A Farming Society

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A Farming Society

In 1783, the year that marked the end of the American Revolution (1775–83), most Americans earned their living by farming. Before the Revolution, the American colonies had been part of the vast British Empire, and American farmers sold their goods in markets worldwide, from the West Indies to Britain itself. Shortly after the Revolution, in 1790, the first U.S. census revealed that almost 97 percent of the population of four million still lived in rural areas. American farmers had played a crucial role in colonial economics and politics, and they would continue to have a strong influence over U.S. policies between 1783 and 1815.

Farmers were respected as honest, hardworking men who provided for their families. Many early American leaders firmly believed farming was the most virtuous (respectable) way of life and should remain the most important sector of the nation's economy. Founding Father and future president Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; served 1801–9) was the leading spokesperson of this belief, called agrarianism (a society based on agriculture and small, self-sufficient farmers). Jefferson claimed that land ownership was a natural right of citizens and that the small farmer was at the forefront of American republicanism (a form of government in which elected officials govern for the benefit of the citizens). He believed that if settlers owned their own land and made a living selling products from that land, they would take an active interest in those governing their land. They would insist that elected officials make decisions that benefited ordinary citizens, including small farmers.

To maintain an agrarian society, the United States needed a steady supply of new land for the rapidly expanding population. To many Americans, cheap and abundant farmland represented the freedom they had fought for in the American Revolution. Newly arriving immigrants saw farmland as their opportunity for attaining wealth, personal freedom, and social status that they had no chance of achieving in Europe. These attitudes fed agrarianism and greatly influenced government policy through the early years of the republic. Many of the characteristics of American farming during this era had their roots in earlier Native American cultures and the colonial period.

Words to Know

hogsheads: Large barrels containing salt pork.

indigo: A plant that produces a deep purple dye.

Patriots: American colonists who supported the rebel cause to gain independence from British rule.

plowshare: The blade on a plow that makes furrows in the ground.

republic: A country governed by the consent of the people and for the benefit of the people through elected representatives.

staples: The chief crops of an area that provide economic stability.

The beginnings of American farming

Native Americans were the first North American farmers. Centuries before the first European colonists arrived on the east coast of North America, many Native American groups had established a steady and dependable food supply including agricultural products such as beans, corn, and squash. They also raised tobacco for ceremonial purposes. The Native Americans cleared fields in river valleys and floodplains, where the soil was rich and easily worked. To supplement their food staples (crops produced regularly in large amounts), they cultivated other plants, such as wild rice in the upper Great Lakes region. The early colonial farmers from Europe adopted these crops in order to survive in their new setting. Some of these crops, including corn and tobacco, became important cash crops (crops grown for money, rather than for the colonists' own use).

By the eighteenth century, colonial farmers were raising corn, tobacco, indigo (a plant that produces a deep purple dye), various grain crops (including wheat, barley, oats, and rye), and garden vegetables. Of these, tobacco was the most important American export during the colonial period. The Chesapeake Bay colonies of Maryland and Virginia were the leading exporters of tobacco. Colonial farmers also raised hogs, cattle, sheep, and horses.

Although largely dependent on Europe for seed, livestock, and tools, the colonists became very innovative in their farming methods; the distance across the Atlantic forced them to improvise. They improved the efficiency of their tools and formed societies and organizations to promote colonial policies supporting agriculture (see box).

Most important, colonial farmers had the freedom to own land and to accumulate profits, freedoms not enjoyed by European farmers, who often worked in fields rented from wealthy landowners. Colonial farmers could sell to local markets or to more distant communities and abroad, and they grew very accustomed to this freedom of choice. The cities of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Charleston served as both markets for produce and seaports for trade.

Colonial farmers did not make efficient use of their land. With land plentiful and cheap, they felt no need to use efficient farming practices, such as rotating crops to replenish soil nutrients. When fields stopped being sufficiently productive, the farmers simply cleared new fields. The German immigrant farmers in western Pennsylvania were an exception: They practiced crop rotation, used animal manure as fertilizer, and let fields rest between plantings.

