At the beginning of the 19th century, America was an almost entirely agrarian society and would be so for some years to come. In 1790, 90 percent of the four million people in America made their living farming; by 1850, 64 percent of the country’s 23 million people subsisted off agriculture.
An Ideal Citizen
Early farmers in the American northeast followed the patterns set by centuries of their ancestors both in America and Europe, particularly England. The descendants of British peasants emigrated to the New World in large part to find land of their own and a secure existence. American colonial farmers prospered, but the Revolutionary War was disruptive, with crops destroyed and the threat of bloodshed omnipresent. It took until the first decade of the 19th century for northeastern farms to return to their former prosperity. Northern soil and climate conditions favored small farms, where farmers grew apples, corn and wheat, raised livestock and were highly self-sufficient. The farmer was idealized as the backbone of America. Thomas Jefferson wrote that America’s early farmers were “the most virtuous and independent citizens.”
Americans in the south made their living primarily through agriculture as well, but the rich soil and warm climate of the south made large plantations growing a single crop feasible. Tobacco was the first major crop grown in the American colonies, beginning in Jamestown, but it was an incredibly labor intensive – one reason why millions of African slaves were bought to America. However when Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin at the beginning of the 19th century, meaning that raw cotton could be cleaned very quickly, cotton took over as the primary crop on southern plantations.
Inventions Increased Crop Yield
As the century went on, other inventions helped make the back-breaking labor of early American farming a little easier and thus increase productivity. The mechanical reaper, invented by Cyrus McCormick in 1831, allowed farmers to put down the scythes – a tool in use for 5,000 years – and increased grain yields dramatically. The 1830s also saw John Deere invent the steel plow blade after he learned that farmers who had migrated to the west were having a hard time turning the thick, wet soil with their old cast-iron blades.
Farmers Moving West
Ultimately, it was because of that soil that America moved westward at all. Since the country was a nation of farmers, more land was needed for a growing population. The land in the northeast could only support a finite number of families; the land in the south had in many instances been rendered infertile due to poor crop management techniques. So it was in search of rich farmland that Americans in the early 1800s crossed the Appalachians and spread out over the continent.