Title：Agricultural Society in Eighteenth-Century British America
In the northern American colonies, especially New England, tight-knit farming families, organized in communities of several thousand people, dotted the landscape by the mid-eighteenth century. New Englanders staked their future on a mixed economy. They cleared forests for timber used in barrels,ships, houses, and barns. They plumbed the offshore waters for fish to feed local populations. And they cultivated and grazed as much of the thin-soiled, rocky hills and bottomlands as they could recover from the forest.The farmers of the middle colonies-Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York-set their wooden plows to much richer soils than New Englanders did. They enjoyed the additional advantage of setting an area already partly cleared by Native Americans who had relied more on agriculture than had New England tribes. Thus favored, mid-Atlantic farm families produced modest surpluses of corn, wheat, beef, and pork. By the mid-eighteenth century, ships from New York and Philadelphia were carrying these foodstuffs not only to the West Indies, always a primary market, but also to areas that could no longer feed themselves-England, Spain, Portugal, and even New
England.In the North, the broad ownership of land distinguished farming society from every other agricultural
region of the Western world. Although differences in circumstances and ability led gradually toward greater social stratification, in most communities, the truly rich and terribly poor were few and the gap between them small compared with European society. Most men other than indentured servants (servants contracted to work for a specific number of years) lived to purchase or inherit a farm of at least 50 acres. With their family’s labor, they earned a decent existence and
provided a small inheritance for each of their children. Settlers valued land highly, for owning land ordinarily guaranteed both economic independence and political rights.
By the eighteenth century, amid widespread property ownership, a rising population pressed against a limited land supply, especially in New England. Family farms could not be divided and subdivided indefinitely, for it took at least fifty acres(of which only a quarter could usually be cropped) to support a single family. In Concurd, Massachusetts, for example, the founders had worked farms averaging about 250 acres. A century later, in the 1730s, the average farm had shrunk by two thirds, as farm owners struggled to provide an inheritance for the three or four sons that the average
The decreasing fertility of the soil compounded the problem of dwindling farm size in New England. When land had been plentiful, farmers planted crops in the same field for three years and then let it lie fallow (unplanted) in pasture seven years or more until it regained its fertility. But on the smaller farms of the eighteenth century, farmers had reduced fallow time to only a year or two. Such intense use of the soil reduced crop yields, forcing farmers to plow marginal land or shift to
The diminishing size and productivity of family farms forced many New Englanders to move to the frontier or out of the area altogether in the eighteen century. "Many of our old towns are too full of inhabitants for husbandry, many of them living on small shares of land, " complained one writer. In Concurd, one of every four adult males migrated from town every decade from the 1740s on, and in many towns migration out was even greater. Some drifted south to New York and
Pennsylvania. Others sought opportunities as artisans in the coastal towns or took to the sea. More headed for the colonies, western frontier or north into New Hampshire and the eastern frontier of Maine. Several thousand New England families migrated even farther north to the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia. Throughout New England after the early eighteenth century, most farmers' sons knew that their destiny lay elsewhere.
Wherever they took up farming, northern cultivators engaged in agricultural work routines that were far less intense than in the south. The growing season was much shorter, and the cultivation of cereal crops required incessant labor only during spring planting and autumn harvesting. This less burdensome work rhythm let many northern cultivators to fill out their calendars with intermittent work as clockmakers, shoemakers, carpenters, and weavers.