restricted access 8 The Frontier Economy
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8.  The Frontier Economy During its earliest frontier period Tennessee was part of an international economy centered on a thriving trade in furs and deerskins. With the arrival of the first white settlers, the peltry trade became less important, and land speculation on a massive scale came to characterize the economy. Restless men of wealth and influence vied and sometimes cooperated with one another to engross millions of acres and then to dispose of them at enormous profit. The speculators’ machinations involved businessmen and would-be investors in every major city of the United States and many cities in Europe. For ordinary settlers the economy was radically different, initially featuring limited agricultural production geared to family subsistence or trade in small nearby markets. Eventually Tennessee farmers developed regional , national, and even international markets. But for both speculators and farmers, the economy throughout the state’s frontier period depended on land and its productive potential, and production was measured in agricultural terms. The first settlers in East and Middle Tennessee followed much the same routine: they cleared fields for corn, planted orchard trees and vegetable gardens, raised a few farm animals, and fenced their fields for protection against roaming livestock. By the 1790s farmers were exporting hogs, horses, and cattle to the Eastern states, and by 1800 nascent planters on the Cumberland were shipping tobacco and a small amount of cotton downriver to New Orleans—and ultimately to world markets. By the time war began with Great Britain in 1812, Middle Tennessee, with its abundant and fertile land, had already surpassed the eastern part of the state in population and agricultural productivity. It was an advantage it would never relinquish. By the 1830s plantation-based production of cotton for the export market was becoming increasingly significant both in the southern part of Middle Tennessee and in recently opened West Tennessee. Cotton soon became preeminent in the latter area, with Memphis emerging as a market center, while Middle and East Tennessee retained a more diversified agriculture. To supplement its commercial production of tobacco and cotton, Middle Tennessee grew other crops and raised livestock. In contrast, East Tennessee remained a bastion of smaller-scale, diversified farming and livestock raising because its soil and topography limited plantation agriculture . In addition to corn, farmers there raised wheat, oats, barley, flax, hemp, rye, timothy grass, a wide variety of vegetables, and even a small amount of cotton for local use. Corn was a major product in all three regions, and when Tennessee ’s frontier era ended in 1840, the state ranked first nationally in its production. Corn provided the near universal sustenance for frontier families. The earliest settlers planted the kernels, and often flax, amid the stumps of recently cleared fields. Once planted, corn it required little or no cultivation, though women and children had to chase away squirrels and crows. Corn also offered an almost infinite variety of culinary possibilities. Most families especially loved the young roasting ears when the corn was in the milk, but they also used corn for Johnnycakes, hominy, ground mush, and as an all purpose boiled additive to beans and meat. Woven leaves and cornhusks had many household purposes, and the cobs were transformed into pipe bowls, fire starters, and a poor substitute for toilet paper. People enjoyed going to cornshuckings, or frolics, which featured drinking, dancing, and other merriment and were highlights of frontier social calendars. Corn was also used as fodder, becoming TENNESSEE FRONTIERS 180  the most common replacement for the native river cane. In 1771 Evan Shelby had written his sons that except for his horses and a few milk cows, he sent all his livestock into the cane, so that feeding them “will be little cost to us more than salting.” But the growing number of farm animals eventually depleted the enormous canebrakes, and farmers increasingly relied on corn for fodder. Another major use of surplus corn was for the making of whiskey . Corn liquor was the ideal product—indispensable, easy to manufacture, easy to transport, and improving with age. At least two bushels of grain were required for every five gallons of whiskey , so by the early nineteenth century the distilling industry may have consumed one-fourth to one-half of all corn produced in some counties. People in the Tennessee backwoods also distilled rye, peaches, and apples. All echelons of frontier society, including women and children, used whiskey both as medicine and to lubricate social interaction. In those...


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