Readings in the Economic History of American Agriculture


Having surveyed the nature, scope, and problems of our agricultural history, and having considered the basic physical factors conditioning its progress, we come to the developments of the formative period. The term, "colonial foundations" emphasizes the two main characteristics of the period: it suggests, first, that these were the years in which the foundations of our national agriculture were being laid; and, second, that these beginnings were made under the impetus and limitations of the "old colonial system."

The colonial period was of necessity a time of experimentation and adaptation. Native plants, soils, and climates must all be given rudimentary tests, with the aid of such knowledge as the native peoples had acquired by long and costly experience; European plants and animals must be acclimated; Old World systems of land tenure and methods of cultivation must be adjusted to the New; an adequate labor supply must be secured; and, when immediate needs were provided for, available markets must be found for the disposal of the surplus. Under the primitive conditions of seventeenth century colonization, geography was bound to be the determining factor in shaping economic systems, and, almost from the start, distinct types of agriculture based upon environmental rather than human differences began to emerge. Striking as were these contrasts in organization and products between the different groups of colonies, there was nevertheless one feature common to all three, the existence of an unsettled "back country "--the beginning of the agricultural frontier in our national development with its peculiar conditions, opportunities, and influences.

Down to the Revolution European agriculture in general continued to be medieval in organization and technique, and American conditions of land abundance and labor shortage inevitably made farming still more crude and inefficient. But, whatever its limitations, agriculture was the predominant colonial interest. Extractive industries were usually supplementary to farming; the bulk of native manufactures came from the farm home; and trade was concerned largely with the marketing of agricultural staples. As Callender points out, natural resources and foreign markets were the essential elements in colonial prosperity.

Additional information

Publisher: Place of publication:
  • New York
Publication year:
  • 1925


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