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34Historically Speaking · November/December 2004 simple pattern prevailed. Aswith the thirteen colonies themselves, the colonial colleges forged an ostensible unity and shaped an American political culture. It was never an ideology and not a hegemony. Each college madeits individual contributionto the pluralist American Mind. J. DavidHoeveler isprofessor ofhistory at the University ofWisconsin-Milwaukee and authoro/Creating the American Mind: Intellect and Politics in the American Colonial Colleges (Rowman andLittlefield , 2002). The Great Meadow: Sustainable Husbandry in Colonial Concord Brian Donahue Historyhas notbeenkind to NewEngland farmers. Colonial husbandmen have long been cast as crude, extensive farmers: because land was plentiful and laborscarce, itisalleged, theydepletedsoilfertility and cleared new land rather than caring intensivelyforwhattheyalreadyhadincultivation . Beginningwith the anonymous (andnonAmerican ) author ofAmerican Husbandry in 1775, gentlemen routinely accused these yeomen ofmistreating livestock and wasting manure. 19th-century agricultural improvers condemned the plodding ways of their own forefathers. They followed the lead ofYale president Timothy Dwight, who famously wrote that "the principal defects in our husbandry , so far as I am able to judge, are a deficiencyinthe quantityoflabornecessarytopreparethegroundforseed ,insufficientmanuring, the want of a good rotation of crops, and slovenliness in cleaning the ground."1 Modern historians have mostly agreed. But interestingly, they have offered two diametrically opposed explanations for this slovenliness. Some claim that subsistence farmers lacked marketincentives to improve. Others argue that the market imperative to commodify nature encouraged them to degrade the land. The first, neoclassicalview was crystallized byPercyBidwell in 1921 and has prevailed among economic historians to this day. Like Dwight, these scholars attribute inefficient use ofland and labor to structural barriers. Once markets emerged in the second quarter ofthe 19th century(said Bidwell —Winifred Rothenbergpushed the transition backto the last quarter ofthe 18th century ), NewEngland agriculturebegan to show signs ofimprovement. But then, bythe same remorseless logic, sank beneath competition from farms on better soils to the west.2 Environmental historians, notably William Cronon and Carolyn Merchant, have proposed another explanation for exhaustive farmingin colonial NewEngland thatruns counterto the progressive idea that greater market penetration led to improved use of land. In their view, the English colonists turned a Native land of ecological harmony based on usufruct into a privatized "world of fields and fences." They have argued that the expanding market economy ofthe colonial Atlantic world drove the newcomers to commodify and exploit natural resources as rapidly as possible, rather than conserve them as the Indians had done— clearing forest, depletingwildlife, exhausting soils, eroding hillsides, fouling streams. Crononhad this occurringfrom the moment the English landed; Merchant had the exploitation worseningwith the market revolution of the early 19th century. In any event, the degradation ofland thatwas once seen as the mark ofisolated subsistence farming is ascribed preciselyto the marketitself.3 All ofthese historians have accepted that colonial NewEngland husbandrywas extensive and ultimately exhausting, although they fit that description into very different interpretive frameworks. Buthow dowe know that colonial husbandry was like that—beyond taking Timothy Dwight and Arthur Young attheirword? The answer, as far as I can tell, is that we don't know it was like that. There isn't much evidence for it. In fact, it's hard to imagine how early New England towns like Concord could actuallyhave beenfarmed extensively for the entire colonial period. The landscape ofConcord certainly was degraded by 1850. Foresthad been driven to alowof11%, andincreased riverfloodingwas spoilinghaymeadows. Run-down, unproductive pastureswere growingup in brush. Henry Thoreau and George PerkinsMarsh, theYankee grandsires ofthe conservationmovement, had it right: the 19th-century boom in agricultural clearinginNew England came at the expense ofthe land.4 But was this the consequence oftwo centuries ofdeeply ingrained bad habits that had not been sufficiently improved upon? Or was it because ofa more recenttransformation, the early 19th-century marketrevolution? To findouthowNewEngland farmingtookshape, I mapped 17th-century land divisions in Concord (some 30,000 acres dividedinto more than 800veryoddlittle pieces), and the ownership and use ofa few thousand ofthose acres from 1635 to present, using deeds, probated estates, tax valuations, and GIS software. Whatfollows is asummary ofmyfindings concerningthe colonial period, and mycorollaryproposition concerningthe early 19th century. • ¦ · In 1792 recent Harvard graduate William Jones wrote ofhis native town "the soil is various ; consisting ofrocky, sandy, and moist land; but it is in general fertile." This division...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-6438
Print ISSN
1941-4188
Pages
pp. 34-37
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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