Chronicles of America 

Town And Country

The tilling of the soil absorbed the energies of not less than nine-tenths of the colonial population. Even those who by occupation were sailors, fishermen, fur traders, or merchants often gave a part of their time to the cultivation of farms or plantations. Land hunger was the master passion which brought the men of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries across the sea and lured them on to the frontier. Where hundreds sought for freedom of worship and release from political oppression, thousands saw in the great unoccupied lands of the New World a chance to make a living and to escape from their landlords at home. To obtain a freehold in America was, as Thomas Hutchinson once wrote of New England, the "ruling purpose" which sent colonial sons with their cattle and belongings to some distant frontier township, where they would thrust back the wilderness and create a new community. Throughout the whole of the colonial period this migration westward in quest of land, whether overseas or through the wilderness, whether from New England or Old England or the Continent, continued at an accelerating pace. The Revolutionary troubles, of course, brought it temporarily to a standstill.

In New England — outside of New Hampshire, where the Allen family had a claim to the soil that made the people of that colony a great deal of trouble — every individual was his own proprietor, the supreme and independent lord of the acres he tilled. But elsewhere the ultimate title to the soil lay in the hands of the King or of such great proprietors as the Baltimores and the Penns, to whom grants had been made by the Crown. The colonist who obtained land from King or proprietor was expected to pay a small quitrent as a token of the higher ownership. The quitrent was not a real rent, proportionate to the actual value of the acres held; it was never large in amount nor burdensome to the settler; and it was rarely increased, whether the price of land rose or fell. The colonists never liked the quitrent, however, and in many instances resolutely refused to pay it, so that it became in time a cause of friction and a source of discontent which played some part in arousing in America the desire for independence. Once when the people of North Carolina complained of the way their lands were doled out, the Governor replied that if they did not like the conditions they could give up their lands, which after all were the King's and not theirs. It was a small thing, this quitrent, but it touched men's daily lives a thousand times more often than did some of the larger grievances to which the Revolution has been ascribed.

The towns of New England were compact little communities, favorably situated by sea or river, and their inhabitants were given over in the main to the pursuit of agriculture. Even many of the seaports and fishing villages were occupied by a folk as familiar with the plow as with the warehouse, the wharf, or the fishing smack, and accustomed to supply their sloops and schooners with the produce of their own and their neighbors' acres. Life in the towns was one of incessant activity. The New Englander's house, with its barns, outbuildings, kitchen garden, and back lot, fronted the village street, while near at hand were the meetinghouse and schoolhouse, pillories, stocks, and signpost, all objects of constant interest and frequent concern. Beyond this clustered group of houses stretched the outlying arable land, meadows, pastures, and woodland, the scene of the villager's industry and the source of his livelihood. Thence came wheat and corn for his gristmill, hay and oats for his horses and cattle, timber for his sawmill, and wood for the huge fireplace which warmed his home. The lots of an individual owner would be scattered in several divisions, some near at hand, to be reached easily on foot, others two or more miles distant, involving a ride on horseback or by wagon. While most of the New Englanders preferred to live in neighborly fashion near together, some built their houses on a convenient hillside or fertile upland away from the center. Here they set up "quarters" or "corners" which were often destined to become in time little villages by themselves, each the seat of a cow pound, a chapel, and a school. Sometimes these little centers developed into separate ecclesiastical societies and even into independent towns; but frequently they remained legally a part of the original church and township, and the residents often journeyed many miles to take part in town meeting or to join in the social and religious life of the older community.

The New Englander who viewed for the first time the list of his allotments as entered in the town book of land records had the novel sensation of knowing that to all intents and purposes they were his own property, subject of course to the law of the colony, which he himself helped to make through his representatives in the Assembly; subject, too, more remotely, to the authority of the King across the sea. But the King did not often bother him. He could do with his land much as he pleased: sell it if need be, leave it to his children by will, or add to it by purchase. The New Englander loved a land sale as he loved a horse trade and any dicker in prices; but he had a stubborn sense of justice and a regard for the letter of the law which often drove him to the courts in defense of his land claims. Probably a majority of the cases which came before the New England courts in colonial times had to do with land. Yet there was little accumulation of large properties or landed estates, for such were contrary to the Puritan's ideas of equality. Jonathan Belcher, later a Governor of Massachusetts, had in eastern Connecticut a manor called Mortlake, on which were a few un-enterprising tenants, holding their land for a money rental. There are other instances of lands let out in a similar manner on limited leases, but the number was not large, for, as Hutchinson said, the Puritan's ruling passion was for a freehold and not a tenancy, and "where there is one farm in the hands of a tenant, " he added, "there are fifty occupied by him who has the fee of it."


