Trading Hoes for Plows: The Transition from Tobacco to Wheat

By the time Jefferson was born in 1743, Virginia planters had a long-established work regimen. Using a method adopted from Native Americans, enslaved field hands (able men and women over the age of sixteen) cut down trees or simply killed them by girdling the bark, and using hoes, planted tobacco seedlings among the stumps. When soil fertility declined after five to seven years, they abandoned the old field and cleared a new one. Laborers lived and worked together under the eye of an overseer. As a gang, they performed the simple, repetitive, and physically demanding tasks of the seasonal cycle. This system simplified supervision of the work process; owners and overseers could accurately evaluate worker performance and administer physical punishments to force compliance.

During the turbulent years of the Revolution, Virginia's tobacco trade suffered, and, in its aftermath, faced increased foreign competition. Beleaguered planters saw an opportunity when, in the 1790s, conflict in Europe&—the French Revolution and ensuing Napoleonic Wars&—disrupted continental agriculture and commerce. Many diversified into grain production, including Thomas Jefferson. He sent his first harvest of wheat to market in 1793. It remained the primary export crop at Monticello until his death in 1826.

The switch from tobacco to wheat changed work routines and methods, with profound consequences, not only for the ecology Monticello, but for the working and living conditions of Jefferson's slaves. The cultivation of grain required permanent, plowed fields, and plowing entailed the removal of stumps and a schedule of manuring and crop rotation to maintain soil fertility. Plows needed draft animals to pull them, skilled operators to guide them, and blacksmiths to maintain them. The use of draft animals called for slaves trained in their care. The transportation of grain, fodder, and manure meant wagon-makers and carters. To increase profits, Jefferson erected mills to grind flour, which necessitated carpenters, stone masons, and trained millers.

(See also: The Ecological Consequences of Wheat Cultivation)

No longer working lock-step in a gang, now laborers, either alone or in small groups, were dispersed across the plantation, performing a variety of tasks. For the planter, this presented a challenge to efficient supervision; documents attest that Jefferson relied on measurements of the quality and quantity of output&—pounds of nails, bushels of flour, yards of cloth&—to assess the productivity of his slaves. In addition, the complexity of some of these jobs required specialized expertise and the ability to make independent decisions. The investment in training or purchasing a skilled slave made that person a more expensive, valued, piece of property. Archaeologists currently hypothesize that, under these circumstances, effective slave owners realized the limitations of blunt force and began offering positive incentives to motivate compliance. This development could have given enslaved people some leverage to achieve the marginal improvements in the condition of their lives which is seen in the archaeological record at Monticello.

See also:

Housing for Slaves on Mulberry Row

Housing for Field Hands at Monticello

{Images: Jefferson's plow; Latrobe watercolor of overseer and women with hoes; image of hoe.}

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