Pharsalia: An Environmental Biography of a Southern Plantation, 1780-1880

By Schlotterbeck, John T. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, April 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Pharsalia: An Environmental Biography of a Southern Plantation, 1780-1880


Schlotterbeck, John T., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Pharsalia: An Environmental Biography of a Southern Plantation, 1780-1880 * Lynn A. Nelson * Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007 * xx, 296 pp. * $39.95

Reviewed by John T. Schlotterbeck, professor of history at DePauw University. He is completing books on rural central Virginia during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and a survey of daily life in the colonial South.

Lynn Nelson's agroecological history of Pharsalia, the Massie family plantation in Nelson County, is an auspicious inaugural volume in the series, "Environmental History and the American South." This book examines the southern roots of modern soil conservation and the struggles by three generations of planters to wrest profits from stubborn land. After a chapter on early settlement, Nelson uses detailed family records to trace land use and farm operations of Thomas Massie (1796-1815), his son William (1815-1862), and Williams widow, Maria (1862-1889). By examining Pharsalia as an ecosystem where humans, plants, and animals interact, Nelson asks large questions about agricultural reform's efficacy in eastern Virginia and upper South planters' ability to maintain their class position with worn-out land.

Virginia planters' declining economic fortunes after the American Revolution are a twice-told tale, yet Nelson provides fresh insights on why replacing long fallow tobacco-corn cultivation that exhausted land with intensive practices to reduce erosion and restore soil fertility proved so difficult. Rather than emigrating west, in 1796 Thomas Massie purchased property on the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains, hoping to turn a rundown tobacco estate into a profitable wheat plantation and inheritance for his children. Beginning in the 1820s, William adapted agricultural reforms promoted by John Taylor, Edmund Ruffin, and others, penning livestock for manure, planting cover crops, rotating fields, and experimenting with new market crops-to little avail. These efforts failed to generate sufficient income for a gentry lifestyle. Non-human agents outside Pharsalia's porous boundaries-pathogens, weeds, wandering livestock, and flash floods-undermined Massie's efforts to control his plantation environment. During the 1850s, he pursued a new strategy of capitalist intensification by purchasing commercial fertilizers, improved seeds, purebred livestock, and farm machinery, which proved successful but required greater risk and indebtedness that threatened his independence. Thomas and William Massie's checkered experiments in managing Pharsalia's micro-environment and struggles in achieving profits and sustainability reveal why so few Virginia farmers followed reformers' advice. …

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