One of the best specimens of New England Colonial domestic architecture. Built by "King" Hooper, of Marblehead, about 1754.

Outside New England there was greater variety of landholding and cultivation. The Puritan traveler journeying southward through the Middle Colonies must have seen many new and unfamiliar sights as he looked over the country through which he passed. He would have found himself entirely at home among the towns of Long Island, Westchester County, and northern New Jersey, and would have discovered much in the Dutch villages about New York and up the Hudson that reminded him of the closely grouped houses and small allotments of his native heath. But had he stopped to investigate such large estates as the Scarsdale, Pelham, Fordham, and Morrisania manors on his way to New York, or turned aside to inspect the great Philipse and Cortlandt manors along the lower Hudson, or the still greater Livingston, Claverack, and Rensselaer manors farther north, he would have seen wide acres under cultivation, with tenants and rent rolls and other aspects of a proprietary and aristocratic order. Had he made further inquiries or extended his observations to the west and north of the Hudson, he would have come upon grants of thousands of acres lavishly allotted by governors to favored individuals. He would then have realized that the division of land in New York, instead of being fairly equal as in New England, was grossly unequal. On the one hand were the petty acres of small farms surrounding the towns and villages; on the other were such great estates as Morrisania and Rensselaerwyck, where the farmers were not freeholders but tenants, and where the proprietors could ride for miles through arable land, meadow, and woodland, without crossing the boundaries of their own territory. If the traveler had been interested, as the average New England farmer was not, in the deeper problems of politics, he would have seen, in this combination of small holdings with large, one explanation, at least, of the differences in political and social life that existed between New England and New York.

What the traveler might have noticed in New York, he would have found repeated in a lesser degree in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. There, too, he would have seen large properties, such as the great tracts set apart for the proprietors and still awaiting sale and distribution, and such extensive estates as that of Lewis Morris, known as Tinton Manor, near Shrewsbury in East Jersey, and the proprietary manors of the Penns at Pennsbury on the Delaware and at Muncy on the Susquehanna. But there were also thousands of small fields belonging to the Puritan and Dutch settlers at Newark, Elizabeth, Middletown, Bergen, and other towns in northern New Jersey, and a constantly increasing number of somewhat larger farms in the hands of the Germans and Scotch-Irish in the back counties of Pennsylvania. The traveler would have noticed also, as he rode from Perth Amboy to Bordentown or Burlington, or from New Brunswick to Trenton, that central New Jersey was a flat, unoccupied country, with scarcely a mountain or even a hill in forty miles, that the sort of towns he was familiar with had entirely disappeared, and that along the highway to the Delaware and even from Trenton to Philadelphia, the country had only an occasional isolated farmstead. He would have met with no plantations in the southern sense of the word, with almost no tenancies like those at Rensselaerwyck, and with only a few compact settlements, such as the large towns of Trenton, Bordentown, Burlington, Philadelphia, Germantown, and Lancaster, and the loosely grouped villages of the Germans, where the lands were held in blocks and the houses of the settlers were more scattered than among the Puritans. He would have learned also that, in Pennsylvania particularly, the needs of the proprietors, the demands of the colonists, and the character of the crops were leading to frequent sales and to the division of large estates into small and manageable f arms.

