An exploration of the rise of the crop strain that came to dominate the American tobacco industry and its toll on the Southern landscape that produced it Drew A. Swanson has written an “environmental” history about a crop of great historical and economic significance: American tobacco. A preferred agricultural product for much of the South, the tobacco plant would ultimately degrade the land that nurtured it, but as the author provocatively argues, the choice of crop initially made perfect agrarian as well as financial sense for southern planters. Swanson, who brings to his narrative the experience of having grown up on a working Virginia tobacco farm, explores how one attempt at agricultural permanence went seriously awry. He weaves together social, agricultural, and cultural history of the Piedmont region and illustrates how ideas about race and landscape management became entangled under slavery and afterward. Challenging long-held perceptions, this innovative study examines not only the material relationships that connected crop, land, and people but also the justifications that encouraged tobacco farming in the region.
About the Author
Drew A. Swanson is assistant professor of history at Wright State University in Fairborn, Ohio, where he teaches environmental history.
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A Golden Weed
Tobacco and Environment in the Piedmont South
By Drew A. Swanson
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2014 Yale University
All rights reserved.
On the Back of Tobacco
SOWING THE SEEDS OF A TOBACCO CULTURE
AMONG THE FIRST EURO-AMERICANS to write extensively of the Virginia and North Carolina Piedmont was William Byrd II of Westover, the famous (and infamous) chronicler of planter life in the early eighteenth century. Byrd led a survey into the Piedmont interior in 1728, and he journeyed west again in 1732 and 1733 to assess the region's prospects for settlement and real estate speculation. The first expedition set out to firm up the boundary between Virginia and North Carolina; the latter colony claimed the mouth of the Nottoway River as the line, while the Old Dominion, unsurprisingly, declared the border to be fifteen miles farther south. Survey work in the spring of 1728 hacked a path through the pocosins and black water swamps of the Tidewater. Byrd's party returned home for the summer to avoid snakes, humid weather, and noisome mosquitoes and resumed work in late September, pushing into the uplands and eventually past the last English settlements on their way toward the mountains and the approaching winter season.
As Byrd drew within sight of the eastern outposts of the Blue Ridge—White Oak, Turkeycock, and Smith mountains—he entered a landscape essentialized in the modern geographers' label for the physiographic province: the Piedmont. Its rolling hills literally lay at the foot of the mountains. The Dan and Staunton rivers, the southern and northern branches of the Roanoke River, respectively, cut deep valleys, sometimes hundreds of feet lower than the surrounding bluffs, in the shadow of slopes often as steep as any found in the mountains to the west. Smaller rivers and large creeks, including the Hyco, Pigg, Turkeycock, Bannister, Countryline, and Sandy, also carved their own paths through the countryside, with their numerous tributaries dividing the whole into thousands of finger-like ridges separating one stretch of bottomland from another. Most of the landscape lay on a slope, with the exception of riparian bottoms and a few stretches of level land atop the larger ridges. Located to the west of the contemporary English settlement line, the landscape abounded in wildlife; Byrd noted turkeys, rattlesnakes, black bears, beavers, whitetail deer, gray squirrels, fox squirrels, bobcats, buffalo, wolves, cranes, grouse, geese, mussels, mountain lions, passenger pigeons, raccoons, flying squirrels, chipmunks, elk, opossums, snapping turtles, and river otters populating the hills, hollows, and watercourses.
Although the land away from the rivers was rugged, Byrd found much to admire in the river bottoms. He would in fact go on to claim a vast swath of the watershed in a speculative attempt to attract European immigrants to a new land of Eden. Byrd wrote of the land east of modern Danville, Virginia: "All the land we travelled over ... is exceedingly rich, both on the Virginia side of the line, and that of Carolina. Besides whole forests of canes, that adorn the banks of the river and creeks thereabouts, the fertility of the soil throws out such a quantity of winter grass, that horses and cattle might keep themselves in heart all the cold season without the help of any fodder." Gaining steam, he rhapsodized, "I question not but there are thirty thousand acres at least, lying altogether, as fertile as the lands were said to be about Babylon ... a colony of one thousand families might, with the help of moderate industry, pass their time very happily there." Byrd envisioned an agricultural empire complete with farmers raising livestock and silkworms, cultivating cotton, hemp, and perhaps even rice, and tending rank orchards. For all this talk of diversified farming, Byrd also noted the land's potential for that great Virginia staple—"that bewitching vegetable"—tobacco, a commodity that appeared as early as the second page of his account.
