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The following article is from the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.


Farming in Colonial Times


In 1775, over two million people lived in the thirteen American colonies

and about 500,000 of them lived in Virginia, the largest and most popul-

ous colony. Many of these people were farmers or planters who lived and

worked on small farms of less than two hundred acres. A relatively small

number of Virginians were wealthy planters or merchants, and only about

two percent of the population lived in Virginia’s few small towns or cities

like York, Norfolk, Richmond, Williamsburg, or Fredericksburg. About

200,000 of the people living in Virginia were enslaved African Americans

most of whom worked in tobacco fields for white masters.


A small farmer living in Virginia about the time of the American Revolu-

tion was probably concerned mainly with surviving and trying to improve

the lives of himself and his family. Whether he was a recent immigrant

from England, Scotland, Ireland, or Germany, or a native Virginian, he

probably hoped to improve his life by earning enough money to secure

more land and nicer possessions.


How did planters earn a living?


To earn a living, planters grew some type of cash crop that could be sold

for money or credit in order to buy needed tools, livestock, and household

goods which could not be produced on the farm. Before the American

Revolution, tobacco was the crop most Virginians grew and sold to Eng-

lish and Scottish merchants. Toward the end of the eighteenth century,

however, many farmers began growing grains like wheat, oats and corn.

These crops took fewer workers to grow, did not deplete the nutrients in

he soil the way tobacco did, and were in great demand in Europe and the

West Indies. Although many Virginians began growing these grains, to-

bacco continued to be the colony’s largest export crop.


Tobacco planters usually relied on enslaved people to help work the fields.

Each additional worker could cultivate about two to three acres of tobacco,

but workers were expensive. Planters had to balance the cost of buying a

slave or hiring one against the profit they expected to gain from selling

their crops at the end of the year. Small planters seldom had more than five enslaved people and many had only one or two.


Did farmers raise any other types of crops in Virginia?


In addition to growing a primary cash crop, farmers also grew a variety of

other things. Virginia farmers raised vegetables like corn, beans, peas, car-

rots, and cabbage to eat. Corn was an important crop because it provided

food for humans – eaten fresh or ground into corn meal flour – and food

for farm animals; and the husks could be used for fodder, to make mats,

or to stuff into mattresses. Farm women also raised a variety of herbs such

as parsley, rosemary, lavender, chamomile, and spearmint to season food

and for medicinal purposes.


What kinds of animals were found on farms in Virginia?


Animals served many uses on Virginia farms. Oxen and horses were strong

work animals that could be used to pull carts and wagons, plow the fields,

and carry tobacco from the farm to the tobacco inspection warehouse.

Farmers also raised pigs, cows, chickens and other fowl for food. Pigs were slaughtered for meat, lard, or soap for the farm. Sheep were raised for wool

which could be spun into yarn and then knitted or woven into cloth. Beef

was a popular food on Virginia farms, and cows produced milk for both

butter and cheese. Chickens, geese, guinea fowl, and turkeys provided eggs,

meat, and feathers. Deer, wild fowl, and other game were hunted to supple-

ment the family diet.


In what kinds of homes did average Virginians live?


Unlike the wealthy planters who lived in great houses on large plantations,

the average Virginian had a small house, with one or two other wooden

buildings on his plot of land. A typical farm family, consisting of a mother

and father and four to six children, lived in a one or two-room wooden

house that was often no larger than 16 by 20 feet, or about the size of a

garage today. These houses usually had a chimney and fireplace with

space for storage or sleeping in an upstairs loft. Some had wooden floors,

but many simply had dirt floors. If the farmer had carpentry skills, he might

have built his home himself, but if not, he could hire a carpenter to do the

work for him, often in exchange for farm products or return labor. The

kitchen, tobacco barn, and storage buildings were usually separate from

the main house. If the farmer owned slaves, they may have lived in one

of these out-buildings or in a cabin nearby.


What was a man’s role on a farm?


The planter’s main job was to raise the cash crop and manage the slaves,

but those who lived on small farms performed many other jobs as well.

Depending on their skills, men built and repaired buildings, fences, and

simple furniture for the house-hold. Hunting, to feed the family and to

keep pests away from crops and livestock, and fishing were other impor-

tant tasks undertaken by most farmers. Items not produced on the farm

were purchased from local merchants or imported from England. Some-

times the planter paid cash for these goods, but he usually bought on

credit and paid off his account when he sold his next crop of tobacco or



Virginia planters who were land owners had civic duties as well, such as

paying taxes, voting, and participating in county courts as jurors. Men

between the ages of 16 and 60 were also required to serve in the county

militia. They were required to muster several times each year and had to

provide their own gun and ammunition. Militia units were used to keep

the peace, fight Indians and put down slave rebellions, if necessary. Mus-

ter days also served as good opportunities for men to gather with their

friends and neighbors.


Work on the small farm or plantation was determined by the season, and

certain jobs were performed at the same time each year. For tobacco plant-

ers, seeds were planted in beds in January, fields prepared in the early

spring and seedlings transplanted around May. The summer was spent

worming, weeding, watering, and topping the tobacco plants to ensure

good quality tobacco would be harvested by September. During the fall,

the tobacco was hung in tobacco barns and cured or dried, then packed or

prized into wooden barrel-shaped containers called hogs-heads to be taken

to the inspection warehouse down by the river. The process of growing

and selling tobacco took a great deal of time and lasted until the follow-

ing year when the hogsheads were loaded onto ships and sent to England

for sale. Growing grains like wheat, corn, and oats took less time, and the

growing season was much shorter. Wheat and oats required little attention

between planting in early spring and harvesting in June and July. The

slack times throughout the year were good times to repair tools, fences

and buildings, cut timber, shuck and grind corn, manure the fields, and

ship the last season’s grain to market.


