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Extending the Story: Small Farmers in American South Pre and Post Civil War

By: David Pitman, Northview High School Duluth, Georgia

 

The phrase "southern farmer" conjures up images of a southern gentleman riding down from the big house to oversee the slaves who were chopping cotton in the fields below. While this popular image was certainly true for some of the wealthiest landowners, it does not depict what was the reality for the majority of subsistence farmers. The fast majority of southern farmers were subject to the vagaries of environmental, economic, and cultural determinism. Small farmers in the American South were also uneasily dependent and curiously unassociated with slaves.

 

Slaves were most financially viable on large plantations, where they provided necessary labor for large scale farm operations related to the production of cash crops. But, much of the South was unsuited for such large scale agriculture. For example, the Appalachian Region was far more conducive to small land lots and mining lots which could not produce much of a cash crop. This was the land were Asaph Perry's family lived. The 1832 land lottery, which divvied north Georgia by its potential for gold or it conduciveness for farming, limited the introduction of salve labor to the area. The small farm and mill operations of north Georgia were not capitalized to the extent that slave labor made sense. An industrious single farmer could eek out an existence in such a place, though he might have supplemented his income with odd jobs during the winter. Some of these small farmers acquired the cash to buy a slave helper, but the census and slave schedule data suggests that those owning five or less slaves at any one time were more likely to lose those slaves for financial reasons rather than achieve economic stability.

 

Somewhere between the poverty of tenant farmers and the wealth of large landowners, these small scale landowners operated land holdings around one hundred acres. Asaph's birth in the 1876 coincided with the demise of the plantation system and the rise of small farming. Some successful planters who had acquired large tracts over 300 acres were forced to either sell or sharecrop their land after the Emancipation Proclamation. Throughout the South after the Civil War, the average farm size dropped from 365 acres down to 157 acres, narrowing the disparity of wealth that had been created under the plantation system. A domestic economy existed to supplement the subsistence lifestyle of these smaller scale farmers. Men would often serve as hired hands at the local saw mill or grist mill. Blacksmiths could operate from their farm. Women, too, made quilts, dresses, and other crafts form sale at markets and fairs. Many people in the census who claimed an occupation such as barber, blacksmith, or preacher, found most of their livelihood from their farming work.

After the turn of the century, communities of small scale farmers still defined the Southern landscape. Communities of small farmers began to grow in their complexity. Small scale farmers such as Asaph's father had children who could no longer make a living on the family farm. These industrious children sought careers around the town centers which could offer employment in a number of service industries. They turned their folk crafts and arts into bona fide careers. Asaph and his wife would have learned arts such as dressmaking and barbering in their homes. With the concentration of non-farmers in towns such as Canton, Asaph and Ethel Perry were able to market their skills enough to make a successful living. The work done on the farm to save money, ultimately became the money making career of the next generation.