squashes intermingled, the beans climbing up cornstalks in search of sunlight, the squashes and pumpkins smothering competing plants below. Modern scientists have come to appreciate these planting strategies as ecologically sound; 17th-century Englishmen, unacquainted with the subject of ecology, saw slovenly fields and lazy men who let their women do the work. The Englishmen made over the riotous fields into proper English tillage and mowing as soon as they had the chance, but they valued indigenous foodstuffs. New Englanders have incorporated "Indian" pudding, pumpkin muffins, baked beans, squash, and maple sugar into a regional cuisine, but their borrowing from native culture was selective and occurred over time.

Settlers arrived as English men and women; they soon learned to adapt to an alien world that was hotter in the summer and colder in the winter than the one they had left. They shared the land with people who spoke in strange languages, wore improper clothing, and knew how to survive in a place that had trees as far as anyone could see. This curious new world was an inversion of familiar patterns. In England, there was an abundance of labor and cleared fields; land and woods were largely controlled by elites. In New England, land and trees were initially abundant and cheap, but the labor to clear and prepare fields was expensive or unavailable. Most of the work was done by family members who labored over one or two generations to improve their farms. The labor shortage and external conditions contributed to the early patterns of settlement formation.

For much of the 17th century, settlers established towns on old fields cleared by Native Americans. The cleared fields were used for tillage and were enclosed by fences to keep free-ranging livestock out. Just as Squanto had demonstrated, native crops such as corn, squash, and beans grew well in the area, but the colonists quickly established European grains including wheat, rye, and barley; fruits such as apples, pears, and peaches; and garden crops to provide the principal ingredients for European diets. Most of the Native American plants and garden crops were adapted for hoe cultivation, but European grains were best sown in enclosed, cleared fields and required animal power and plowing equipment for efficient production.

The best soils and climate for this type of grain-based agriculture in southern New England were located on river plains where the land was relatively level, free of stones, and silty. Growing seasons differed from year to year and by elevation and proximity to the coast, but most families could expect about 150 days between killing frosts, with more along the southern coastline, Cape Cod, and the islands. Outside of riverain areas or low-lying sections of the coast, much of New England's topography was uneven. Parts of it were swampy or sandy, and rocks were almost everywhere, ranging in size from cobbles to boulders. Even after they removed trees and stumps, farm families would spend years carting rocks away from their hill-farm tillage fields. Small wonder, then, that early settlers took advantage of clearings made by Native Americans, and moved quickly inland along the region's riverways, the Connecticut, Housatonic, and Merrimack Rivers being the most important. By 1710, most of the best farmland in southern New England was taken up, and families had to begin settling more marginal agricultural land or move north, where the growing season was shorter and native peoples controlled by the French were closer.

The northern New England uplands range from gently rolling hills to steeply sloped rills, some of which reach above timberline. Growing seasons could be as short as 95 frost-free days in some of the more northern or higher elevations. Most New England soils were acidic, and portions of the landscape were poorly drained. The area's best soils were limestone-based in Aroostook County, Maine, far to the north, where winter came early and transportation was difficult until the railroad arrived in the second half of the 19th century. Soils generally varied so much from town to town and farm to farm that it is difficult to accurately characterize typical growing conditions in New England outside of a few favored locations such as the Connecticut River valley. Some soils were well drained; others were damp and boggy. Corn grew fairly well in these conditions, but the traditional English grains-wheat, rye, barley, and, later, oats-usually did not yield very abundantly, especially on land that was inadequately fertilized or limed. Nevertheless, rainfall was abundant, and trees and grasses grew well even on steeper slopes. New England's most important crops, corn and hay, performed consistently in this environment. Both were crucial to the maintenance of people and animals.

Animals, especially cattle, were critical components in this agricultural landscape. Although New Englanders did produce most of the grains they needed to survive, it is now apparent that once European grasses crowded out the native types, the region was well suited to hay production. More so than many New Englanders have realized, the region's early agricultural surpluses came in the form of beef that could be driven to market. Cattle needed pastures but could eat their way around rocks and stumps, could defend themselves against predators, and moved to market on their own power. Although few families sent more than one or two animals to market in a year, the abundance of beef cattle was visible in the region's foodways. Unlike most of the rest of colonial America, New Englanders preferred beef to pork.

These characteristics promoted an intensive and controlled mode of agricultural production and a considerable investment in agricultural infrastructure such as fences and barns. Who would build this infrastructure? With so much available land, there was little incentive to work as an agricultural laborer, even for high wages. Although traction and plowing equipment-never common in the 17th century-might be rented or shared, most families had to look to their own resources to prepare land and maintain animals. They might change work with other members of the community in times of acute need, such as during haying or reaping seasons, but for the most part, farms operated independently. Livestock fitted neatly into a labor-short production strategy, as cattle and hogs required relatively little supervision.

In spite of nostalgic traditions to the contrary, New England farms were not self-sufficient operations. The most prosperous farms were generally owned by middle-aged men; they and their families had already worked for 20 to 30 years to build a farmstead. Younger families simply had not had time to make or accumulate much, and older families often had given property away to married children. By the end of the 17th century, then, first-generation New England towns had become more stratified by wealth and age. Only the richest families could afford the range of resources to produce their own food and clothing. Few of them attempted to, either because they lacked adequate labor or because imported European goods made by trained artisans were generally better than what ordinary households could produce. Throughout the colonial period, then, all New England families exchanged goods or services to balance out what they could not make or did not wish to do themselves. Such trading also earned credit for imported items-things as basic as salt for preserving food and as extravagant as imported silks and calicoes. Much of this exchange was handled locally, but not all of it could be. The tradition of general, mixed agricultural production made sense given the area's weather, soils, and population, but it was flexible enough to accommodate early frosts, excessive rains, and disrupted markets.

There were a number of reasons why New England farm families began to shift productive strategies during the 18th century. Some were push factors. As the population expanded, it became impossible to set up offspring on their own farms except with great expense or by having siblings share the same land. Some children would benefit from moving to new towns and establishing their own farms on inexpensive land, but doing so meant breaking up the family unit and embarking on the immense labor of building a new farm. Moreover, the best land was already distributed by the 1780s. What was left was hillier, swampier, or farther north or west where the growing season was shorter. Alternatively, children could stay in their natal towns but would have to make a living as artisans or merchants. Population pressure was only one factor in shifting production strategies; critical crops like wheat were suffering from fungal and insect attacks. By the mid-1700s, New Englanders had become net importers of flour, much of it shipped from New York and Pennsylvania. Buying land for children or paying for imported flour required money, either in cash or in credits recorded on some merchant's ledgers. Either way, there were incentives to engage in profit-making activities, even if profit was only the means to an end.


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