Pharsalia: An Environmental Biography of a Southern Plantation, 1780-1880/joining Places: Slave Neighborhoods in the Old South

By McCarthy, John P. | Journal of the Early Republic, July 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Pharsalia: An Environmental Biography of a Southern Plantation, 1780-1880/joining Places: Slave Neighborhoods in the Old South


McCarthy, John P., Journal of the Early Republic


Pharsalia: An Environmental Biography of a Southern Plantation, 1780-1880. By Lynn A. Nelson. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007. Pp. 295. Cloth, $39.95.)

Joining Places: Slave Neighborhoods in the Old South. By Anthony E. Kaye. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. Pp. 376. Cloth, $34.95.)

Reviewed by John P. McCarthy

These two books are both about "place": specific places of the mind and on the landscape that were in one case the creation of an elite planter fàmily and in the other the creation of enslaved Africans. In the vast enterprise that is the historical analysis of the plantation South, these volumes offer fresh perspectives and delve into previously underutilized source material. As an archaeologist and architectural historian whose research is nearly always tied to a specific place, I found both to be welcome additions to a literature whose scale of analysis is often difficult to relate to my research.

Lynn A. Nelson's Pharsalia: An Environmental Biography of a Southern Plantation focuses on a Nelson County, Virginia, plantation named for Lucan's epic poetic history of the Roman civil wars in which Caesar defeated Pompey and doomed the Roman Republic. In this inaugural volume in the University of Georgia Press series "Environmental History and the American South," Nelson, associate professor of history at Middle Tennessee State University, tells the story of the struggle for agrarian independence that characterized the efforts of successive generations of planters on this property in the nineteenth century. In Nelson's view, this foreshadowed the fate of southern agriculture and sheds light on the failures of conservation efforts in the region into the twentieth century. Nelson productively mined the rich trove of papers of the Massie family, the builders and nineteenth-century owners of Pharsalia. While it is widely accepted that ill-considered farming practices were largely responsible for the soil depletion that contributed so heavily to the poverty of the rural South, Nelson's analysis points to the overpowering challenges facing those who attempted to pursue soilconservation practices.

Nelson makes careful use of the plantation's extensive records to situate its "agroecology" in shifting contexts. He sees the farm as involving not just a landscape or a geographical setting but as a set of ecological relationships that evolve over time as a result of shifting human power and intentions. The political and social dynamics of a republican frontier, antebellum capital markets, the Civil War, and reconstruction of commodity and labor relations each inspired planters to shape land use in an attempt to achieve outcomes consistent with the ideological goals of the contemporary political economy. But in each case, efforts to construct a profitable and sustainable agriculture were defeated by natural and market forces beyond the planter's control.

The Republican ideology of agrarian independence and mastery over land and labor supported both migration to new lands in the West and intensified production of previously settled regions. The Massies, owners of Pharsalia, remained in Virginia and adopted farming practices that promised to renew exhausted soils, maximize the labor of their slaves, and maintain the family's independence. Following the latest agriculture advice, the Massies manured fields and rotated crops to restore lost productivity. But these efforts proved unsatisfactory, and by the 1840s the Massies turned to capital investment to import resources to intensify production. Improved seed, imported blooded livestock, and new technology raised yields and increased labor efficiency to the extent that when founding patriarch William Massie died in 1862, he was a wealthy man. His widow continued the intensive farming practices established before the war and adapted the new free-labor system to the plantation's needs. But in the end, pests and weeds and soil depletion could not be conquered, and Pharsalia could not support the aristocratic ambitions of the family. …

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