Byrd's survey helped open the southern Virginia Piedmont and the adjoining reaches of North Carolina to Euro-American settlement, and tobacco shaped these districts from their earliest days. Over the course of the century following the line survey, planters, farmers, and slaves built a rural landscape centered on the cultivation of fire-cured (or dark) tobacco, the traditional Chesapeake crop that had served as a staple since the early days of Jamestown. This landscape was the product of an existing tobacco culture transported from the coastal plain of eastern Virginia and adapted to the Piedmont environment, and it would shape regional farmers' adoption of a new staple beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. In this chapter I will also examine in detail the cultivation of dark tobacco, which laid a foundation for the bright tobacco culture that would sweep the region before the Civil War. Dark tobacco fueled the birth and growth of the Southside, but local environmental constraints left planters and farmers searching for an agricultural alternative by the antebellum era. Bright tobacco would prove to be that replacement.
Despite Byrd's glowing reports, regional growth proceeded slowly at first. In 1738 there were so few Southside residents that the colonial Virginia government offered incentives to induce settlement. A commonwealth statute waived taxes for a period of ten years for any new landowner along the Staunton or Dan rivers (the region's two main waterways), reduced taxes thereafter, and provided for the automatic naturalization of alien settlers. Although the 1738 statute had little immediate effect on the population (or lack thereof) of the Staunton and Dan valleys, speculators, such as Byrd, used the incentives to engross hundreds of thousands of acres of the best bottomlands in the region during the 1730s and 1740s. The real influx of settlers into what would become Caswell, Halifax, and Pittsylvania began around 1750, largely because of declining economic opportunity in the Virginia Tidewater. As eastern populations increased, the best lands were entirely taken by wealthier planters, and a number of small farmers sought their fortunes in the fresh lands of the southern Piedmont. Many of the region's earliest settlers came from Tidewater tobacco counties, but Scots-Irish farmers who moved down the Valley of Virginia from Pennsylvania and into the southwestern Virginia and North Carolina Piedmont composed a substantial portion of post-1750 immigrants. Facing a shortage of the richest river and creek bottomland (patented by the Chesapeake settlers), these small farmers often settled the weaker soils of the region's uplands. With the jaundiced eye of an Englishman toward the Irish, traveler John Stuart described the inhabitants of the Caswell hills around the time of the Revolution as "chiefly natives of Ireland, most wretchedly ignorant and uncivilized."
Although cultural differences separated these two waves of settlers, both groups relied on the Chesapeake's historic staple as their primary cash crop. The first Euro-American settlers in the three counties selected their farm sites with an eye toward tobacco cultivation. Desiring fertile alluvial soil and easy access to water transportation for heavy tobacco hogsheads (barrels holding cured leaf), almost all of the region's initial residents sought out land along the numerous rivers and creeks that dissected the hilly landscape. Although these watercourses were not suitable to large boats, small bateaux could navigate most local waters even before internal improvements. Peter Wilson, one of the earliest recorded planters in Pittsylvania, selected a narrow spot on a bend of the Dan River sometime prior to 1750 where he could operate a ferry and farm. Such frontiersmen as John Smith, Jr., and Benjamin Clement settled on good bottomlands along the Staunton River, first surveyed in the 1740s, and began raising tobacco soon after carving out their homesteads. In the land that would become Caswell County, south of Byrd's line, the first farmers arrived in the 1750s and 1760s, and almost all settled along the district's watercourses. The Hyco and Dan rivers and Countryline Creek were particularly popular locations. Many of these first settlements in the three counties sat on the same sites as earlier Native-American villages, taking advantage of the open land of old Indian fields and clearings such as the ones found along the Staunton and Pigg rivers and Sycamore and Cherrystone creeks.
These emerging Piedmont tobacco outposts were part of a shift in tobacco production that swept the mid-Atlantic in the middle and late decades of the eighteenth century. As tobacco cultivation grew in the Piedmont, the importance of the crop's culture lessened on the older lands of the Chesapeake. Beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, and accelerating after the Revolution, many Tidewater farmers, especially on the Eastern Shore of Virginia and Maryland and on Virginia's Northern Neck, turned to wheat as an alternative cash crop to tobacco. This shift occurred for a number of reasons. Tobacco cultivation on fresh Piedmont lands increased competition at a time when tobacco prices fluctuated (prices gradually increased but there were periods of severe recession, and especially steep price declines would occur during the French Revolution). Wheat culture involved less hoe and more plow work, which lessened Chesapeake farmers' dependence on slave labor. The Tidewater's connections to Atlantic trade also promoted grain cultivation after 1760: a series of European conflicts increased demand for bread, several poor weather years hampered other American and foreign grain-growing regions, and the rapid growth of the northeastern colonies fueled grain prices. Also contributing to this shift toward grain cultivation, eastern planters ranging from large masters, such as George Washington, to smaller landowners, saw in wheat the potential to diversify their agricultural practices.
