Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Landscape and Memory in Antebellum Virginia

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Landscape and Memory in Antebellum Virginia

Article excerpt

By the early 1830s, many thoughtful Virginians believed that the Old Dominion was in the grip of a cultural, moral, and agricultural crisis: its soil was depleted, and thousands of its young white men were leaving for farms elsewhere, most of them for the Old Southwest. Avery Craven broached this topic long ago, and David F. Allmendinger, Jr., skillfully illuminated the career of Virginia's most famous agriculturalist, Edmund Ruffin; the planter family's private debate on migration has been explored.(1) The public debate on the crisis is still fruitful, however, for what it reveals about how some Virginians perceived the landscape, how they remembered their history, and what they believed had to be done to preserve the land. This essay focuses on Virginians who published in agricultural journals from the late 1810s to the early 1840s. The periodicals reached an audience of thousands, and they attracted dozens of contributors. Some authors signed their names, others used pseudonyms or initials, and yet others remained anonymous, but internal evidence suggests that they were highly educated, middle-aged slave owners, most of them planters, from both political parties.(2)

Their understanding of Virginia' s history was not always accurate or consistent, but it did inspire them to turn away from the ancient idea of human dominion over the earth toward one of stewardship.(3) Nor did their cultural values remain static; they began to shift again in the late antebellum era in interesting ways. Other, less privileged Virginians appear in these pages--white women, yeoman farmers, overseers, poor whites, slaves, and Indians--but only when the authors were searching for culprits. They still believed in a hierarchical social ecology, despite their innovative thinking about the natural world itself. It was a distinctive mix of conservative social philosophy and radical critiques of land use, characteristic, perhaps, of such long-settled states as Virginia.

When the first Englishmen arrived at Jamestown in 1607, some thirty thousand Native Americans already lived in the Chesapeake. Over the next two centuries, most of the native population disappeared because of disease and intermittent warfare, but not before whites began to cultivate an Indian crop called tobacco. In the 1620s whites began to raise the West Indian variety in earnest, and as the European market expanded, they purchased slaves to work the fields. The first African servants and slaves disembarked from a Dutch ship in 1619, and between 1690 and 1770 approximately one hundred thousand African slaves arrived in the colony. Many whites prospered and some got rich, for tobacco proved to be a successful export despite occasional lulls in the overseas trade. The first great plantation houses were built in the 1720s, and by the eve of the Revolution, Virginia had an influential, educated gentry, some of whom led the struggle against Great Britain. By then Tidewater planters were already worried about tobacco's destructive effect on the soil, because their staple crop exhausted the best land in three or four years by robbing it of nitrogen, phosphorus, and calcium. As a result, some planters began to cultivate wheat, which took fewer nutrients out of the soil.(4)

Yet tobacco remained a central feature of the state's economy into the mid-nineteenth century, and it took its toll. By the late 1810s, the land east of the Shenandoah Valley seemed to be utterly exhausted. Agricultural writers described the barren landscape in jeremiads throughout the 1820s, 1830s, and early 1840s: it was a scene of "devastation," "desolation," and "mutilation," the land was "butchered" and subjected to a "scourging and barbarous course of tillage" and nothing less than "land-killing" agriculture. One individual predicted that it was only a matter of time before Virginia and the southern seaboard became as bleak as the West Indies. In 1842 another writer lamented that the earth had been skinned as if it were an animal dragged to the slaughter. …

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