Colonial Chesapeake Society

Adapting to a New World
Part III

English immigrants arriving in the Chesapeake in the middle decades of the seventeenth century would have been struck initially by the features of their new environment that so obviously differed from the one they had left behind in England: the intricate maze of waterways; the vast tracts of unbroken forest; the hot, humid summers; the "strange" native population; the novel seasonal rhythms of life and labor imposed by plantation agriculture; the absence of towns and manufactures; the social mix of English people from different regions of the parent society; the high incidence of death and disease; and the larger numbers of males than females. Before considering living standards and local community in the Chesapeake, it is worth outlining some of the salient features of society as it developed along the tobacco coast in the second half of the century.

Social structure differed from that in England in several important respects. Entire sections of English society were missing. There was little in the Chesapeake to attract men of established fortune in the mother country, despite the efforts of promotional writers to convince them otherwise. In numerical terms, apart from a brief flurry during the early years of settlement, the gentry and aristocracy did not play an important role in colonizing the tobacco coast. Further, lacking towns and industry and with a relatively small and dispersed population, the Chesapeake did not require the range of specialist trades and crafts to be found in the Vale of Berkeley and elsewhere in England. Consequently, as Lorena Walsh has pointed out, social status associated with most Old World occupations was not transferred to the New World.

Nevertheless, if several important determinants of social status were missing in the Chesapeake one of fundamental significance remained: wealth. The absence of highborn gentry and aristocracy does not imply that Maryland or Virginia society was "middle class" or egalitarian in the second half of the seventeenth century. As in England, those with the greatest estates were judged the best qualified to govern. Political power followed economic power. The absence of a traditional ruling class weakened social cohesion and hierarchy, but the firmly established concept that political authority and wealth were natural partners helped to offset this problem.

Second, the pattern of landholding in the Chesapeake was significantly different from that in England. Along the lower Western Shore of Maryland manorial organization "proved an anachronism in an area which quickly came to be peopled largely by freeholders." With a few exceptions tracts called manors were manors in name only. As a result of the abundance of land, holdings tended to be on average much larger than in England. In St. Mary's and Charles counties, 1659-1705, the mean size of tracts was between 450 and 600 acres, while the median was between 200 and 300 acres. Men with holdings as large as this in the Vale of Berkeley would have ranked among the landowning elite. On the other hand, land was very much cheaper in Maryland. An estate of 200 or 300 acres would have cost several thousand pounds in the Vale during the second half of the seventeenth century, whereas in the Chesapeake it could be had at the price of importing five or six persons, probably around 50 pounds.

Early pamphlet literature that extolled the virtues of moving to Maryland and Virginia laid great stress on the availability of cheap, fertile land. An opportunity to become landowners was extremely attractive to men inculcated with the symbolic as well as the economic value of landownership in the Old World. Poor men who had little chance of ever acquiring more than a few acres in England might eventually find themselves in possession of several hundred in the Chesapeake. At least this was the ideal. If the abundance of land made its social and economic value proportionately less along the tobacco coast than in England, nevertheless the individual satisfaction of working one's own land (for subsistence if not always for profit) must have been considerable.

Finally, reference should be made to the newness of Chesapeake society. John Smyth of Nibley recounted with pride in 1639 that the Lords Berkeley had governed the Vale since "shortly after William the Conueror daies, (if not in his time)." Other families known to Smyth had owned land in the area for three or four centuries. "Ancient usage" sanctioned traditional ways of doing things. Inhabitants of the Vale had a common heritage -- their own dialect, folklore, and local customs -- which defined them as "naturall bred hundredors." This sense of local tradition was missing in the early Chesapeake, where high rates of mobility and mortality maintained a rapid turnover of people in the newly developing communities of the tidewater. Demographic disruption was probably the most serious problem faced by English settlers in trying to put down roots in their new environment.