What probably would have interested the New Englanders as much as anything else was the interdependence of city and country which was frequently manifested along the way. Unlike the Puritans, to whom countryseats and summer resorts were unknown and trips to mountain and seashore were strictly matters of necessity or business, the townfolk of the Middle Colonies residing in New York, Burlington, and Philadelphia had country residences, not mere cottages for makeshift housekeeping but substantial structures, often of brick, well furnished within and surrounded by grounds neatly kept and carefully cultivated. There were many stately "gentlemen's seats," belonging to the gentry of New York, between Kingsbridge and the city and on Long Island, for what is now Greater New York was then for the most part open country, hilly, rocky, and heavily wooded, interspersed here and there with houses, farms, fields, groves, and orchards of fruit trees, and threaded by roads, some good and some bad. Philip Van Cortlandt had his country place six miles, as he then reckoned it, from the city. Here at Bloomingdale, a village in a sparsely settled neighborhood — now the uptown shopping district of New York, somewhat north of the present public library — he was wont to send Mrs. Van Cortlandt and his "little family" to spend "the somer season." The Burlington merchants had their country houses near the Delaware on the high ground stretching along the river and back toward the interior. On the other hand, Philadelphia merchants, mayors, and provincial governors, whose city life was confined to half a dozen streets running parallel to the Delaware, had their country residences often twelve or fifteen miles away, sometimes in West Jersey, but more often in Pennsylvania itself, adjacent to the familiar and well-trodden highways. These roads, which radiated northwest and south from the river, formed arteries of supply for the markets and ships along the docks and, during certain times and seasons, afforded means of social intercourse between the business of the counting house in town and the pleasure of the dining hall and assembly room in the country.

To the Southerner, on the other hand, who passed observantly northward and viewed with discernment the country from Maryland to that "way down east" land of Maine which was as yet little more than a narrow fringe of rocky coast between the Piscataqua and the Kennebec, all these conditions of housing and cultivation must have seemed to a large extent strangely novel and unfamiliar. The Southerner was not used to small holdings and closely settled towns; his eye was accustomed to range over wide stretches of land filled with large estates and plantations. The clearings to which he was accustomed, though often little more than a third of the whole area, consisted of great fields of tobacco, grain, rice, and indigo, and presented an appearance essentially unlike that of the small and scattered lots and farms of the New England towns. He was unacquainted with the self-centered activity of those busy northern communities or the narrow range of petty duties and interests that filled the day of the Puritan farmer and tradesman. Were he a landed aristocrat of Anne Arundel or Talbot county in Maryland, he would himself have possessed an enormous amount of property consisting of scattered tracts in all parts of the province, sometimes fifteen or thirty thousand acres in all. Many of these estates he was accustomed to speak of as manors, though the peculiar rights which distinguished a manor from any other tract of land early disappeared, and the manor in Maryland and Virginia, as elsewhere, meant merely a landed estate. But the name undoubtedly gave a certain distinction to the owner and probably served to hold the lands together in spite of the prevailing tendency in Maryland to break up the estates into small, convenient farms. Doughoregan Manor of the Carrolls with its ten thousand acres, for instance, remains undivided to this day.

By the wealthy Virginian the term manor was used much less frequently than it was in Maryland, while in the Carolinas and Georgia it was not used at all. In Virginia, even though the great plantation with its appendant farms and quarters in different counties could be reached often only after long and troublesome rides over bad roads through the woods, the estate was generally kept intact. Though land was frequently leased and overseers were usually employed to manage outlying properties, the habit of splitting up estates into small farms was much less common than it was in Maryland. Councilman Carter owned, we are told, some sixty thousand acres situated in nearly every county in Virginia, six hundred negroes, lands in the neighborhood of Williamsburg, an "elegant and spacious" house in the same city, stock in the Baltimore Iron Works, and several farms in Maryland. It was not at all uncommon for men in one town or colony to own land in another, for even in New England the owners of town lands were not always residents of the town in which the lands were situated.

It would be a mistake, however, to think of Maryland and Virginia as covered only by great plantations with swarms of slaves and lordly mansions. In both these Southern Colonies there were hundreds of small farmers possessing single grants of land upon which they had erected modest houses. Many of these farmers rented lands of the planter under limited leases and paid their rents in money, or probably more often in produce, labor, and money, as did the tenants of William Beverley of Beverley Manor on the Rappahannock. As many of the large estates in Maryland could not be worked by the owner, the practice arose of renting some and of breaking up others for sale. In this way there came into existence numbers of middle-class landholders, who formed a distinctly democratic element both in Maryland and Virginia. They cultivated small plantations ranging from 150 to 500 acres, not more than a third of which was improved even by 1760. Daniel Dulaney, the famous lawyer of Annapolis who had made his money in tidewater enterprises, bought land in central Maryland, which he rented out to Germans from Pennsylvania and thus became a land promoter and town builder on an extensive scale.

