Agriculture Rules The South

In contrast to New England and the middle colonies were the predominantly rural southern settlements, Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia. Jamestown, in Virginia, was the first English colony to survive in the New World. Late in December 1606, a group of about a hundred men, sponsored by a London colonizing company, had set out in search of great adventure. They dreamed of finding gold; homes in the wilderness were not their goal. Among them, Captain John Smith emerged as the dominant figure, and despite quarrels, starvation, and Indian attacks, his will held the little colony together through the first years.

In the earliest days, the promoting company, eager for quick returns, required the colonists to concentrate on producing lumber and other products for sale in the London market, instead of permitting them to plant crops for their own subsistence. After few disastrous years the company eased its requirements and distributed land to the coionists.

In 1612, a development occurred that revolutionized the economy of Virginia. This was the discovery of a method of curing Virginia tobacco to make it palatable to the European taste. The first shipment of this tobacco reached London in 1614, and within a decade it had become Virginia's chief source of revenue.

Click here for a map of the colonial period

The cultivation of tobacco exhausted the soil after several crops. Breaking new ground, planters scattered up and down the numerous waterways. No towns dotted the region, and even Jamestown, the capital, had only a few houses.

Though most settlers had come to Virginia to improve their economic position, in Maryland the neighboring colony, religious as well as economic motives led to settlement. While seeking to establish a refuge for Catholics there, the Calvert family was also interested in creating estates that would bring profits. To that end, and to avoid trouble with the British government, the Calverts encouraged Protestant as well as Cathoiic immigration.

In social structure and in government the Calverts tried to make Maryland an aristocratic land in the ancient tradition, which they aspired to rule with all the prerogatives of kings. But the spiritof independence ran strong in this frontier society. In Maryland, as in the other colonies, the authorities could not circumvent the settlers' stubborn insistence on the guarantees of personal liberty established by English common law and the natural rights of subjects to participate in government through representative assemblies.

Maryland developed an economy very similar to that of Virginia. Devoted to agriculture with a dominant tidewater class of great planters, both colonies had a back country into which yeomen farmers steadily filtered. Both suffered the handicaps of a one-crop system. And before the midpoint of the 18th century, both were profoundly affected by black slavery.

In these two colonies the wealthy planters took their social responsibilities seriously, serving as justices of the peace, colonels of the militia, and members of the legislative assemblies. But yeomen farmers also sat in popular assemblies and found their way into political office. Their outspoken independence was a constant warning to the oligarchy of planters not to encroach too far upon the rights of free men.

By the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the social structure in Maryland and Virginia had taken on the qualities it would retain until the Civil War. Supported by slave labor, the planters held most of the political power and the best land, built great houses, adopted an aristocratic way of life, and kept in touch with the world of culture overseas. Next in the socioeconomic scale were the farmers, placing their hope for prosperity in the fresh soil of the back country. Least prosperous were the small farmers, struggling for existence in competition with slave-owning planters. in neither Virginia nor Maryland did a large trading class develop, for the planters themselves traded directly with London.

It was reserved for the Carolinas, with Charleston as the leading port, to develop into the trading center of the south. There the settlers quickly learned to combine agriculture and commerce, and the marketplace became a major source of prosperity. Dense forests also brought revenue; lumber, tar, and resin from the longleaf pine provided some of the best shipbuilding materials in the world. Not bound to a single crop as was Virginia, the Carolinas also produced and exported rice and indigo. By 1750, more than 100,000 people lived in the two colonies of North and South Carolina.

In the south, as everywhere else in the colonies, the growth of the back country had special significance. Men seeking greater freedom than could be found in the original tidewater settlements pushed inland. Those who could not secure fertile land along the coast, or who had exhausted the lands they held, found the hills farther west a bountiful refuge. Soon the interior was dotted with thriving farms. Humble farmers were not the only ones who found the hinterland attractive. Peter Jefferson, for example, an enterprising surveyor-father of Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States-settled in the hill country by acquiring 160 hectares of land for a bowl of punch.

Living on the edge of the Indian country, making their cabins their fortresses, and relying on their own sharp eyes and trusty muskets, frontiersmen became, of necessity, a sturdy, selfreliant people. They cleared tracts in the wilderness, burned the brush, and cultivated maize and wheat among the stumps. The men wore buckskin, the women garments of cloth they had spun at home. Their food was venison, wild turkey, and fish. They had their own amusements-great barbecues, housewarmings for newly married couples, shooting matches, and contests where quilted blankets were made.