Although British land companies that had received land grants from Britain claimed ownership of the colonies, before long colonial farmers treated the land as if it were their own. (An ocean separated the land companies and the farmers, so the owners were rarely, if ever, near the land they owned.) The farmers readily divided and sold the land they had originally leased from the land company, ignoring any British restrictions. These freewheeling land deals became a hallmark of early American agriculture and opened the door to

Farming Tool Advances and Agricultural Organizations

Agricultural tools used on early American farms remained necessarily simple because the manufacturing industry was limited and farmers in remote areas had to fix their own implements. Farmers primarily used hand-held or animal-powered tools such as plows, harrows, spades, hoes, sickles, forks, and axes. They sowed seeds by hand and planted corn with a hoe or stick. They used sickles to cut grain crops such as wheat.

Farmers spent a great deal of time breaking new, untilled ground as the frontier expanded into woodland areas. A tougher plow was needed. In 1797, Charles Newbold (1764–1835), a blacksmith in Burlington, New Jersey, introduced a major improvement to the traditional wooden plow. He replaced several wooden parts that cut furrows with a single molded iron part. This invention made it easier for farmers to break tough and previously unplowed ground as farming expanded into new territories. In 1807, David Peacock, also from New Jersey, introduced a cast-iron plow with individual parts that could be replaced when they broke. He also added a steel-edged plowshare (the blade that makes furrows in the ground). Peacock's plow design became popular in large wheat fields of the Mid-Atlantic states and elsewhere. Jethro Wood (1774–1834), a New Yorker, patented a plow with fully interchangeable parts in 1814. The steel-tipped plow cut through soils even more efficiently than Peacock's plow. Wood's plow design remained popular on farms for many years. The next step in plow improvements would come in the 1830s with all-steel plows. Steam-powered plows did not come into use on farms until the late nineteenth century.

The first threshing machine (a machine that separates grain from stalks and husks) was patented in 1791, but this device did not become common until the 1820s, when further advances in design occurred. Similarly, though the first mechanical reaper (horse-drawn machine to cut down wheat stalks) was patented in 1803, the machine was not widely used until the mid-nineteenth century.

Early American farmers also formed organizations to promote agricultural experimentation. They discussed various topics, including new plowing techniques, use of fertilizers, crop cultivation, and livestock breeding. From 1785 to 1811, societies were formed in Pennsylvania, South Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, and Virginia. In 1811, the Berkshire Agricultural Society of Massachusetts held what is thought to be the first county fair in the United States. As in modern county fairs, farmers proudly displayed produce, livestock, and homemade products and demonstrated new farming techniques.

speculators, frontier expansion, and accumulation of wealth in the period following the American Revolution. Speculators were a common part of the American frontier. They purchased land from the government or land companies in large quantities at cheap prices, then divided it into smaller sized parcels and sold to farmers at higher prices for handsome profits. One drawback to this loose system was the lack of formal land surveys before settlement. This led to endless disputes about overlapping land claims.

Wartime farming

Farming activities changed little during the American Revolution. Some American farmers profited from the war, while others lost everything to hungry armies who helped themselves to the crops' harvests. Many farmers supplied the Continental Army, the army formed by the colonists for their fight for independence from Britain. Some farmers were Loyalists (persons supporting the British king) and therefore supplied the British army. New England farmers provided cattle, hogs, sheep, fruits, and vegetables. Farmers in the Mid-Atlantic states of Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York provided flour, bread, and beef. Sheep were raised not for food, but for wool. The wool fiber was mixed with flax fiber to produce a durable cloth called linsey-woolsey, which was used to make military uniforms. Hemp became a major crop, particularly in Virginia, providing fiber for making ropes, sacks, and sailcloth.

The Second Continental Congress, formed by the colonists in 1775 to govern the country during the American Revolution, encouraged agrarianism through its wartime policies. In 1775, it authorized colonies to seize farms owned by Loyalists. Usually these lands were then sold to Patriots (those supporting the fight for independence from British rule). By 1782, New York had seized property, including both land and houses or barns on the land, totaling $2.5 million in value. America had little money, but a lot of land. Therefore, the Second Continental Congress offered unsettled land as a bonus for those who enlisted in the army. Some Southern states, including Virginia and South Carolina, offered a slave to anyone who signed up for military duty.