Though no such mania for land speculation seized upon the Virginia planters, they were equally zealous in acquiring properties for themselves beyond the "fall line" to the west, and some of them endeavored to add to their wealth by promoting the building of towns. It was in 1745 that Dulaney laid out the town of Frederick as a shrewd business enterprise. Eight years earlier, the second William Byrd, one of the farseeing men of his time, had advertised for sale in town lots his property near the inspection houses at Shoccoe's. This was the beginning of Richmond, the capital of Virginia. Less successful was Richard Randolph when, in1739, he tried to attract purchasers to his town of Warwick, in Henrico County, modeled after Philadelphia, with a hundred lots at ten pistols each, a common, and all conveniences for trade thrown into the bargain. But the only really important towns in these colonies during the colonial period were Annapolis and Williamsburg. In these towns many of the planters had houses which they occupied during the greater part of the year or at any rate when the Assembly was in session and life was gay and festive. Such other centers of population as Baltimore, Frederick, Hagerstown, Norfolk, Falmouth, Fredericksburg, and Winchester played little part in the life of the colonies except as business communities.

As the Albemarle region of North Carolina was settled from Virginia, the plantation and the tobacco field were introduced together, and along the sound and its rivers landed conditions arose similar in some respects to those in Virginia. The word "f arm " was not used, but the term "plantation" was employed to include anything from the great estates of such men as Seth Sothell, one of the "true and absolute proprietors," and Philip Ludwell, Governor, to the small holdings of less important men, who received grants from the proprietors and later from the Crown in amounts not exceeding a square mile in extent. Though as a rule the holdings in Albemarle were smaller than elsewhere in the South and the conditions of life were simpler and less elaborate, the farmers were still freeholders, not tenants. The whole of this section remained less developed in education, religious organization, and wealth than other plantation colonies, and such towns as it had, Edenton, Bath, New Bern, and Halifax, were smaller and less conspicuous as social and business centers than were Annapolis, Williamsburg, and Charleston. Governor Johnston, who was largely responsible for the transfer of government from New Bern to the Cape Fear River, said in 1748: "We still continue vastly behind the rest of the British settlements both in our civil constitution and in making a proper use of a good soil and an excellent climate."

It was an important event in the history of North Carolina when Maurice and Roger Moore of South Carolina in 1725 selected a site on the south bank of the Cape Fear River, ten miles from its mouth, and laid out the town of Brunswick. With the transfer of the colony to the Crown in 1729, the settlement increased and prospered, lands were taken up on both sides of the river from its mouth to the upper branches, and plantations were established which equaled in size and productiveness all but the very largest in Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina. At first many of the planters purchased lots in Brunswick, but afterwards transferred their allegiance to Wilmington on the removal to that town of the center of social and political life. No people in the Southern Colonies were more devoted than they to their plantation life or took greater pride in the beauty and wholesomeness of their country. They raised corn and provisions, bred stock — notably the famous black cattle of North Carolina — and made pitch, tar, and turpentine from their lightwood trees, and these, together with lumber, frames of houses, and shingles, they shipped to England and to the West Indies. The Highlanders who settled at Cross Creek at the head of navigation above Wilmington brought added energy and enterprise to the colony and developed its trade by shipping the products of the back country down the river and by taking in return the manufactures of England and the products of the West Indies. Some of them built at Cross Creek dwellings and warehouses, mills and stores, and set up plantations in the neighborhood; others, among whom were a few Lowland Scots, spread farther afield and bought lands even in the Albemarle region. To this section, after it had stagnated for thirty years, they brought new interests and prosperity by opening communication with Norfolk, in Virginia, as a port of entry and a market for their staples. They thus prepared the way for a promising agricultural and commercial development, which unfortunately was checked and for the moment ruined by the unhappy excesses and hostilities of the Revolutionary period.

South of Cape Fear lay Georgetown, Charleston, and Savannah, centers of plantation districts chiefly on the lower reaches of the rivers of South Carolina and Georgia. These plantations were characterized by a close union between town and country. South Carolina differed from the other colonies in that a considerable portion of her territory had been laid out in baronies under that clause of the Fundamental Constitutions which stipulated the number of acres to be set apart for colonists bearing titles of nobility. Thus it was provided that 48,000 acres should be the portion for a landgrave, 24,000 for a cacique, and 12,000 for a baron. Many colonists who bore these titles took up lands at various times and in varying amounts, but their properties, which probably never exceeded 12,000 acres in a single grant, differed in no way but name from any other large plantations. The most famous of the landgraves were Thomas Smith, who was Governor in 1695, and his son, the second landgrave, whose mansion of Yeomans Hall on the Cooper River, with all its hospitality, gayety, romance, and tragedy, has been graphically though somewhat fancifully pictured by Mrs. Elizabeth A. Poyas in The Olden Time of Carolina.