Some aspects of Chesapeake society would have been more familiar. English men and women who moved to the New World encountered levels of poverty similar to those in rural areas of England. Not only did the great majority of immigrants arrive with little or no capital, but also many of those who eventually made it into the ranks of householders, and who began accumulating possessions, were cut short by early death. Poverty in the Chesapeake, therefore, resulted from the pattern of immigration and high mortality rates as well as the falling price of tobacco in the last quarter of the century. Along the lower Western Shore of Maryland during Menard's "age of the small planter," in the late 1650s and 1660s, nearly ten percent of those who went through probate had less than £ 10 in personal goods and almost 60 percent had less than £ 50. Even allowing that £ 50 is too much to describe someone as poor in Maryland, between 36 and 39 percent of probated decedents had less than £ 30. In a study of six Maryland counties on the Western and Eastern shores between 1656 and 1696 Gloria Main found that 40 percent of decedents had less than £ 35 and about half had less than £ 50. It is likely that similar, or higher, proportions were to be found in parts of Virginia in the second half of the seventeenth century. Edmund Morgan cites a Virginian's estimate in the early I660s that three-quarters of the planters "were so poor they would have to become servants to the others." This is an exaggeration, but it is a clear indication of the growing awareness of the high incidence of poverty, and its attendant problems, along the tobacco coast.

Part IV

The domestic environment had an enormous influence on the texture of everyday life in England and in the colonies; consequently standards of living, as revealed by probate records, suggest one facet of the gains and losses involved in settling in the Chesapeake. Slightly under five hundred inventories for the period 1660 to 1700 were used in the study of the Vale of Berkeley, which represents about 30 percent of all adult male decedents. Inventory coverage was much higher in Maryland during the second half of the seventeenth century, accounting for about 60-70 percent. People at all levels of society in the Vale and other parts of England were less likely to go to the expense and trouble of having inventories drawn up for their kin, friends, or debtors. In particular, the "poorer sort" are not recorded in English probate records with anywhere near the same frequency as in Maryland. This is a serious drawback when comparing wealth distribution in the two societies (because of the different nature of the probated populations), but it is less of a problem in the following analysis because sufficient inventories have survived to furnish a reliable indication of the living standards of the poor in both societies. Many English immigrants from the Vale, and elsewhere, would have been profoundly dismayed by the primitive standard of housing common throughout the Chesapeake. Gloria Main estimates that two-thirds of householders in Maryland lived in dwellings of three rooms or less, and even among the top third it was rare to find houses of more than six rooms. In general, houses were notable for their "smallness" and for the "inconsequential nature of the construction methods and materials. Walsh comments that the most significant features of seventeenth-century housing were "the small size and the relatively undifferentiated use of space within. Food preparation, cooking, eating, sleeping, sewing, reading, recreation, and craft acbvities were all carried on in one or two small rooms." Another significant feature was the impermanence of Maryland dwellings. Houses were not expected to last long, perhaps no more than ten years. Cheap local materials, the demands of tobacco culture, and the ravages of the climate all contributed to the short lifespan of housing in the Chesapeake.

It has been suggested that despite their small size and crudeness of construction, Maryland dwellings were similar to those commonly inhabited by farm laborers and rural poor in England. This is an exaggeration. Although little is known about impermanent vernacular buildings in seventeenth-century England, it is unlikely that more than a small proportion of the laboring classes or parish poor inhabited shacks and hovels associated with marginal areas. There is little direct evidence of such humble structures in the Vale of Berkeley. People at the very bottom of the economic scale (worth less than £ 10 at death) lived in houses or lodgings of between two and five rooms; the mean was 3.3. Two-thirds of the wealth group above the very poor, those worth between £ 10 and 50 pounds (N = 57), lived in houses of five or more rooms. Thus persons who occupied an intermediate position between modest comfort and poverty in the Vale of Berkeley inhabited dwellings usually associated with the upper reaches of Chesapeake society. The most common type of dwelling found in the Vale was not the one- or two-room cottage but houses of between four and six rooms.

