Do you have any farmers in your family history? Maybe a better question is, were any of your ancestors not farmers? With the draw of new land in the United States bringing many people from Europe, there’s a good chance that if your ancestors are American, someone farmed. Noted historian Richard L. Bushman’s latest book, The American Farmer in the Eighteenth Century: A Social and Cultural History, provides valuable insights into the day-to-day world of the farmer.
We’re reading The American Farmer in the Eighteenth Century for the fall selection of the Family Locket Book Club on Goodreads. The chapter headings give a preview of the book.
North America, 1600-1800
Approaching the Present, 1800-1862
Richard Lyman Bushman is a Gouverneur Morris Professor of History Emeritus at Columbia University specializing in social and cultural history in America. In the preface of The American Farmer, he talks of his fascination with agriculture despite having no recent ancestors who farmed. He wrote:
I was motivated only by a desire to understand farmers. I wanted to know how they thought, their strategies for getting on, the obstacles and dangers they faced, their fears and hopes. I aspired to write a social and cultural history of eighteenth-century farmers.
As I learned more, I was struck by the secure base that farming provided for British North American society in the eighteenth century. The tens of thousands of of farms planted up and down the coast and spreading into the mountains formed a great productive system that yielded the bulk of what was needed to sustain life. When European population growth in the eigthteenth century left the continent short of food, the American population , although expanding at a far faster rate, continued to supply its own needs and much of Europe’s besides. . . . Without any management or government directives, the population swarmed onto the land and went to work. No one had to prod farmers to produce food. Given the opportunity, they eagerly made the most of the continent’s ample resources.1
My ancestors, John Isenhour Sr. and his son, John D. Isenhour, followed this pattern with John Sr. obtaining a North Carolina land grant in 1792 and dividing that land between his three sons in 1817. John D. Isenhour moved west, first to Greene County, Tennessee, and then to Cape Girardeau County, Missouri. His will reveals not only his heirs but also the type of farm he worked. From the time of his arrival in the early 1820s, until he died in 1844, he had amassed a large number of livestock – especially hogs which were well-suited to the hilly terrain of the Ozarks. Corn was an easy crop to grow and fed the hogs as well as the people. Sheep provided wool, and cattle provided dairy products. His property included the basics for running a self-contained plantation, such as axes, handsaw, plow, wagon, and windmill. Settlers used the mattock for cutting through roots and keeping the land cleared. He also valued his rifle, which would have served him in hunting wild game and defending his family and home against any intruders. His orchard likely grew a variety of fruit, and he would have raised grain to feed his stock.2
Whether our ancestors hailed from New England, the Middle States, or the South, Bushman tells of the vagaries of farming in that climate and culture. Farmers ofen left few records besides the census, tax list, deeds, and probate. When we put the details from those records into the context of history, we can understand their lives on a different level.
Bushman uses original writings in the form of diaries and letters, coupled with historical research by many who have studied this topic. The extensive end notes provide the reader with additional sources to study on a number of subjects.
What about the native people who were displaced by the ever-increasing number of white settlers? Bushman tells the story of land repeatedly lost to settlers through the Mohegans of Connecticut during the 1600s. He also touches on the Pennsylvania massacre of a small band of Conestoga in 1763 that sparked controversy among settlers on the frontier and the government officials striving for peace with the Native peoples.
The narrative weaves the impact of slavery on the colonies and the business of farming. Referencing the climate differences between the North and South, Bushman shows how the ability of Southern farmers to employ slave labor throughout the winter months led to the growth of slavery south of Pennsylvania. In the northern climates, where several months out of the year there was no farm work, farmers couldn’t afford slave labor.
Taking the reader through the Revolution, we learn how farmers felt about the new form of government.
Although the conceptual leap from monarchy to a republic was huge, little farm communities had lived democracy too long to be anxious about taking the fateful step. . . . They knew each other’s minds and who was competent to lead. Government under the authority of the people held no terrors for them.3
Whether our ancestors farmed in New England, the Middle Colonies, or the South, we can glean perspective on their motivations and actions. The American Farmer provides a deep look at American history from the perspective of the farmer and gives us as family historians more context. The concepts covered in the book could give us additional ideas for research beyond the usual and tell more of the story of our ancestors.
Best of luck in all your genealogical research!
- Richard L. Bushman, The American Farmer in the Eighteenth Century: A Social and Cultural History (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2018), ix.
- “Missouri Probate Records, 1750-1998,” Cape Girardeau > Letters testamentary, wills, 1807-1867, vol A-C, image 392 of 786, John D. Isenhour, 1844, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QSQ-G92Y-24SM? : accessed 12 March 2021); Will & Letters B: 354, FHL microfilm 925675, DGS Film #07630222; citing Missouri State Archives, Jefferson City.
- Richard L. Bushman, The American Farmer in the Eighteenth Century: A Social and Cultural History (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2018), 182.