Farm Life in the 18th Century

by Eugene Scheel
A Waterford historian and mapmaker.

Early farming woodcut

After the Revolutionary War, at the onset of liberty for white settlers, the large tracts of land granted to prominent Tidewater politicians and businessmen have been divided among others. Farms average more than 400 acres. Corn and wheat are staples, tobacco being rare because prices dropped during the Revolution and, after the war, tariffs and competition from abroad. Most homes are frame or log-or, west of Catoctin Mountain, stone. Typically, they have one story and a loft and face south to catch summer breezes and northern light ideal for detailed tasks. No windows face mountain views, as winter winds blow from the west and northwest. The range is open, but fences keep animals from the domicile, garden and orchard. Families averaging five and six support themselves, unaided by others save for God.

At the beginning of Loudoun County in 1757, about 60 percent of Loudoun's 3,500 inhabitants were from counties to the east and south; 20 percent were Quaker and German migrants from Pennsylvania; and the others were African American slaves, many of them belonging to absentee landlords from the Tidewater region.

The typical Loudoun resident was part of a closely knit family of six: a husband, a wife and four children. One child had died.

The cycle of a new life in new surroundings began in early spring. The father had saved enough money to buy staples until the first autumn harvest was in. He rented 100 to 200 wilderness acres from an absentee owner's overseer, who managed the plantation holdings. They concluded their spoken contract with a handshake, because neither could write or read complex words.

With help from neighbors — the nearest being one-quarter to one-half mile away — and the older children, the family sawed trees and built a one-story log home of 16 by 20 feet, the minimum size required by Virginia law. It stood near a spring and stream.

In late March or early April, the father, older children and neighbors, with the help of the family's ox and horse and the neighbors' beasts, prepared land for corn, wheat and small grains. The plows, rakes and hoes were fashioned from hardwood. The wife and smaller children tilled and planted a garden and some apple seeds.

The cropland was too large to be enclosed by wood fencing, but many scarecrows and strategically placed piles of low stone at the fields' borders discouraged birds and wild animals. The family constructed a privy, a hog pen and a fence of small logs to enclose the house and garden.

No clock measured time, but the wife, who could write and read some, kept a journal. The workday began with the sun rising and ended with its setting.

Always there was work. The youngest gathered kindling and firewood, weeded the garden and crops, carried water from the spring, helped the mother cook and keep house, and washed clothes and bedding in the nearby stream.

Tending to the crops was everyone's constant concern. Fences needed mending. Stray animals were testing scarecrows to get at the savory shoots; the rock barriers needed to be higher. Firewood had to be cut and split. Neighbors told the father that 20 cords might be needed for winter.

The father and older children hunted game and on occasion ventured some miles to a larger stream to fish. Poultry, eggs, milk and cornmeal were available from the nearby mill, and with the first autumn freeze, the neighborhood hog butchering would supply a season's pork.

In rainy weather, by candlelight, the mother taught the children sums, reading and writing. The family had one book, a Bible. She read from it what she could — simple Old Testament stories, Psalms, Proverbs. The family members believed in Jesus as their savior, but they belonged to no denomination.

At times they would gather at a neighbor's house on Sunday to sing, worship and share information. Going to church was rare — it meant a walk of eight to 10 miles as there were but six houses of worship in the county, two Anglican, two Quaker, one Baptist and one German Reformed.

Neighbors helped the family bring in the land's bounty in autumn. On each fine harvest evening, there was a communal supper lasting into twilight hours.

The father thought about something the overseer had alluded to briefly. If he did not have the four shillings to pay the annual rent, the landowner could take him to court and repossess the land with all its improvements. Such a calamity could occur after a poor harvest due to weather or inexperience, or a periodic epidemic — cholera and typhoid were killers that could deplete a family by half.

After the harvest, there were trips to one of the county's 15 mills, all powered by water. If a neighbor owned a cart, the biggest vehicle the rutted paths could handle, the family would borrow it to take the harvested grains to be ground. Otherwise the produce would be transported on an improvised wooden sled, half-dragged by the ox and horse, half-pushed by the father and older children.

The staples the family bought — sugar, salt, coffee, ammunition, fabric, leather — came from the British Isles, boated to Alexandria and then wagoned or carted to the mill. The miller might barter with the father for some of these items, taking more than his usual one-sixth of the corn and one-eighth of the wheat, a miller's toll for grinding the grain.

Succeeding seasons were usually bountiful, but the family had to provide for downtimes. The girls married at 18 or 19, and the boys before 24. One of the teenagers would die before 20. One of the parents would die before 50. A widower would marry a younger widow within a year. An older widow would remain single, cared for by the family and its second generation.

Several progeny of the Loudouners of 1757 live in the county today. And there are many vestiges of that era — about 20 houses in near-pristine state, and scores that are appendages or cores to later dwellings. The lower courses of stone walls and foundations of buildings number in the hundreds. One can walk among the tombstones and grave sites of six churches and on numerous paths where the early settlers trod.

Anyone who has observed the Potomac River's sweep from the heights at Red Rock park, an expanse of miles without a house in sight, can envision the challenge of a world that preceded modernity.