What did the typical farm look like in colonial Virginia?


Corn growing at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown

In addition to growing a primary cash crop, farmers also grew a variety of other things. Virginia farmers raised vegetables like corn, beans, peas, carrots, and cabbage to eat. Corn was an important crop because it provided food for humans, eaten fresh or ground into corn meal flour, and food for farm animals; and the husks could be used for fodder, to make mats, or to stuff into mattresses. Farm women also raised a variety of herbs such as parsley, rosemary, lavender, chamomile, and spearmint to season food and for medicinal purposes.

Animals served many uses on Virginia farms. Oxen and horses were strong work animals that could be used to pull carts and wagons, plow the fields, and carry tobacco from the farm to the tobacco inspection warehouse. Farmers also raised pigs, cows, chickens and other fowl for food.

Girl feeding turkey

Girl feeding turkey at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown

Pigs were slaughtered for meat, lard, or soap for the farm. Sheep were raised for wool which could be spun into yarn and then knitted or woven into cloth. Beef was a popular food on Virginia farms, and cows produced milk for both butter and cheese. Chickens, geese, guinea fowl, and turkeys provided eggs, meat, and feathers. Deer, wild fowl, and other game were hunted to supplement the family diet.

Unlike the wealthy planters who lived in great houses on large plantations, the average Virginian had a small house, with one or two other wooden buildings on his plot of land. A typical farm family, consisting of a mother and father and four to six children, lived in a one or two room wooden house that was often no larger than 16 by 20 feet, or about the size of a garage today. These houses usually had a chimney and fireplace with space for storage or sleeping in an upstairs loft. Some had wooden floors, but many simply had dirt floors. If the farmer had carpentry skills, he might have built his home himself, but if not, he could hire a carpenter to do the work for him, often in exchange for farm products or return labor. The kitchen, tobacco barn, and storage buildings were usually separate from the main house. If the farmer owned slaves, they may have lived in one of these outbuildings or in a cabin nearby.

Typical wooden Virginia plantation house. Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collection

Typical wooden Virginia plantation house. Jamestown-Yorktown
Foundation collection