Colonial Williamsburg Research Division Web Site

Provisioning Tidewater Towns

Provisioning Early American Towns: Research Project Supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities

by Lorena S. Walsh, Ann Smart Martin, and Joanne Bowen

This material is taken from "Provisioning Early American Towns. The Chesapeake: A Multidisciplinary Case Study," the final performance report for the National Endowment for the Humanities Grant RO-22643-93. The report was written by Lorena S. Walsh, Ann Smart Martin, and Joanne Bowen of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (1997); further information about the project is available from Colonial Williamsburg.

This report surveys the preliminary results of an extended interdisciplinary study of urban provisioning systems in the Chesapeake region in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In providing some answers to the question, how did townspeople in Virginia and Maryland supply themselves with food and fuel, it addresses a little-studied topic of great importance to every urban place, regardless of its size or primary economic or governmental functions. Wherever, in the eighteenth century, there were significant concentrations of people who did not make their living from farming, their provisioning requirements had a pronounced impact on the surrounding countryside. This study demonstrates that as few as a hundred such households was sufficient, in the mid-eighteenth century, to have a noticeable effect on the productive strategies of farmers in nearby rural areas. When, by the early nineteenth century, those numbers swelled into the thousands, the effects of urban markets expanded, sometimes restructuring the productive strategies of farmers in far distant hinterlands.

At the same time, town-dwelling families who were largely dependent on food they did not provide for themselves faced problems of procurement that hardly ever troubled rural folk. Specialized urban occupations afforded some townspeople opportunities for advancing individual and family fortunes in ways seldom available in rural areas. For more marginal sorts, including widows, single women and free blacks, who lacked either special skills or the resources and connections that were increasingly necessary to obtain use rights to, not to say outright ownership of land, the business of supplying services to more affluent townspeople afforded a much better chance for possible advancement, or at least more certain survival, than did agricultural labor or tenant farming. In a stable or expanding economy, town dwellers could purchase basic food and fuel with combined family earnings. In bad times, dependence on others for the necessities of life put all but elite town-dwellers at a decided disadvantage. Then, obtaining some form of credit was essential to avoiding a reduction in the quantity and quality of their diets, a requirement that not all could meet. The only alternative was poor relief which was usually restricted to the chronically sick, disabled, and elderly.

These tensions between rural self-sufficiency and urban dependence had for hundreds of years played a prominent role in the places from which most Chesapeake colonists originated. In most of northern Europe, towns and cities were from the early middle ages a prominent feature of local societies. Relatively sophisticated urban provisioning systems were already in evidence by the 1300s, and the rulers of emerging European states devoted considerable attention to the problems of ensuring an adequate urban food supply, if for no other reason than to contain town unrest should shortages arise. Differential meat and grain provisioning systems likely developed at about this time in Europe. Grain and meat were often supplied by different sets of producers and distributed through separate marketing networks. Moreover the meats that various economic and social groups consumed often came from different sorts of suppliers and distributors. Affluent town dwellers doubtless always found ways to ensure adequate supplies of fresh meats, but the poorer sorts had to depend on local butchers who presumably sold small amounts only for ready cash, or else they had to obtain whatever protein they consumed primarily from alternative sources to fresh meats such as milk, cheese, preserved meat, and shellfish. Distinct meat and grain distribution networks were common in eighteenth-century Europe, but, until this study, with the exception of Bowen’s findings for eighteenth-century Connecticut, differential food distribution networks have not been identified as a common pattern in the American colonies.

Moreover, in England, an in other parts of northern Europe, urban populations increased dramatically in the 1500s and 1600s, and farmers living within the reach of these expanding markets had begun to restructure their activities accordingly. Many forced African immigrants, in contrast, came from overwhelmingly rural economies, but even in such regions, frequent local and regional provision markets were a regular feature of rural life. Moreover, some had been transported from areas where sizeable towns and cities posed similar problems and opportunities.

Once they arrived in the Chesapeake, many white colonists revised their expectations. An abundance of apparently unclaimed land promoted a desire among most to become independent landowners. Local topography and natural resources encouraged diffuse rather than concentrated settlement. The initial absence of towns and of significant numbers of people earning their living by anything other than agriculture discouraged any reliance on producing foods or other products for local domestic markets. Finally the unparalleled opportunities that emerged for getting ahead by concentrating on the production of tobacco for European markets soon locked almost everyone into an export centered staple economy. Enslaved Africans were soon denied any chance for eventual freedom, as well as ownership of substantial property such as livestock or guns. However slaves residing within traveling distance of town markets made the most of opportunities to better their lives by producing or gathering petty perishable produce, a traffic widely tolerated in practice, if not always entirely sanctioned by law.