Pat's Reading Room

"The Atlantic Economy and Colonial Maryland's Eastern Shore: From Tobacco to Grain"

by Paul G.E. Clemens, Assistant Professor of History at Rutgers College; BA, University of Maryland; MA & PhD, University of Wisconsin

Cornell University Press, 1980

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This excerpt is from the latter part of:

Chapter 5: The Planters of Talbot County

Persistence and Economic Mobility

Clearly, neither expectations nor opportunity were the same for all Eastern Shore whites. Eveyone was not equally concerned with economic advancement to permanent residency in the region, and not everyone had the same ability to improve his situation. If there was a shared desire, it was probably for family, land, and independence -- householder status -- but the specific way people defined and sought this goal surely varied from settler to settler depending on how great a stake a person already had in society, how readily he accumulated capital, and how strongly he was tied by family loyalties to other whites in the area.

The poor had the most to gain and least to lose by leaving Talbot. For the disinherited and distressed, migration had long been a way of life. The poor of rural England moved often, some coming all the way to the New World. In the colonies, the landless continued to migr-ate from place to place in search of security. Thus many of Talbot's sharecroppers and laborers had moved before. Moreover, most were like Thomas Salmon and without attachments to other people in the county; most were also like Salmon in that their small incomes made it difficult to get a start on the Eastern Shorc. All could hope that in a less settled area they would have the opportunity, generally denied them in Talbot, to marry and become independent farmers. As a result, the majority of those poor whites who came to the Eastern Shore soon emigrated, and those who did stay usually did so because they had been able to lease land and a home.

For only one period, 1722-33, can the magnitude of the exodus from the Eastern Shore bc measured. During these years, as indicated by Table 19, 176 (65 percent) of the nonhouseholders in Bollingbroke and Thirdhaven hundreds either died or left Talbot County. Unless mortality was exceptionally high in the 1720s, death claimed no more than seventy to eighty of the nonhouseholders in Bollingbroke and Thirdhaven, meaning that by 1733 one out of every two survivors had simply moved away from the county. Among the emigrants were some sons who left home; but not surprisingly, thc great bulk of emigrants were rootless agricultural workers. At the same time of those poor who stayed in Talbot through 1733, two of every three aquired households and rented or bought land. (Among sons of established planters, the rate was three out of four.) Put a different way: householder status was the essential attribute of community membership in Talbot; unless a person could obtain it, he generally left.

Once he became a tenant, a planter's situation changed. High land prices made it difficult to become a proprietor; a foothold in thc economy and attachments to kin, if only through one's wife, made it hard to leave. The tenant's problem, as we have seen, was how to accumulate capital and still provide for a family. If he could not do both, the latter was clearly more important. We can illustrate this point by following the careers of leaseholders on the 1733 Talbot tax list: by 1748, only 25 of the 400 tenants on the tax list had become landowners, and of these 25, 18 had first leased land from their parents and then bought the property. But denied the opportunity to become landowners, most renters did not emigrate. Again, the only figures come from 1722-33 and they pertain to small farmers (tenants and nonslave-owning proprietors), not just renters, but the trend is clear: compared with the figure of 65 percent for nonhouse-holders, some 55 percent of the small farmers in Bollingbroke and Thirdhaven either died or left Talbot during the 1720s. When the deaths are subtracted, the emigration rate for small farmers was but half that for the poor.

As death, migration, and economic mobility drew people from each stratum of white society in Bollingbroke and Thirdhaven hundreds, immigration replaced those who were lost. A quarter of the slave owners, a quarter of the landowners, half the tenants, and almost two-thirds of the agricultural laborers and servants in the area in 1733 entered Bollingbroke or Thirdhaven after 1722 and had no direct ties to the families that had inhabited the hundreds at the beginning of the 1720s. The new slave owners were by and large wealthy, English by birth, and merchants or ministers by occupation. Their settlement in the region underscored the continuing importance of capital brought to Talbot by immigrants. Among the new landowners were at least some residents from nearby counties, and among the poorer immigrants were approximately 100 servants, mostly convicted English felons and Irish paupers. But the remaining people, almost 200 in number, although probably of Chesapeake and not English origin, simply cannot be traced, and their presence in Bollingbroke and Thirdhaven testifies to the remarkable movement of people that characterized the eighteenth-century tobacco economy.

For the established planter, the final step was to become a slave owner. Buying a slave was essentially a market decision made to improve the purchaser's economic position. While no planter ignored the market when acquiring land, his first goal was to assure his family food and security. When he bought a slave, however, the goal was profit. Between 1722 and 1733, the number of slaves and slave owners in Talbot increased, but the slave-owning class itself remained relatively restricted. Most new slave owners were either well-to-do immigrants or the children of slave-owning families. While the 1720s were not depression years, neither were they overly prosperous. Under these conditions, slaves tended to remain in the hands of the large planters on whose farms they had been born or on whose vessels they had been brought from the Caribbean.

In the late 1730s this situation changed dramatically. A propitious conjunction of demand and supply conditions spread slave ownership in much the same way that the 1697-1701 boom had given many small planters their first opportunity to buy servants. On the demand side, the introduction of inflationary paper money by the Maryland government in 1734 put cash in the hands of planters, and the expansion of the tobacco reexport trade in the late 1730s and early 1740s initiated a rapid rise in staple prices. On the supply side, problems in the West Indian and Carolina slave markets worked to the advantage of Chesapeake landowners. The West Indian slave trade, dependent on the vitality of the sugar market, ebbed in the mid-1730s, and the outbreak of war between France and England in 1739 -- war that immediately spilled over into the Caribbean -- made continued trade between the West Indies and Africa risky. In South Carolina, the assembly acted in 1739, after the Stono rebellion, to prohibit further importation of African and West Indian slaves. These circumstances left the Chespeake the prime market for English slavers.

In Talbot County between 1734 and 1739, inflation drove up the cost of a slave 25 percent. Over the same period, however, tobacco prices rose 100 percent. As soon as laborers became available, planters began purchasing an unprecedented number. During the peak years, 1739-43, Oxford merchants sold some 600 slaves and a like number of servants (twice the number they had sold during the previous decade and a half). By late 1743, when the economic boom finally collapsed, most landowners in the county had become slave owners. This step, coupled with the continuing rise of property prices, drove a wedge between tenants and other small farmers, and further sharpened lines of economic distinction on the Eastern Shore.

End of the excerpt ... at least for now. There is a bit more to this chapter after this excerpt and quite a lot more before it.

I have some records of early immigrants to Maryland in my genealogy pages. If you're interested in this area, don't miss Shari Handley's Eastern Shore Maryland pages.

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