Even prior to the war years, American farmers pushed into new areas for settlement. By 1775, when fighting erupted in the American Revolution, some sixteen thousand farmers, most from western Massachusetts and Connecticut, were already settled in the area that would become the state of Vermont. A few hardy settlers went west across the Appalachian Mountains to live in the region that contains present-day western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

Farmer rebellion against government policies, a major influence in early America after the war, began before the American Revolution. In the 1760s and early 1770s, farmer rebellions erupted in Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and North Carolina. Key issues included lack of protection from Native Americans on the frontier and government seizures of farms to pay debts owed by the farmers (usually for unpaid taxes). One confrontation led to an outright battle in May 1771, when several thousand farm rebels took on the colonial militia (volunteer army) of North Carolina.

Steady growth through the 1780s

Fulfilling Thomas Jefferson's hopes, farmers were at the forefront of frontier expansion in the early years of the United States. During the first decade after the war, farmers in the North continued moving to northern New England, in the area of Vermont and Maine. They also went westward across the Appalachian Mountains into the upper Ohio River valley. The prospect of rich, deep soils in the Ohio region appealed to farmers in New England, who had to cope with rocky soil and short growing seasons. Farmers to the south were moving to the southern Ohio River valley, settling on land that would become Kentucky and Tennessee. At this time, "the West" meant the area west of the Appalachian Mountains, east of the Mississippi River, south of the Great Lakes, and north of Spanish territory along the Gulf Coast.

In the upper Ohio River valley, small farms were most common. At first, corn was the major cash crop, and hogs were the main livestock. Corn was grown for general household use; people ate it, fed it to their livestock, and made it into beverages. Over time, wheat and then cattle became key cash crops. Corn, wheat, butter, cheese, and pork were hauled down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers on rafts, flatboats, and barges to the port at New Orleans. From there, they were shipped to the east coast and foreign markets. Livestock could more profitably be driven over the mountain passes eastward. Each year, thousands of hogs were driven from Ohio through the mountains to the eastern city markets. Commercial agriculture in the western region spurred the growth of gristmills, meat-packing houses, blacksmiths, and distilleries (to convert corn to whiskey).

In Kentucky, farmers established tobacco plantations, and hemp cultivation grew in importance. Craftspeople used hemp fibers to make ropes and sails for U.S. merchant marine fleets carrying on trade with foreign countries. Kentucky was growing rapidly; by 1783, tens of thousands of settlers had arrived in the area, which was still considered part of Virginia. By 1788, Kentucky had split from Virginia, becoming a separately governed territory.

An orderly settlement

To encourage agrarian expansion, the Continental Congress, which continued governing under the Articles of Confederation adopted in 1781, passed the Land Ordinance of 1785. The Ordinance established a system for the survey and sale of the public land. Land was sold in 640-acre parcels at $1 an acre, a large amount of money at that time. The main purchasers were land speculators such as the Ohio Company of Associates, which purchased 5 million acres in southern Ohio.

In 1787, Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance establishing the Northwest Territory. The region included the future states of Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and parts of Minnesota—lands won from the British in the 1783 Treaty of Paris. The Ordinance spelled out the process for newly settled areas to become states. Though applying only to this region, the Ordinance became the model for most territories entering state-hood. One of the criteria was that sixty thousand free inhabitants (non-slaves) live in a territory before it could apply to Congress for statehood.

Continued public concern over the speculators led to the Harrison Land Act of 1800. The act offered 320-acre parcels and allowed four years to pay the cost. More farmers could afford to buy land under these terms. However, many settlers were squatters (people who live on unoccupied land without buying or renting it), unable to afford any payments for the land.

The newly settled areas were the traditional homelands of numerous Native American tribes, but that was of little concern to the settlers. Farmers worried about Native American attacks, because the Native Americans were determined to protect their homelands. However, the farmers did not think about the devastating loss of life and land that Native Americans were experiencing as settlers pushed farther and farther west. American settlers considered Ohio and the Great Lakes region untouched wilderness; they ignored the fact that the Native Americans and their ancestors had lived on and used the land for thousands of years and had developed their own agricultural practices.