What was a woman’s life like on a farm?


The busy life of women on Virginia farms fit into the seasonal cycles and

the growing season of the cash crop as well. In the winter and spring, spin-

ning and sewing were done. In the late summer and fall, women dried and

stored fruits and vegetables for winter meals. Hogs were butchered in the

fall and the meat made into sausage or salted and smoked for preservation.

Tallow candles and lye soap were made with leftover animal fat. Planter’s

wives often grew herbs such as spearmint, peppermint, lavender, rosemary

and parsley which were used to season foods and make home healthcare

remedies. Other common crops on Virginia farms were cotton and flax.

Though most families bought imported fabric when they could, the long,

tough fibers inside the flax plant could be spun on a spinning wheel to

make linen thread. This thread was later woven into linen cloth for cloth-

ing and bedding. Throughout the year, women cooked, knitted, and sewed clothing, tended the slaves and livestock, and raised the children. On some

small farms, women worked in the fields helping to grow crops, but most

women spent their time running the household.


What was the role of children on a farm?


Children’s chores and education varied, depending on whether they were

boys or girls. Very young children were under their mother’s care. Public

schools were not available in colonial Virginia, so children often learned everything they needed to know at home. Some boys received limited

schooling from their local Anglican minister. Formal education was usual-

ly only considered for boys because they were expected to learn how to

run the farm, make purchases, deal with finances, and manage slaves. If

his parents were literate, a young boy might be taught reading, writing and arithmetic at home. Most young girls learned to cook, spin, and sew from

their mothers, and they might have learned to write their names and read

the Bible. Some children used a hornbook to learn their letters. A horn-

book was a primer with the letters of the alphabet, mounted on wood,

bone, or leather and often protected by a thin sheet of transparent horn.

Few Virginians could afford to own many books; many owned only a

Bible. Children’s books, which were available to the wealthy, often had

a moral lesson. Aesop’s Fables were among the most popular children’s

stories. Some older boys (and a few girls) worked for a master tradesman

as apprentices. While serving their five to seven-year apprenticeship, they

not only helped their master do important work, but also learned the skills

of the trade and received an education as well.


What was life like for enslaved people on Virginia farms?


A slave is a person who is owned or enslaved by another person. In colon-

ial times, people from the west coast of Africa were captured and shipped

to Virginia and other colonies to work as slaves. In Virginia these Africans

lived and worked on plantations or small farms where tobacco was the cash

crop. Enslaved for life, they could be bought or sold as property.


Enslaved people in Virginia faced a life of great hardship. Those on small-

er farms often lived in a kitchen or other outbuilding or in crude cabins

near the farmer’s house. On large tobacco plantations, the field slaves us-

ually lived in cabins grouped together in the slave quarter, which was far-

ther away from the master’s house but under the watchful eye of an over-

seer. Although large plantations had many enslaved people, most owners

usually had fewer than five, including children. Living on a small farm

often made it hard for black men and women to find wives and husbands

to start families. Sometimes white masters split up families and sent par-

ents or children to different places to live and work which also made it

difficult to raise a family. As a general rule, enslaved people worked from

sunrise to sunset, usually in the tobacco fields. On large plantations, some

learned trades and worked as blacksmiths, carpenters, and coopers or serv-

ed as cooks and house servants.


At the end of the workday and on Sundays and Christmas, most enslaved

people had a few hours to tend to personal needs. They often spent this

time doing their own household chores or working in their own gardens.

Many masters allowed their slaves to raise chickens, vegetables and tobac-

co during their spare time, and sometimes they were allowed to sell these

things to earn a small amount of money. When they could, slaves spent

their evenings and limited free time visiting friends or family who might

live nearby, telling stories, singing, and dancing. Many of these activities combined familiar African traditions with British customs learned in the

New World. Some of the slaves’ dances were similar to their African tribal dances, and their songs often told stories about how their masters treated

them and the injustices of slavery. Some musical instruments used by en-

slaved people were similar to those used in Africa. The banjo, made out

of a hollow gourd, and the drum were two instruments that slaves made

and used to create music.


In Virginia, teaching enslaved people to read and write was generally not

encouraged. Some learned secretly, but for those living on small farms

where the master’s family was not well educated, there was little oppor-

tunity. Black Virginians kept some parts of their African religions as well.

The life of a slave was hard and often cruel, and their religion was an im-

portant way to remind them that their lives had meaning and dignity.


Many found ways to resist the hardships of slavery. Prolonging their work,

breaking or hiding tools or pretending to be sick, were safe and effective

ways to resist the authority of their masters. Some enslaved people ran

away to find family in other parts of the country or attempted to escape

to the wilderness to begin a new life. Ads printed in the Virginia Gazette

describe these runaways, and they were often captured and returned to

their masters. Those who could not escape might attempt to destroy their

master’s crops or other property or steal food to feed their families. Such

actions were usually met with harsh punishment or death.



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