The Growth of the American Economy: An Introduction to the Economic History of the United States

By Robert G. Albion; Harold F. Williamson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6
Agricultural Technology to 1880

Early Tools and Methods

THE TOOLS with which the men of the Colonial period of American economic history went about their tasks were those that had been inuse for many centuries in Europe; indeed, most of them were little changed from Roman and even earlier times. In its domesticated animals American agriculture was also heavily dependent upon its European sources, the turkey being the most significant American contribution. Importations from Europe supplied the original American domestic livestock, and continued borrowings were influential in improving herds and flocks. In other respects, the conditions faced by agriculture in America gave rise to changes sharply differentiating it from its European prototype. Although the small grains of Europe, such as wheat, oats, barley, and rye, were important crops from the beginning, the three plants that became the bulwark of American agriculture early in the Colonial period and that have remained so ever since were Indian contributions;1 corn was the chief food crop, and tobacco and cotton the foremost market products. In his treatment of the soil the New World farmer also deviated from the practices prevailing in Western Europe. The American farmer was profligate in his treatment of land; destructive practices displaced the careful conservation of soil fertility developed in Europe from centuries of experience.

The American farmer approached the problems of exploiting a continent in a spirit of adventure. He was governed by few if any of the restraints saddled upon the European by centuries of traditional practice. He was to some extent skeptical of "book farming," but this attitude was not unreasonable, for much agricultural literature as late as the 1830's or 1840's had reference to European conditions and, therefore, was not pertinent. Furthermore, much of it had neither scientific nor economic foundations. Of greater consequence was the fact that there existed among the farmers of this country a class, doubtless a

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1
A brief and interesting discussion of these matters will be found in Carl O. Sauer, "The Settlement of the Humid East," U. S. Department of Agriculture Yearbook 1941, pp. 157-166.

-113-

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