Spurring a new national government

During this early postwar farmstead expansion, a farmer uprising called Shays's Rebellion occurred. In 1786, Massachusetts was stretched thin trying to pay its war debts. The state decided to raise some money by imposing new taxes on merchants, and the merchants readily passed the tax burden on to farmers by increasing the price of goods farmers purchased. Unable to pay the higher costs, many farmers went broke and began losing their property to government seizure, unable to pay taxes on their property; some were placed in debtors' jail. People held in debtors' jails were normally released during the day to work so as to pay off debts, but required to return each night.

Farmers started to feel great hostility toward the authorities who were enforcing the new tax law. They decided to work together to block tax collection and property seizures. They even obstructed court proceedings. Daniel Shays (c. 1747–1825) was one of the leaders of this rebellious group. In January 1787, he led some two thousand rebel farmers, most of them veterans of the American Revolution, in an attempt to capture a U.S. military arsenal in Springfield, Massachusetts. The state sent a militia force of fifty-four hundred men to disperse them. The militia reached the arsenal first. A battle erupted when the rebel force arrived on January 25, resulting in only four rebels killed. The militia was successful in holding the arsenal and soon the rebels fled to nearby towns, chased by the militia. Shays and other leaders were captured and convicted of treason (punishable by death), but later pardoned by Massachusetts governor John Hancock (1737–1793), who feared renewed violence if they were executed. Other farmers who participated in Shays's Rebellion continued sporadic acts of defiance through 1787.

A most important outcome resulted from the farmer rebellion: America's political leaders decided to revamp the national government. They sought to strengthen the government's ability to maintain peace and order and uphold laws. Representatives from twelve states met in the summer of 1787 and created the U.S. Constitution after many weeks of debate.

Continued growth in the 1790s

As farming settlements continued to spread, new states formed. For example, in Vermont, the number of residents grew to eighty-five thousand by 1790, leading to Vermont's statehood in March 1791. The population requirement of needing at least sixty thousand free inhabitants was being applied outside the Northwest Territory. Vermont was the first state added to the original thirteen.

In the western region, most Native American resistance to the advance of American settlers in the early 1790s was north of the Ohio River. For the past decade, British troops had defiantly remained at outposts in areas west of the Appalachians, territory conceded to the Americans in the 1783 Treaty of Paris. These remaining British troops actively encouraged Native American resistance against U.S. settlements. Because of this resistance, the farming population grew slowly in the region around the Great Lakes and faster in areas south of the Ohio River.

Tobacco production peaked in the early 1790s in the coastal Chesapeake states of Maryland and Virginia and then became less profitable by the mid-1790s. Years of constant tobacco cultivation caused serious soil depletion. The center of tobacco farming shifted to interior piedmont (interior woodlands near the base of mountains) areas of Virginia and North Carolina, and across the Appalachians into Kentucky and Tennessee. Kentucky became the fifteenth state to join the union in June 1792. Tennessee grew more slowly, becoming the sixteenth state in 1796. The economy of Tennessee was based on cotton, corn, tobacco, cattle, and hogs. Dairy farming was also important in Tennessee.

Planters around Chesapeake Bay switched from tobacco to grains, such as wheat, and to general farming. Wheat farming soon flourished, and the wheat was used to make flour, an important product. Flour became an even more important international trade commodity following the outbreak of war in Europe in 1793. The European war disrupted trade, preventing the British from supplying wheat to Europe and other markets. This led to American farmers enjoying increased access to world markets.

The Ohio region finally became safer for settlement after the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. In this battle, U.S. forces crushed the Native American resistance movement in a terrible defeat. With the Native American threat largely ended, the farming population north of the Ohio River swelled. Ohio became the seventeenth state in 1803. The nearby Michigan Territory was created in 1805.