Further up the social scale housing became more elaborate. The dwellings of middling and rich householders (£ 100-£ 250 and £ 250+) had on average seven to ten rooms respectively. Many had similar layouts to smaller structures with the addition of a parlor, cellar, or whitehouse, as well as extra lofts. The gentry in the Vale most commonly lived in houses of eight to fifteen rooms, while the county elite invested in the building and rebuilding of mansions, ornamental gardens, and parks carefully illustrated in Robert Atkyns's history of Gloucestershire.

In short, the primitive nature of Chesapeake housing was not entirely unknown in England. Some impoverished inhabitants of forests, wastes and other marginal areas may have lived in equally crude dwellings. More to the point, however, is the prevalence of these rudimentary structures among even relatively affluent Chesapeake planters. To put it differently, two-thirds of Maryland planters lived in dwellings of a type usually found only among the poorest sections of English society.

Evidence from St. Mary's County, Maryland, suggests that the low standards of living indicated by Chesapeake housing were matched by equally low standards in domestic furnishing. Barbara and Cary Carson have described the living standards of the poorer householders as "remarkably, almost unimaginably, primitive.... Equipment of any kind was so scarce that we must look to aboriginal cultures to find modern analogies that even approximate these pre-consumer living conditions of the seventeenth century." Two examples highlight the difference between the Vale of Berkeley and St. Mary's County.

John Nelme, a yeoman of Berkeley, died in August 1697. At the time of his death his personal estate was valued at £ 65 13s, close to the median for all decedents from the Vale who died between 1660 and 1700. His house had six rooms: a parlor, hall, kitchen, and three chambers. In the parlor were a long table and frame with a carpet, five stools, and an old side table. One of Nelme's prized possessions stood in the hall: a clock valued at 13s 4d. Food preparation and cooking were carried out in the kitchen, where Nelme kept his cooking equipment, tableware, and pewter. He may have occasionally eaten in the kitchen, seated at an old table. Upstairs, in the chamber over the hall, was a flock bed with a bedstead and bedding. In the best chamber stood a feather bed with bedstead, bolster, blankets, and rug. The room was furnished also with a chest, press, table, and wainscot chair, and was the only chamber that could be heated. The third chamber was more frugally furnished with a flock bed and bedstead.

Nelme was fortunate in possessing a clock; not many inhabitants of the Vale at any wealth level did so. But in other respects the standard of living suggested by his household goods was similar to hundreds of other small farmers and artisans of the region. It was a standard that offered few luxuries but provided the basic necessities of life.

Adam Head emigrated to Maryland as a servant in 1659. He lived a long life by Chesapeake standards and died in 1698 worth 67 pounds 8s. No details are given in his inventory about his house, but it was probably the same as those inhabited by the vast majority of Maryland planters: about twenty feet long by sixteen wide and made entirely of wood. His household possessions were meager. He owned two feather beds and one flock bed with bedding, but no bedsteads. Other furniture was nonexistent. Possibly his old chest and "a parcell of old Sidr Caske" served as rudimentary tables and chairs. Cooking equipment was limited to two old iron pots and an "old Ketle." Apart from "a parcell of old pewter," an old gun and some books, this was the sum total of his worldly goods.

Nor was Head unusual in owning so little. Among the poorer planters (worth less than £ 10 in personalty at death) virtually all householders were without bedsteads and only two-thirds owned a proper mattress. Those without bedding probably slept on piles of rags or straw. Over 70 percent were without purpose-made seating; they made do by using upturned barrels, pails, chests, and logs, or by simply squatting on the floor. Other common domestic furniture -- tables, cupboards, benches, and forms -- was almost entirely missing. Although it is possible to detect a slight improvement in the standard of living of householders who died with estates worth between £ 10 and £ 50, the largest single group of decedents in St. Mary's County in the second half of the seventeenth century, the primitiveness of domestic conditions is nevertheless striking. Half the sample lacked any seating and between 70 and 80 percent were without bedsteads. Tables were to be found in about a third of households, but other furniture was much less common. As in the case of decedents worth less than £ 10, cooking equipment was limited in the main to an iron pot or two for boiling mush and stew and a couple of old frying pans. Between a half and two-thirds of householders owned pewter plates and dishes; the remainder used the more humble treenware. As one might expect, luxury items, with the important exception of books, were completely absent.

