Sidebar 11: Tenant Farmers in Delaware - Lu Ann De Cunzo

What, after all, is agriculture, but the “culture of the fields,” the “science and art of cultivating the soil?” It is living between nature and culture. In Delaware, farming shaped the economy and everyday life beginning in the early colonial period, and mixed grain and livestock farming developed in Delaware and neighboring Middle Atlantic colonies set the pattern for later American agriculture. The lives of these farming people beat a rhythm of work, sociability, rest, and worship punctuated by moments and events that exploded the surface of daily routine. Someone’s sister had a baby. Another got married. Many brothers never returned from war. The first shipment from the Orient arrived at the local store. The sons went in search of work and didn’t come back.

These folks produced and exchanged what they could wrest from the land. Certain soils on certain slopes could grow wheat or only hay or, worse, could only support a few pigs after the trees were cut down. Do your children want to be farmers? They have a lot to learn, and a lot to worry about. The farm isn’t large enough to divide among them. Maybe you’ll be able to buy more land next year. Your son wants to know how that new corn sheller works. Your daughter is learning how long it takes the cream to rise and the butter to come in the churn. Should you trade the team of oxen for mules? The manure is piling up. The fox got in the chicken coop again. Will it ever rain? Will it never stop?

These farming folks were also builders, on small lots on the edge of town and large farms sprawling across the state. Those closest to the coast and the broad, meandering rivers built dykes and drained the marshes. Everyone built fences. They required regular maintenance, fit in between all the other chores. So did all the buildings. The corner posts holding up the corncrib rotted. The barn hasn’t been painted in years. The last farm journal featured plans for laying out your farm to run as efficiently as a factory. A place for everything and everything in its place.

Folks also thought about a place for everybody and everybody in their place. Who are you--mother or father, daughter or son, single or married, black or white, Presbyterian or African Methodist Episcopal, rich or poor? Sometimes there are opportunities. The politician promises to make the world a better place for your children, the newspaper says, if you vote for him. The neighbors agree, though, that he doesn’t know very much about your world or your children. Your daughters help feed the family. They are learning to can meats and vegetables, care for the strawberry patch, and they help their grandparents at the market every week. On rainy days in their bedroom, they imagine another world playing with their china dolls and teapots.

In the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, capitalism transformed life in the Middle Atlantic region, in ways I hint at above. Archaeology at a tenant farm in Delaware helps tell the stories of this transformation.

In the 1760s, William White built a store on his farm. After his son-in-law moved the business to Smyrna about 1800, the old store was renovated for tenants. A frame addition was built along one side of the old store and a yard out back was fenced for work, storage, gardens, livestock, and trash.

Stewart Redman and his household may have moved into the old store soon after the renovation. Period written sources tell us little about Redman or his family, except his name and a few purchases he made at local stores. The archaeological record tells more about their lives. Discarded bones and shells, for example, show that the family relied on meats and shellfish available through a local network of production, harvest, and exchange. The small number of cow bones, especially butchering waste, argues against the tenants having raised many cows. They likely kept one or two cows for milk, butter, and cheese as well as meat. Fragments of butter pots and milk pans attest to the tenant women's dairying. Other excavated bones identify pigs raised and butchered in the yard. Still other bones and butchering marks also document that the household ate chicken, goose, and waterfowl frequenting the local marshes, as well as muskrat, opossum, squirrel, and turtle. Oysters harvested near the old store also provided an important source of protein.

The Redmans entered local stores to acquire other things they needed and wanted for their work and home. When they did, they faced shelves and counters and barrels crammed with everything from pots of their neighbors' butter to silks and teas from the Orient. Broken ceramics tell of purposeful choices the family made from among wares arrayed along the store’s shelves. They were either not concerned with or could not afford to invest much in the expensive imported pieces that the merchants brokered as tokens of success and a refined lifestyle. Instead, versatile, locally and regionally made wares predominated in their kitchen and on their dining table. Many multipurpose forms were used to prepare, cook, serve, eat, and store food. Later tenant families selected increasing numbers of imported ceramics.

Hunting, trapping, oystering, fishing, farm work, hauling goods, and perhaps sailing the boats that plied local goods to Philadelphia engaged many landless men like Stewart Redman. Their labor made the crops grow, brought them in at harvest, and transported them to mills for processing, to the landing for shipping, and aboard ship to market. But these tasks that they repeated each year also contributed to soil exhaustion and erosion. Eventually, they brought on a crisis in the region’s agricultural economy that deeply affected all their lives. The example of these tenant families suggests that, at least through the 1820s, they retained a culture and vision that valued goods produced and exchanged within the community. Yet they purchased more and more of the imported goods that merchants proffered. As they did, they became more deeply enmeshed in a world market.

The buried remains of Delaware’s farms still have much to teach us about pigs and dairy cows, wheat, corn, fences, drained marshes, plows, barns, work, and much more. Through studies of these things, the people, and the thousands of farms across the state in which their histories reside, historical archaeologists will learn more about Delawareans and the “culture of agriculture.”