More farmer unrest

In the same year as the Battle of Fallen Timbers, other violence came to the frontier. Though heavily involved in trade, farmers were very suspicious of the new economic policies proposed by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804) in 1790 and 1791. Hamilton's policies were designed to promote trade and commerce. One of Hamilton's key policies involved the establishment of the First Bank of the United States. The purpose of the bank was to provide capital (money) for investment and commerce. People living in rural areas thought Hamilton's ideas benefited only a small group of Americans—wealthy investors who lived in Northern cities. Farmers, particularly in the South and West, saw no need for a national bank or other government involvement. They preferred Thomas Jefferson's politics, which supported the common people and agricultural interests.

In 1791, farmers in western Pennsylvania became angry over a new federal tax on whiskey. The tax was part of Hamilton's plan to raise money to pay off the national war debt. Frontier farmers often converted corn to whiskey in order to ship their product to market. Whiskey was much less costly to transport than corn. Since U.S. currency was in short supply on the frontier, whiskey sometimes served as money. By 1794, protesters in Pennsylvania became violent, obstructing tax officers and federalcourts. When the crowd failed to disperse upon orders from President George Washington (1732–1799; served 1789–97), Washington personally led thirteen thousand militiamen to western Pennsylvania. This show of force quickly ended the rebellion. However, the farmers now resented both the whiskey tax and the government's response to their protest.

Yet another farmer rebellion would arise in Pennsylvania in 1799, this one in opposition to federal taxes. In 1798, Congress passed a tax on land, slaves, and horses. The revenue was to help finance construction of a naval fleet to protect U.S. merchant ships. German immigrant farmers in Pennsylvania strongly opposed the new tax. A farmer named John Fries (1750–1818) and others refused to pay the taxes and assaulted tax assessors attempting to collect the money. Fries and the other farmers held town meetings to organize opposition to the tax and formed a local militia to release farmers who were being held in prison for not paying their taxes. President John Adams (1735–1826; served 1797–1801) sent federal troops and the state militia to quell the unrest. Fries and others were arrested and convicted of treason. Once again, the new federal government showed strength in successfully quieting domestic unrest. Adams pardoned the rebels in 1800, claiming that the immigrant farmers could not speak English and did not understand the tax or its purpose. This was the last episode of violent agrarian opposition to federal economic policies in the 1800s.

Growth of regionalism

Prior to the American Revolution, the colonies did not differ much in economic terms. However, by the end of the early American period in 1815, regional differences were much sharper as farmsteads grew in number and focused on different cash crops in different regions.

The Northern small farmer

Farming in New England had its problems. The soil was rocky and the growing season short. Beyond providing immediate provisions for their families, early American farmers sold cattle, corn, rye, dairy items, and fruits and vegetables at local markets. An average New England farm had 100 to 200 acres, but only about 5 acres were actually planted. The farmer used another 10 acres for pastureland and left the rest in its natural state, such as woodlands. Connecticut was the most productive agricultural area in the region. Connecticut farmers raised beef, pork, horses, livestock, rye, oats, and flax. New Havenand New London served as ports. Extensive grain crops were not feasible in much of New England, because wheat rust, a fungus that attacks wheat, was a major problem there. Wheat farmers in Maine were able to supply markets along the Canadian coast, including Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and in the West Indies.

Raising sheep in New England became increasingly important, but harsh winters made it a difficult enterprise. Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket in Massachusetts and Narragansett in Rhode Island had the most commercial success. Americans raised sheep primarily for their wool; mutton (sheep meat) was not a popular food in the United States. In 1815, following the War of 1812, British merchants flooded the United States with inexpensive wool, causing New England sheep farming to sharply decline.

Because of its natural limitations for farming, New England relied more on fishing. Cod fisheries became increasingly important after 1790. Dried and pickled fish were shipped to the West Indies and southern Europe. Whaling centered in the Nantucket and New Bedford areas of Massachusetts. Whales provided oil for candle production and for fueling oil lamps. To supply the fishing fleets, farmers raised swine. The meat was made into salt pork and packed in barrels called hogsheads. Fishing boats carried the hogsheads for their long journeys.

The Mid-Atlantic wheat farmer

The Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, stretching from lower New York to northern Virginia, had much better agricultural potential than New England; the soil was deeper and the climate milder. Farmers tilled about 75 acres of a typical 200-acre farm and used another 65 acres as pastureland or meadows for grazing livestock.