The first substantial improvement in living conditions in St. Mary's County occurred among decedents worth between £ 100 and £ 250 at death. At this level most people could, if they chose, sit at a table to eat their meals and sleep in beds raised off the floor on bedsteads. The great majority owned sheets as well as table linen. Furnishings were more varied. For the first time there were significant numbers of householders owning cupboards and chests of drawers. The incidence of non-essential items steadily increased in this group: warming pans, lighting equipment, chamber pots, books, plate, jewelry, and timepieces all became more common. Diet also appears to have been more varied. Most householders owned boiling, frying, and roasting implements, and a few had specialized utensils for preparing sauces, pastries, and fish. Almost everyone ate meals from pewter dishes, and there is more evidence of the use of knives at table.

These improvements continued among the economic elite (persons worth over 250 pounds). Ordinary furniture was present in almost every household and in greater numbers than among lower wealth groups. Elaborate case furniture -- cupboards, clothespresses, writing desks, and chests of drawers -- were more commonly found in the houses of the rich. Furniture was also more valuable. Capt. Joshua Doyne, who died in St. Mary's County in 1698 worth nearly 500 pounds, owned two beds with their bedsteads and "furniture" valued at 13 pounds and a chest of drawers worth a pound and a half. The average value of beds, bedding and bedsteads of all wealth groups, 1658 - 1705, was between two and two and a half pounds. Other ordinary furniture was usually valued at between a few shillings and a pound. As in England, the wealthy acquired furniture for display as well as comfort.

Substantial wealth brought a greater variety of food, more comfort in dining and sleeping arrangements, and also a larger level of investment in nonessential items, particularly plate. However, despite notable differences in living standards between rich and poor planters, historians of the seventeenth-century Chesapeake have tended to stress the essential similarity of the domestic environment. "All in all," the Carsons have commented, "there was a decided sameness about material life in southern Maryland in the seventeenth century." Lorena Walsh agrees. "While families in higher wealth levels enjoyed a greater degree of comfort than did poorer households, until the end of the period [1720] most did not use personal possessions to create a markedly different way of living from their poorer neighbors. Certainly the contrast in the domestic environment between the Vale of Berkeley and the tidewater is far more striking than that between different wealth groups in Maryland.

Even the very poor in the Vale of Berkeley (worth less than ten pounds) had a standard of living comparable to planters of middling wealth in the Chesapeake. Although beds and bedding at this level were cheap and unsophisticated, virtually everyone owned at least a bed, and over 80 percent had bedsteads. Most of the very poor possessed tables and seats. Over four-fifths had a table to table-board and two-thirds owned some kind of seating, most commonly in the form of chairs and stools. Among the lower-middling wealth groups, 10 to 49 pounds and 50 to 99 pounds, ordinary domestic furniture was universal. Sideboards, presses, and chests of drawers were also to be found in their households and there was a greater readiness to invest in luxury goods. Nearly ten percent of house holders in the £ 10 - £ 49 category and over 21 percent of the £ 50 - £ 99 category possessed plate and jewelry. As householders accumulated a little wealth there was more to spare for nonessential items.