Showing carved wooden mantel, combined table and tire screen, and spinet. In the Essex Institute, Salem, Mass.

Most of the plantations of South Carolina and Georgia were smaller than those in Maryland and Virginia. A single tract rarely exceeded 2000 acres, and an entire property did not often include more than 5000 acres. These estates seem to have been on the whole more compact and less scattered than elsewhere. They lay contiguous to each other in many instances and formed large continuous areas of rice land, pine land, meadow, pasture, and swamp. Upon such plantations the colonists built substantial houses of brick and cypress, generally less elaborate than those in Virginia, particularly when they were described as of "the rustic order." There were also tanyards, distilleries, and soap-houses, as well as all facilities for raising rice, corn, and later indigo. At first the chief staple on these plantations was rice; but the introduction of indigo in 1745, with its requirement of vats, pumps, and reservoirs, and its plague of refuse and flies, though of great significance in restoring the prosperity of the province, gave rise to new and in some respects less agreeable conditions. The plantations were also supplied with a plentiful stock of cattle and the necessary household goods and furnishings. The following detailed description of William Dry's plantation on the Cooper River, two miles above Goose Creek, is worth quoting. The estate, which fronted the high road, is described as

having on it a good brick dwelling house, two brick store houses, a brick kitchen and washhouse, a brick necessary house, a barn with a large brick chimney, with several rice mills, mortars, etc., a winnowing house, an oven, a large stable and coach-house, a cooper's shop, a house built for a smith's shop; a garden on each side of the house, with posts, rails, and poles of the best stuff, all planed and painted and bricked underneath; a fish pond, well stored with perch, roach, pike, eels, and catfish; a handsome cedar horse-block or double pair of stairs; frames, planks, etc., ready to be fixed in and about a spring within three stones' throw of the house, intended for a cold bath and house over it; three large dam ponds, whose tanks with some small repairs will drown upwards of 100 acres of land, which being very plentifully stored with game all the winter season affords great diversion; an orchard of very good apple and peach trees, a corn house and poultry house that may with repairing serve some years longer, a small tenement with a brick chimney on the other side of the high road, fronting the dwelling house, and at least 400 acres of the land cleared, all except what is good pasture, and no part of the tract bad, the whole having a clay foundation and not deep, the great part of it fenced in, and upwards of a mile of it with a ditch seven feet wide and three and a half deep.

Most of the South Carolina planters had their town houses and divided their time between city and country. They lived in Charleston, Georgetown, Beaufort Town, and Dorchester, but of these Charleston was the Mecca toward which all eyes turned and in which all lived who had any social or political ambitions. Attempts were made in the eighteenth century, in this colony as elsewhere, to boom land sites for the erecting of towns on an artificial plan. In 1738, the second landgrave, Thomas Smith, tried to start a town on his Win-yaw tract near Georgetown. He laid out a portion of the land along the bluff above the Winyaw River in lots, offered to sell some and to give away others, and planned to provide a church, a meetinghouse, and a school. But this venture failed; and even the more successful attempt to build up Willtown about the same time, although lots were sold and houses built and occupied, eventually came to nothing. The story of some of these dead towns of the South, whether promoted by natives or settled by foreigners, has been told only in part and forms an interesting chapter in colonial history.

In all the colonies, indeed, the eighteenth century saw a vast deal of land speculation. The merchants and shopkeepers in most of the large towns acted as agents and bought and sold on commission. Just as George Tilly, merchant and contractor of Boston, advertised good lots for sale in 1744, so John Laurens, Robert Hume, and Benjamin Whitaker in Charleston a little later were dealing in houses, tenements, and plantations as a side line to their regular business as saddlers and merchants. In the seventies the sale of land had become an end in itself, and one Jacob Valk advertised himself as a "Real and Personal Estate Dealer." The meaning of the change is clear. Desirable lands in the older settlements were no longer available except by purchase, and men were already looking beyond the "fall line" and the back country to the ungranted lands of the new frontier in the farther West.

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