Philadelphia, New York, and Baltimore were the main domestic markets for Mid-Atlantic grain and also provided ports for shipping the grain to other places, including the West Indies. The European wars from 1793 to 1815 opened world markets for U.S. wheat and flour. By 1812, more than four hundred gristmills ground some 15 million pounds of flour each year in Virginia alone. The growth of agricultural trade required harbor improvements and better roads from rural areas to ports. As early as 1785, the Maryland legislature approved a road construction program, one of the first in the nation. However, peace in Europe and a period of bad weather in 1815 ended the prosperity that wheat farming had brought to the region. Raising cattle, though, remained an important industry in western Virginia along the Shenandoah Valley. Farmers herded large numbers of cattle to urban markets along the coast.

The Southern planter

By 1788, farmers had claimed much of the good land along the southern east coast, from Virginia to South Carolina. In the early 1790s, farming expanded further south, through Georgia, and westward across the lower South toward the Mississippi River. While Northern farmers often developed their farms from small tracts of unsettled land on the frontier, wealthy Southern planters generally bought farmland and formed large plantations. The South was the nation's leading agricultural producer. Southern planters relied heavily on foreign markets to sell their products. They also relied on slave labor.

By the mid-1790s, Southern planters shifted from rice, indigo, and tobacco crops to cotton and sugar. An overproduction of rice led to low prices that farmers could not withstand given the high labor costs involved in rice cultivation. Britain was the main market for American indigo, but after the American Revolution, the British looked to their colonies in the West Indies for their indigo supply.

In the mid-1790s, sugarcane production began in Spanish-held Louisiana. By 1817, sugarcane plantations stretched a hundred miles along the Mississippi River above New Orleans. However, sugarcane production was possible only in areas close to the river. Therefore, the amount produced was limited, and the region could not develop significant international trade in sugar.

Cotton had no economic importance in the 1780s in the South. Black seed cotton was the only variety that had seeds planters could easily remove. However, that variety could be grown only in a limited area within 50 miles of the Georgia and South Carolina coastline. In contrast, green seed cotton grew very well in the interior, but seed removal was much more difficult. In 1793, farmers in South Carolina and Georgia grew less than 3 million pounds of cotton. But that year, Eli Whitney (1765–1825) invented a device called the cotton gin while visiting a Georgia plantation. The device made it much easier to remove seeds from the green seed cotton. His invention enabled one worker to remove seeds from 50 pounds of cotton a day rather than only 1 pound.

Just as Whitney's invention vastly improved cotton production, the demand for cotton began to rise. Britain was a key foreign market for the South's cotton, and the British textile industry was in the midst of an industrial revolution. The industrial revolution was an era during which goods were produced in large quantities in factories by machines powered by steam or moving water rather than by craftsmen in home shops making items one at a time. Such textile equipment as the power loom, flying shuttle, and spinning jenny dramatically boosted production of cloth. British textile mills soon depended on the United States for over half the cotton they used.

Cotton had a dramatic impact on the Southern economy. Cotton cultivation quickly spread inland from the coastal areas of South Carolina and Georgia in the mid-1790s. It then spread to parts of Tennessee through northern Alabama and to Natchez on the Mississippi River by 1798. Production was up to 80 million pounds by 1811. Some sixty million pounds were produced in South Carolina and Georgia alone. By 1815, major cotton plantations grew around Natchez, Nashville, and Baton Rouge. By 1820, cotton would be the top export of the South, leading to an increased use of slave labor.

Securing ports for farmers

By 1799, the value of American produce transported down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and through the port of New Orleans reached $1 million. The Spanish still controlled Florida and the Gulf Coast region, including the ports of New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama. Western American farmers felt especially vulnerable to international politics. For example, despite the 1795 Treaty of San Lorenzo with Spain, which guaranteed a free flow of American goods through the New Orleans port, Spanish authorities closed the port to American traffic from October 1802 to March 1803 as transfer to French control was being worked out. Though it was temporary, the closure alarmed farmers in the western parts of America, because the Mississippi River and the port at New Orleans were essential to the transport of their goods.

