Staple Economies

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Staple Economies


Types. The term staples refers to resources or crops produced in mass quantities for sale or export. There are two types of staples: primary and secondary. Primary staples are goods produced predominantly for export, such as rice and tobacco. In the colonial period these crops grew in tropical and semitropical regions on plantations where indentured servants or slaves planted and harvested the crops. The Navigation Acts protected these crops that were essential to the trade between the colony and the homeland. Secondary staples were produced first for personal use and second for sale in both local and distant markets. Crops such as corn and oats grew in temperate zones where farm families with a few servants labored.

Regional Economies. Regardless of occupations in England and Europe, most settlers in the seventeenth century turned to farming for their livelihood. This condition would persist throughout the colonial era, with 90 percent of the economy being agricultural. But the crops they produced varied from one geographic region to another. The settlers found that it was weather and topography that determined the kinds of crops that they could grow and harvest. Fertile riverbanks, rocky terrain, verdant pastures, sandy hillocks, and fruitful forests determined what could be grown best in a specific area. The success or failure of experimentation led to an aggressive program of cultivating the profitable crops in those colonies whose goal it was to make a profit. Other colonists were satisfied with a subsistence culture that sustained families. The different economic goals and cultural values shaped the development of distinct labor forces. The colonial relationship

with England and a growing international market secured the agricultural choices and reinforced regional economies.

New England. The New England Puritans wanted to create a new community far from the Anglican Church so that they could pray and practice their beliefs without interference. They envisioned family farms that supported their self-contained communities. They condemned excessive profits that promoted greed. In a cool climate that limited the growing season, Puritan farmers planted wheat, oats, and barley on just enough land to sustain their families. The town of Dedham allotted sixty-five acres outside of town to each family along with a one-acre house lot in town. Cattle, sheep, and hogs ranged freely in community fields and woodlands. After disease blighted the wheat in 1660, the New England farmers relied on maize (corn) to sustain their families. Relatively short growing seasons and rocky soil prevented the development of a staple crop for export. Farmers had not yet copied the Indian practice of rotating crops, so New Englanders found that their soil was depleted after five or six years. While some families moved, others turned to fishing, the first large-scale commodity New Englanders could export. Eventually many of the farmers would turn to dairy and meat production.

Mid Atlantic. With a combination of industrious families and deeply rich soil, Pennsylvania and New Jersey thrived after initial settlement in 1681. British, Dutch, and German farmers continued traditional agricultural practices on farms from one hundred to two hundred acres in size. It was not until the 1720s that Pennsylvania pursued an active export market. It was their wheat, flour, and bread that was in high demand in Ireland and southern Europe. Their balanced trade is evident in a description by a merchant in 1741:

We make our Remittances a great many ways, sometimes to the West Indies in Bread, flour, Pork, Indian Corn, and hogshead Staves, sometimes to Carrolina and Newfoundland in Bread and Flour sometimes to Portugall in Wheat, Flour and Pipe Staves sometimes to Ireland in Flax seed Flour, Oak and Walnut Planks and Barrel Staves and to England in Skinns, Tobacco, Beeswax, staves of all Kinds, Oak and Walnut Planks, Boat Boards, Pigg Iron, Tarr, Pitch, Turpentine, Ships, and Bills of Exchange.

The Dutch and Swedes who first settled New Netherland and New Sweden developed a thriving fur trade with various Native American tribes. Wheat exports would supplant the fur trade in the early eighteenth century. One reason for that delay was the preference of Dutch patroons to hold on to their land rather than develop it for the commercial market. They were more inclined to lease the land to tenants who raised enough to feed their families and pay their rent.

Upper South. Investors in the stock company that financed the settlement of Virginia wanted to make money. Within twelve years of the first settlement in 1607, John Rolfe developed a marketable strain of tobacco. Virginia and Maryland were the first colonies to rely on a single crop that was dependent on an external market. Because tobacco fetched a high price at the beginning of the seventeenth century, Chesapeake growers planted primarily tobacco and imported everything they needed to live except food and timber. The tobacco boom ended a short ten years later, in 1629. During the 1630s the price of tobacco fell from sixteen to five pennies per pound. By 1670 the price of tobacco fell to one penny per pound. Tobacco remained profitable but would never again command the exorbitant prices of the first quarter-century. In 1619 planters exported 20,000 pounds of tobacco, and by 1700 they exported 38 million pounds. During the eighteenth century the exports of tobacco fluctuated between 25 million and 160 million pounds. To maintain a profitable venture planters needed to grow and export more tobacco. The reduction in profit was made even worse by soil depletion. Tobacco was even harder on the soil than the New England crops, so the Chesapeake planters found that their crop yield declined after only three or four years. That problem resulted in planters either moving further inland or switching to wheat.

Lower South. West Indian planters who needed land to produce foodstuffs to support their sugar economy migrated to Carolina. Cavaliers promised land by King Charles II joined the Barbadians. Before they established a staple crop, English settlers relied on the trade of deerskins with neighboring Indians. Between 1699 and 1715, two hundred traders sent an average of fifty-three thousand skins a year to England. In addition to the flourishing trade of skins, England also sought naval stores: bowsprits, masts, pitch, resin, tar, and turpentine. Although these commodities supported Carolina settlers, they did not bring the kind of profits the proprietors envisioned. A systematic search for a staple crop eliminated silk, sugarcane, ginger, tobacco, and grapes. Rice emerged in the 1720s as the crop that would thrive best in the Low Country. Planters exported twelve thousand pounds of rice in 1698, an amount dwarfed by the eighteen million pounds they sold in 1730. Caribbean planters supplied capital to develop the plantations and slaves to work the crop. The production of rice increased with the advanced knowledge of African slaves from Senegambia who were accustomed to harvesting rice in their home countries. Production of rice also increased with the development of irrigation, improved seed, and innovations in the cleaning process. Prudent experimentation by Eliza Lucas in the 1740s produced a quality crop of indigo (a blue dye) that could compete with French indigo grown in the West Indies. Indigo would become the fifth most valuable commodity exported from the mainland colonies, following grain, tobacco, rice, and fish.


Peter A. Coclanis, The Shadow of a Dream: Economic Life and Death in the South Carolina Low Country, 16701920 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989);

Ralph Davies, The Rise of the Atlantic Economies (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1973);

Alice Hanson Jones, Wealth of a Nation to Be: The American Colonies on the Eve of the Revolution (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980);

Allan Kulikoff, Tobacco and Slaves: The Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake, 16801800 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986);

John J. McCusker and Russell R. Menard, The Economy of British America, 16071789 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985).

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Staple Economies

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