Above the lower-middling groups there was a steady, but not spectacular, rise in living standards. The proportion of middling to rich decedents (£ 100 - £ 249 and £ 250 plus) owning the various forms of furniture itemized in table 5 [an extensive list of the sorts of items that have been discussed] rose across the two wealth groups, but in most cases the increase was only a few percentage points. Houses of the rich were distinguished by the presence of more elaborate and expensive furnishings as well as by more of the ordinary types of furniture. Luxury goods were to be found in many households. Of the £ 100 - £ 249 group nearly 28 percent owned plate and jewelry compared to 55 percent of the £ 250 plus group. Plate and jewelry were not only used for display purposes, they also provided a means of investing cash in goods that would not depreciate in value. Nearly half of the £ 250 group owned warming pans and nearly a quarter had chamber pots or close-stools. Sanitary conditions were further improved by the ubiquitous presence of household linen: sheets, tablecloths, napkins, and towels.

English men and women arriving in the Chesapeake during the seventeenth century must have experienced considerable problems in adjusting to living conditions that were considerably lower than usual in English society. Modest wealth in Maryland (and Virginia) brought a degree of economic independence, the satisfaction of working for oneself, and landownership, but it does not appear to have brought domestic comfort. Housing was generally far more primitive along the tobacco coast than in southern and central England. In most dwellings there simply was not enough space for much furniture. Rooms served such a variety of purposes that furnishings had to be kept to a minimum or be sufficiently flexible (that is, capable of being stored away) to meet this demand. The lack of skilled craftsmen and housewrights, the abundance of timber, and the nature of plantation agriculture encouraged the development of a Chesapeake vernacular architecture characterized by "transience" or "impermanence." In England dwellings were more substantial, larger, and more complex. This in itself constituted an important difference in standards of living between the two societies. Not only were essential items of furniture such as tables, seats, beds, and bedsteads often missing from the households of many planters, but also there was an important qualitative difference in furnishings. In English inventories it is very rare for items to be described as "new" or "old" but in the Chesapeake the term "old" is commonly used. William Johnson's goods were described in 1662 as follows: " 1 old brass kettle, 1 little iron pot (old), 1 little skillet full of holes, 6 old plates, 2 old pewter dishes, old pewter, 2 old corn barrels, 2 old frying pans . . . 1 old feather bed, 3 old leather chairs, 1 old trunk, 1 broken glass and trash." Similarly, nearly every item described in Thomas Nicholl's inventory or the inventory of Jacob Morris, both of St. Mary's County, is termed "old."

Appraisers in Maryland and Virginia often valued items that were broken or worn out. Many of the household possessions of Capt. William Brocas of Lancaster County, who died in 1655, were described in these terms: "a parcel of old hangings, very thin and much worn," "a parcel of old Chayres, being 7, most of them Unusefull," "an old broken Cort Cupboard," "1 old rotten couch bedstead," and so on. Cooking utensils and other metalwares are commonly described as "broken," "split," "crackt," or "full of holes." In the Chesapeake, old, broken, and worn goods still retained a certain value because it was sometimes cheaper to mend them, or use them for something else, than to buy new goods. Poverty was therefore reflected not only by the absence of essential furniture but also in the often poor condition of the limited range of items that were owned. This appallingly low standard of living was the result of a combination of factors: the relatively short lives that many immigrants lived, the increasingly unfavorable economic conditions of the last third of the century, and the dependence on English merchants for manufactured goods. Most poor settlers made do with crudely constructed homemade items or "surrogate furniture" such as boxes, barrels, tubs, and chests. "Making do" in this way became a feature of everyday life, as far as the domestic environment was concerned, for many planters of lower and middling wealth in the second half of the seventeenth century.

End of Part IV, and end of this selection. Horn's text has many tables of statistics to support his conclusions. His work is also well-documented with footnotes, so that reading his paper will lead you to many other works of interest, particularly in journals and collections of documents you might otherwise miss. Horn is but one of the contributors worth reading; I particularly recommend Russell Menard's "British Migration," Lois Green Carr's "Diversification in the Chesapeake," Lorena S. Walsh's "Community Networks" and Jean Butenhoff Lee's "Land and Labor." And I wouldn't have missed J. Frederick Fausz's "Merging and Emerging Worlds."

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