New York Farmers and the Market Revolution: Economic Behavior in the Mid-Hudson Valley, 1780-1830

By Wermuth, Thomas S. | Journal of Social History, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

New York Farmers and the Market Revolution: Economic Behavior in the Mid-Hudson Valley, 1780-1830


Wermuth, Thomas S., Journal of Social History


For many years scholars of the early national period have engaged in a lively debate concerning the economic behavior and market strategies of farm families in the northern United States. Although the debate continues, there is general agreement that farmers increased their commercial production, participated more regularly in commodity trade, and purchased more manufactured goods than they had during the colonial and revolutionary periods.(1) Studies of New England and Pennsylvania reveal the extraordinary distances some farmers travelled to receive the most profitable returns for the sale of their produce and their enthusiastic response to the thriving market economy. Other studies emphasize the ways smaller farmers participated in rural outwork industries and gradually, but surely, became wage-laborers.(2)

However, the implications of the "market revolution" for farm families varied from region to region, and the response of these households to new economic demands varied depending upon a variety of factors: the household's relationship to the market, whether one owned or rented land, the types of production a family employed, as well as productive capacities and resources. Thus far, leading studies of farmers' market strategies have emphasized the activities of more successful, commercially-oriented farmers and been less attentive to the multitude of smaller farmers who traded locally and sold on regional markets.(3) The behavior and perspective of smaller farmers, whose decisions were as important to the nature and character of the rural economy as those of the larger producers, remain largely unexplored.

The purpose of this paper is to analyze how the "market revolution" impacted ordinary farm families in the agriculturally rich Hudson River Valley. It does so by exploring the ways families in the town of Kingston, a long-settled farming community which had enjoyed a dominant position in the New York agricultural market, alternated and balanced their economic strategies of household production, local trade with neighbors, and commercial sale in order to meet the competitive demands of the developing marketplace. Like their New England counterparts, larger farmers responded to the new opportunities by increasing agricultural production and becoming "commercial farmers." Most smaller producers did not, however, nor did they become participants in complex rural manufacturing networks that characterized the New England countryside.

Nevertheless, as Kingston became more enmeshed in the expanding market system, the local economy grew in complexity, and smaller farm families diversified their economic activities and increasingly specialized their production for market sale. However, even while this "market revolution" impacted both smaller and larger farmers, traditional practices of balancing home production with neighborhood trade and commercial sale continued. Indeed, through the 1820s, far more Kingston residents participated in, and depended on, community trade networks with neighbors and local shopkeepers than they did long-distance, commercial sale.

Several significant features of the Kingston economy played a role in shaping residents' relationship to the developing market system in the late eighteenth century. First, Kingston was primarily an agricultural producer. Although a small number of artisans, slaves, and shopkeepers satisfied local demands for goods, labor, and services, three quarters of the town's residents were members of households engaged in farming. Moreover, most of Kingston's farm families owned the land they worked, a pattern that contrasts sharply with that found elsewhere in the mid-Atlantic region.(4) Consequently, Kingstonians enjoyed a high degree of control over the disposal of their surplus.

Second, Kingston was an important market town, as it had been almost from its founding in 1663. A thriving export trade of barrel staves, wood, and most especially, surplus wheat and flour that contemporaries "reckoned the best in all North America," fueled the town's economic development. …

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