Economic History of the United States

By Chester W. Wright | Go to book overview

CHAPTER V
AGRICULTURE AND OTHER EXTRACTIVE INDUSTRIES IN THE COLONIES

Introduction. In describing the various lines of economic activity carried on in the colonies it is simpler, partly because this corresponds with the treatment in later periods of this history, to divide the account on the basis of such activities as the extractive industries, manufactures, and trade. It is necessary at the start, however, to note that, in so far as such a division gives the impression that the individuals engaged in these different lines of economic activities specialized in any one to the exclusion of the others, it is somewhat misleading in regard to the greater portion of the colonists. In fact there was no such sharp differentiation between the groups of workers as we are accustomed to today.

Nearly everybody engaged in farming on a larger or smaller scale, but a great many of these farmers engaged in other activities as well. Many manufactured goods were turned out in the farmer's household, particularly during the winter months when farm work required less time; lumbering, hunting, and fishing were often side lines of production for him; and running a country store or engaging in other lines of trade provided additional means of getting a living. Even professional men such as the doctor, lawyer, or minister, if living in the country, usually found that their farm rather than the proceeds of their profession was the chief means of support. This situation, which was a product of all the conditions that tended to limit specialization or division of labor and maintain a household or local economy, must be borne in mind as an outstanding feature in the economic life of the colonists.

The Disposal and Tenure of Land in the Colonies. An important factor in the economic situation affecting the colonists was the conditions that shaped the disposition and ownership of land. In England at this time land tenures were largely shaped by characteristics that had developed under the feudal system and still survived in a modified form. "Absolute free ownership of land was unknown to English common law." Land was held subject to certain rights of a feudal overlord or the king. Before the colonies were settled the rights involving labor, services, or goods had almost everywhere in England been commuted to an annual payment of money known as quitrent. Such land, held in what was known as free and common socage, or fee simple, meant that the holder had the

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