When President Jefferson heard that France might acquire the region then known as Louisiana from Spain, he feared the western farmers would again be at the mercy of a European power and cut off from their markets. Jefferson wanted to keep a free flow of produce moving down the Mississippi River and through New Orleans, so he sent James Monroe (1758–1831) to France to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans and the surrounding area. However, French leader Napoléon Bonaparte (1769–1821) desperately needed money for his war with Britain, so he offered the entire Louisiana region to the United States for $15 million. The purchase doubled the size of the United States, providing land for future farming generations. More immediately, the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 permanently opened the port of New Orleans to American farmers, and this led to increased American settlement west of the Appalachians.

The area near the mouth of the Mississippi River became the Orleans Territory in 1804. Cotton, sugar, and cattle ranching grew rapidly there. By 1807, the value of produce shipped through New Orleans reached $5 million. With the growth of settlements upstream along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, the Illinois Territory was established in 1809. By 1810, the population west of the Appalachian Mountains was more than one million people, up from just 150,000 in 1795.

Getting produce to market

Transportation was a major problem that plagued farmers throughout the early American period. Slow-moving oxen pulled wagons over primitive roads. Farmers had to rely on rivers whenever possible, and even then, only downstream hauling was possible for large shipments. No boats at the time could power upstream against the current. This problem of transporting produce almost lost the American Revolution for the colonists. During the harsh winter of 1777–78, the Continental Army suffered severe food shortages at Valley Forge in Pennsylvania because farmers had difficulty hauling food, which was plentiful, overland to where it was needed. Problems with transportation continued to plague farmers in the early 1800s.

Future of the American small farmer

Jefferson and other proponents of agrarianism commonly thought of farmers as leading an ideal life of rural self-sufficiency (growing and making all the necessities for everyday life without depending on anyone else). However, few farmers in early America, even small-scale farmers, aimed solely for self-sufficiency. The farmers most self-sufficient were usually those living on the leading edge of frontier expansion. From the very beginning of the nation in 1783, U.S. farmers sought profits for their crops; even tenant farmers (farmers who rented land from others) wanted to make money for their work. American farmers eagerly strove to operate in a market economy. That is, they treated farming as a business and sought cash in return for their produce. For example, Southern farmers sold tobacco, cotton, sugarcane, and rice to purchasing agents who in turn sold the produce to foreign markets. Instead of cultivating all the various plants and animals that their own households might need, American farmers often planted single-crop fields for economic gain and used the profits to purchase the other household goods they needed. To the average farmer, the purely agrarian subsistence lifestyle idealized by Jefferson seemed unrealistic. Farmers knew that subsistence farming meant hard work, poverty, and low social status. They wanted profit instead.

Most citizens during the early American period and for many years thereafter lived in rural areas as small farmers. However, despite the prevailing American notion that farming was the most virtuous lifestyle, the number of farmers steadily declined through time. People sought higher pay and financial stability in the growing urban factories and businesses. By 1880, the number of farmers would fall below 50 percent of the U.S. population. By 1920, the number of people living in rural areas would also fall below 50 percent of the population. By the 1930s, the federal government had to introduce large financial support programs for farmers. These would continue into the twenty-first century.

Still, the average American considered farming the most virtuous life. It was most closely associated with honored family values that included hard work, honesty, neighborliness, and thrift. The rural life retained a charm that contrasted with urban crowding and social problems that seemed prevalent in industrialized urban centers.

For More Information


Danbom, David B. Born in the Country: A History of Rural America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Hays, Wilma P., and R. Vernon Hays. Foods the Indians Gave Us. New York: I. Washburn, 1973.

Hurt, R. Douglas. American Agriculture: A Brief History. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1994.

Web Sites

"Farming in the 13 American Colonies." Social Studies for Kids.http://www.socialstudiesforkids.com/articles/ushistory/13coloniesfarm.htm (accessed on August 6, 2005).

"A History of American Agriculture." Agriculture in the Classroom.http://www.agclassroom.org/teacher/history/ (accessed on August 6, 2005).

Hurt, R. Douglas. "Agriculture." Encyclopedia of North American Indians.http://college.hmco.com/history/readerscomp/naind/html/na_000500_agriculture.htm (accessed on August 6, 2005).

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