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date: 24 March 2023


The Oxford Companion to United States History
Russell R. MenardRussell R. Menard, Stephanie A. Carpenter ChanStephanie A. Carpenter Chan, Ginette AleyGinette Aley, David E. ConradDavid E. Conrad

Colonial Era

1770s to 1890

The “Golden Age” (1890s–1920)

Since 1920

Agriculture dominated the colonial economy, and the great majority of the population lived in the countryside. The agricultural practices of colonial farmers often earned the scorn of European contemporary observers, and their reputation fared little better at the hands of later historians. They were portrayed as wasteful and slovenly farmers who abused the land, neglected their livestock, accepted small yields and low incomes, used primitive tools, and resisted useful innovations, preferring customary practices and constrained by the dead hand of tradition. Recently historians have challenged that view for two reasons. First, the denigration of colonial agriculture often arose from an inappropriate comparison with European farmers, who faced a much different situation. In America, where land was relatively cheap and labor costly, following the “best” European practices seldom made sense. Farm practices that appeared wasteful to Old World observers often reflected efforts to save labor in a region of high wages. Second, the critics of colonial farmers often underestimated their impressive accomplishments, most evident in the creation of what might be called a “mestizo” agriculture. At its best, colonial agriculture wove together crops and farming techniques from America, Africa, and Europe to produce a unique system of husbandry more productive than any of its individual sources. American agriculture was mestizo in another, more sinister sense. It combined labor stolen from Africa with land stolen from Native Americans to produce commodities, and sometimes luxuries, for European consumers.... ...

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