This Tidewater shift to wheat cultivation before the American Revolution was dramatic, but it did not entirely displace tobacco cultivation in the region. A few figures reveal the continued importance of the traditional crop on Chesapeake farms. According to Philip Morgan, in 1740 the value of the Tidewater's exported tobacco was fourteen times greater than the value of the region's grain. With the growth of wheat culture, the gap shrank over the ensuing decades, but in 1770, Tidewater tobacco exports were still worth three times as much as grain. Allan Kulikoff calculates that as of 1775, two out of three residents of coastal Virginia and Maryland still raised tobacco on a regular basis. Tobacco remained a crop with widespread appeal in the eastern portion of the colony, but the gradual decline in Tidewater leaf production after the Revolution accelerated Piedmont tobacco cultivation, where fresh land promised larger crops and good profits (at least initially). Tobacco's shift from the Tidewater to the Piedmont was a lengthy transition, but the latter region was the center of American tobacco production by the early decades of the nineteenth century.
Piedmont tobacco growers were thus subject to the forces of national and transatlantic trade and to changes in distant landscapes, but they also had to deal with the material realities of raising tobacco in a new environment. And the Southside environment was quite different from the Tidewater or the Great Valley from which most regional settlers came. The Piedmont province of Virginia and North Carolina is located between the flat Tidewater to the east and the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west. Caswell, Halifax, and Pittsylvania lie along the Piedmont's western edge, a landscape of rolling hills, deep creek and river courses, and the occasional low mountain. Although the region receives moderate precipitation—between forty and fifty inches per year—it is a particularly well-drained landscape thanks to its numerous streams and rivers. As Byrd learned, these waterways dominate regional topography: the Staunton River drains the northern portion of Pittsylvania and Halifax, and the Dan drains the southern stretches of both counties and all of Caswell, before the two rivers combine to form the Roanoke in eastern Halifax. Water figures prominently even in the corners of the region farthest from the major rivers, as hardly a square mile of the three counties lacks a regular stream of some sort.
With the exception of moderately rocky ridges containing Appalachian soil strata, such as Turkeycock, Smith, and White Oak mountains, these watercourses cut through characteristic Piedmont soils. To draw on the language and understandings of modern soil scientists, most regional soils are ultisols, weathered from parent material from the eastern slopes of the Appalachian range. These soils leave much to be desired from an agricultural perspective. Ultisols tend to be low in nutrients and minerals essential to most plant growth, including nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and calcium, and they are consistently acidic, posing barriers for species reliant on neutral or basic environments (such as many nitrogen-fixing legumes that are important components of convertible husbandry). These nutrient-poor, acidic conditions were the result of a number of factors: ultisols are quite old and weathered, even from a geological perspective; the Piedmont experiences consistent heat, humidity, and heavy rainfall, which leach nutrients and minerals from upper soil horizons at a rapid rate; and the region missed out on a potential source of soil enrichment in the form of the most recent glaciation, which made it no farther south than Pennsylvania. Regional soils were also very slow to incorporate organic materials, including leaves and pine needles, into their upper horizons. Typical Piedmont soils thus, as one environmental historian observes, "bear a strong resemblance to tropical soils, which tend to be deeply weathered and prone to exhaustion and erosion if not handled with care."
Of course the land along the Virginia and North Carolina border at the foot of the mountains contained its own distinctive mosaic of these Piedmont soils. At a most basic level the region is divided between lowlands and more extensive uplands. Lying along the numerous creeks and rivers, the region's bottomland is quite dark and fertile, rich in organic matter deposited by periodic flooding. For this reason bottoms were typically the first settlement and agricultural sites in the Southside, first worked by Native Americans who were followed by colonial farmers. The upland is much poorer for agricultural purposes. It is composed of sandy loam that modern soil scientists place in the Appling, Cecil, and Durham series. Like other ultisols, this sandy loam is the product of the weathering of ancient bedrock; it is granular in structure, permeable, highly acidic, and it overlays a subsoil of stiff red or yellow clay. These light soils drain well, but they are low in organic matter and thus in nitrogen (even where relatively rich in phosphorus and potassium), and their structure combined with their position on sloping hillsides make them some of the most highly erodible topsoils in the South. Although eighteenth-century farmers did not understand or define the soils they encountered using the same language as today's soil scientists, they quickly identified the basic properties of local landscapes and drew their own mental and physical maps that assigned specific values to particular soils.
Excerpted from A Golden Weed by Drew A. Swanson. Copyright © 2014 Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: How Did Such a Poor Land Make Some People So Rich, and How Did They So Quickly Become Poor Again? 1
1 On the Back of Tobacco: Sowing the Seeds of a Tobacco Culture 16
2 Let There Be Bright: The Birth of Yellow Tobacco Culture 46
3 Bright Leaf, Bright Prospects: Making Peace with the Idea of Yellow Tobacco 82
4 Tobacco Goes to War 119
5 Fire in the Fields: Reconstructing Labor and Land Following the Civil War 147
6 A Barren and Fruitful Land 182
7 The Decline of the Border 216
Epilogue: A New Deal for Old Land? 246
Appendix: Antebellum Tobacco Prices 263