George Washington Carver, Scientist and Symbol

By Linda O. McMurry | Go to book overview

cessfully employed in his own biography, Up From Slavery. He noted that Carver "was born on the plantation of a Mr. Carver" and "was allowed to grow up among the chickens and other animals around the servants' quarters, getting his living as best he could." The impression was one of benign neglect by the master of a large plantation. In his later years Carver helped to perpetutate this false impression by continually referring to himself as "a poor defenceless orphan." 1

Although these and later embellishments distorted the truth of Carver's origins, the real story is certainly grim enough. Southwest Missouri in the 1860s was hardly an auspicious place for the development of black genius. The area was just beginning to advance from its frontier stage. The land in Marion Township, where the Carver farm was located, was first offered for sale in 1843. By that time a few squatters from the East had already begun farming. Moses Carver and his brother, Richard, were among them, migrating to Missouri in about 1838 from Ohio and Illinois. The Pre- emption Act of 1841, which was passed to encourage small farmers to settle in the West, enabled a person who lived on and improved 160 acres of land for six months to buy it from the government at $1.25 an acre. Like most Western farmers, Moses Carver was not content with 160 acres and purchased a total of 240 acres soon after the land went on sale. 2

As one of the first settlers, Carver was able to select a good site with an abundant water supply. Two springs and a creek lay near his house, and his acreage included both prairie and timberland. He constructed a rough one-room, hewn-log cabin with one window, one fireplace, and no floor. In this cabin he lived with his wife, Susan, as well as three nieces and nephews who were raised by Moses and Susan after his brother's death in 1839.

The years between 1840 and 1860 were profitable ones for the Carvers and for Newton County. Unlike the frontier areas of the Great Plains, Newton County had adequate water and a terrain suited to farming and livestock raising. During those twenty years the county's population grew from 2,790 to 9,319. With the increased settlement a typical "crossroads village" sprang up near a

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