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Land Clearing Under Nineteenth-Century Techniques: Some Preliminary Calculations*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 February 2011

Martin L. Primack
Affiliation:
Pennsylvania Military College

Extract

Before 1850, American farms were cut from the forest, and the work of forming a farm took time. The clearing of a few acres for first crops was followed by the endless labors of improvement—fencing, building, ditching, and the ambitions of a farmer for land could load him down for life with acres to clear and keep up. Five acres of forest clearing in a year in addition to current crops was about the limit for a farm family. Improved land could be a cash crop like any other, its yield no more risky than wheat or cotton, and only a little more remote. But even farmers who specialized in clearing land for sale might count on two hundred acres or so of forest clearing as the labor of a lifetime. The work of clearing forest was extremely hard, but it could be done in off-season, and deprived a settler not of cash income but only of hours of idleness. Nearly all the tasks could be done by the little labor force under a farmer's control—by sons, or on southern plantations by slaves; and the work converted otherwise half-idle labor into an important form of farm capital.

Type
Farm Capital Formation and Resource Development
Copyright
Copyright © The Economic History Association 1962

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References

1 Clarence H. Danhof, Enterprise in American Agriculture (unpublished MS), based on citations to contemporary farm journals.

2 Estimates from M. Primack, Farm-formed Capital in American Agriculture, 1850–1910.

3 Fletcher, Stevenson W., Pennsylvania Agriculture and Country Life, 1640–1880 (Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1958), pp. 6365Google Scholar. Russell, Robert, North America, Its Agriculture and Climate (Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1857), p. 40Google Scholar. Beardsley, Levi, Reminiscences (New York: Charles Vintin, 1852), pp. 3537Google Scholar. Hedrick, Ulysses P., A History of Agriculture in the State of New York (printed for the New YorkState Agricultural Society, 1933), p. 110Google Scholar. McNall, Neil Adams, An Agricultural History of the Genesee Valley, 1790—1860 (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1957), p. 84Google Scholar. Wagenen, Jared Van, The Golden Age of Homespun (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1953), pp. 3032Google Scholar. New York State Agricultural Society, Report, 1851, pp. 681–84.

4 Burke, Emily P., Reminiscences of Georgia (Oberlin, Ohio: James M. Fitch, 1850), p. 190Google Scholar. New York State Agricultural Society, Report, 1851, pp. 681–84. S. W. Fletcher, Pennsylvania Agriculture, p. 63.

5 S. W. Fletcher, Pennsylvania Agriculture, p. 65.

6 C. H. Danhof, Enterprise in American Agriculture.

7 The Cultivator and Country Gentleman, LX (Albany, N. Y., 1895), 25Google Scholar.

8 See Appendix Table 1, source notes, for these and similar references throughout.

9 C. H. Danhof, Enterprise in American Agriculture.

10 The American Agriculturist, XXXVI (New York, 1877), 19Google Scholar.

11 Abstracts from the Returns of Agricultural Societies in Massachusetts, 1846, p. 32.

12 See Appendix Table 2

13 The American Farmer, Series 4, VI (Baltimore, Md., 18501851), 409Google Scholar.

14 The Cultivator, VIII (Albany, N. Y., 1851), 244Google Scholar.

15 The Cultivator and Country Gentleman, LIV (Albany, N. Y., 1889), 66Google Scholar.

16 The American Agriculturist, XXXVI (Poughkeepsie, N. Y., 1877), 19Google Scholar.

17 Thompson, Harry, Cost and Methods of Clearing Land in Western Washington, U. S. Agriculture Dept., Bureau of Plant Industries Bulletin No. 239 (1912), pp. 3145Google Scholar.

18 Jarchow, M. E., The Earth Brought Forth. A History of Minnesota Agriculture to 1885 (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1949), p. 124Google Scholar.

19 The American Agriculturist, I (1842–43), 15. Other descriptions of breaking with the common plow can be found in Gates, Paul W., The Farmer's Age: Agriculture 1815–1860 (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960), p. 187Google Scholar; M. E. Jarchow, The Earth Brought Forth, p. 124; Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, Transactions, 1851, pp. 243346Google Scholar; Humphrey, Seth K., Following the Prairie Frontier (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1931), p. 12Google Scholar; Kellar, Herbert A., ed., Solon Robinson: Pioneer and Agriculturist. Selected Writings (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1936), pp. 120Google Scholar, 150, 367.

20 P. W. Gates, The Farmer's Age, p. 181.

21 Ise, John, ed., Sod-House Days: Letters from a Kansas Homesteader, 1877–78 (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1937), p. 101Google Scholar.

22 The Western Farmer, I (Cincinnati, Ohio, 1839–40), 132.

23 The methods in this section were developed and the interpretation made by William N. Parker, based on materials in Appendix Tables 1 and 2.

24 Shantz, H. L. and Zan, Ralph, “Section E: Natural Vegetation,” Atlas of American Agriculture (Washington: U. S. Agriculture Dept., 1924), pp. 4–6Google Scholar.

25 Labor force figures from Census occupational statistics have been adjusted so as to approximate the number of males over fifteen years old engaged in agricultural labor. The adjustments for 1900 and 1910 were based on adjustments suggested by Edwards, Alba M., “Comparative Occupation Statistics for the United States, 1870–1940,” Sixteenth Census of the United States: 1940 (Washington: Govt. Printing Office, 1943), pp. 137–44Google Scholar. The 1850 and 1860 occupational statistics in the Federal Census were adjusted according to the adjustments of Whelpton, P. K., “Occupational Groups in the United States, 1820–1920,” Journal of the American Statistical Association, XXI (Sept. 1926), 335–43Google Scholar.

26 The values a1W1, etc., below are summations (Σ) of the values of this combination of the variables for forest and nonforested areas.

27 We have in effect here four index numbers: an index of change in labor inputs per acre with beginning and final-period acreage weights:

and an index of change in the labor “requirements” of an average acre, using beginning and final-period labor inputs:

Indices (1) and (3) are those used in the text. Indices (2) and (4) show the same changes as (1) and (3), but with final-period weights. The relation between them is the same as that for the indices given in the text. The “interaction effect” (a2w2)(a1w1)/(a2w1)(a1w2) for the indices (1) and (3) is just under + 3 per cent, and may be neglected.

28 But what is this relation? Two choices are apparent. We may say that westward movement is five times as important as technological change since the index of its effect alone (a1w2) rises by 149 points, while the index of the effect of technical change rises by only 33 points. But such a comparison assumes the fact that the level of technique did not decline, and gives it no “credit” for staying above an index of 100. The direct relation between the two indices, that is, about 2: 1, gives a fairer measure of the relative strength of the two effects.

17
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