The Other Side of the Coin: Rural Life
Yesterday, we looked at high society and took a tour of the Governor’s Palace.
The restored and reconstructed buildings seen in Williamsburg today represent people of means, rather than the average Virginian. While I was working for Colonial Williamsburg in 1996-97, the organization was finding its way to including people other than prosperous white males in the city’s story. As a result, well-to-do and working women and men, indentured servants, and enslaved people are included in third- and first-person encounters in the living museum today.
Even though Williamsburg looks small and like a town to our 21st century eyes, it was considered a city during the colonial era. Although not as big as Philadelphia, New York, or Boston, or even smaller cities of the time, it was capital of the Virginia colony (from 1699 to 1780) and was a hotbed of revolutionary activity. In addition, the little city contained taverns and other amenities to accommodate representatives of House of Burgesses, the elected part of the Virginia Colony’s General Assembly, as well as business people and others. It was prosperous. It was the big time to the eyes of rural folks.
Today a farm called “Great Hopes Plantation” is growing up on the outskirts of Williamsburg’s historical area. Its purpose is to give visitors an understanding of what most Virginians experienced.
Farming was hard work that required skill and good luck. Great Hopes Plantation represents a typical farm of the 1770s. About 90% of all Virginians lived and worked on farms like it. The sign introducing the plantation soberly states, “You were born here, you worked here, you lived here, you loved here, and you died here.” The farm was your world, your everything.
Although Colonial Williamsburg hasn’t yet built a farmhouse on the site, I do remember being told that a typical house for a typical farmer would be unpainted, drafty, and have little in the way of the luxuries one might find among Williamsburg’s upper crust. No big, feather beds. No well-crafted furniture. No lovely china, silver, or glassware.
One thing a farm did have, however, was outbuildings. Perhaps the most important among them for Virginia farmers was the tobacco house, where harvested tobacco was dried.
Tobacco, a major crop, was sold to England and, on a good year, could bring in the tidy sum of about 120 pounds sterling. Compare this income to the 40 pounds sterling a skilled craftsman might earn in Williamsburg. No wonder people would risk bad weather or blight to raise this crop!
Tobacco also was behind the growth of slavery in Virginia, but life on small and large plantations was very different for enslaved people than in cities like Williamsburg. In city-settings, people who were enslaved lived in proximity to those who owned them. On a farm, though, they were housed away from the white family, and this facilitated the development of a different community and cultural life among the enslaved community. Now, let's take a look at what one of their houses might look like.
The sample house for enslaved workers has no windows and its chimney is wood. I imagine the floor was dirt. The people who lived in it probably slept on the floor and on mattresses stuffed with straw.
How drastically dwelling conditions for the enslaved differed from those who enslaved them will be clearer once the farmer's house is built on the Williamsburg site.
(I probably don't need to say this, but I will: slavery was universal throughout the American colonies. The northern states did not begin abolishing slavery until after the Revolution.)
Finally, we come to the kitchen.
The kitchen was not part of the house. Rather, it was a separate building. The information at Great Hopes states that the structure was “the heart of domestic life on a plantation.” It was where the farmer’s wife and her children worked on cleaning, feeding, and clothing the other people on the farm. Enslaved people did not work in the kitchen but tended to be used primarily to work in with the tobacco crop. So this was primarily the preserve of the farmer's wife and children.
Now, the big question. Was Hester Morris, Maggie’s great-great grandmother who married Donald Beatty in 1735, a farm girl? Was she an indentured servant who served on a small farm and came here on her own? Or did she arrive in America with her family?
Can we see Maggie’s great-great grandmother working on a farm? Would it be a logical place to start? After all, Maggie states that her ancestors were farmers and that life was hard and tragic for them.
But would there be other options out there for Hester?
I’ll be looking into that on Monday’s Squeaking Blog!
Comments are closed.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder