In Old Virginia: Slavery, Farming, and Society in the Journal of John Walker

By Eslinger, Ellen | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, April 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

In Old Virginia: Slavery, Farming, and Society in the Journal of John Walker


Eslinger, Ellen, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


In Old Virginia: Slavery, Farming, and Society in the Journal of John Walker. By CLAUDIA L. BUSHMAN. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. xx, 292 pp. $42.50.

THIS examination of a farmer in antebellum Virginia is a valuable edition on agricultural practices; at the same time it explores aspects of rural culture that have not been the subject of sufficient study. It is based upon the farm journal of John Walker, begun in 1824 and maintained consistently for the next four decades. In addition to gleaning information on daily farm operations, author Claudia Bushman meticulously teases out a great deal about the roles of slaves and women, ideas about health, agricultural innovation, and community structure. Walker's complex involvement in commercial markets is a central topic throughout, the original inspiration for Bushman's study of the journal.

John Walker purchased a 500-acre farm in King and Queen County in 1824 and began his journal at that time. He was the eldest son in a locally prominent Tidewater family that by the nineteenth century was experiencing a gradual decline, although he was by no means impoverished and over time added significantly to his land holdings. Contrary to what might have been expected, Walker turned his back upon the genteel trappings of planter society following his conversion to Methodism in 1818. Walker's embrace of Methodism strained his relationship with siblings and neighbors and isolated him from society beyond the church. Aside from his austerity, however, how Walker's Methodist beliefs and attitudes influenced his economic behavior is not really clear.

Bushman's analysis of Walker's farm operations is framed within a historical debate about the gradual transition from a traditional and personal economy to one ruled by competitive market forces. Walker's farm book reveals a complex operation requiring close management. Bushman examines the technicalities of antebellum farm practices and does a marvelous job of rendering them comprehensible for the modern reader. Historians interested in culture and ideology need to confront the material constraints that faced men like Walker, as Bushman demonstrates.

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