Eastern Virginia Planters


Eastern Virginia Planters Adapted to a Changing Economy
During and After the American Revolution

By Edward Ayres, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation Historian

Although Virginia managed to avoid experiencing the brutal, destructive realities of warfare firsthand during the early years of the Revolution, the onset of the conflict quickly brought about a severe economic depression in the Chesapeake region.

Cultivating tobacco on the 1780s farm
at the The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.                         thumb_YVC - cultivating tobacco1

Throughout the colonial period, tobacco had been the principal cash crop for most Virginia planters, large and small. On the eve of the Revolution, tobacco was the single most valuable commodity produced in North America, accounting for more than 25 percent of all exports. By 1775 Virginia produced almost 70 percent of all the tobacco exported from North America, averaging about 70,000 hogsheads a year, each weighing at least 1,000 pounds net. By law, all of this was shipped to Great Britain, although much of the crop was subsequently re-exported to the continent.


With the onset of hostilities in 1775, the established marketing network was totally disrupted and tobacco exports fell drastically. The tobacco that did reach Great Britain did so as a result of black market activities and cargoes confiscated by the Royal Navy.

Tobacco Market Plummets

Most sources estimate that tobacco production in Virginia and Maryland fell to less than half of that of pre-war levels. Cut off from the international market, Virginia planters found it increasingly difficult to sell their crops for a profit. The economic dislocations caused by the collapse of the established marketing system were especially severe in the York River basin, which produced the higher priced “sweet scented” strain of tobacco. Eventually the Virginia Assembly re-instituted an export duty on tobacco in an effort to encourage planters to produce more foodstuffs and less of the “weed.”

Planters who found themselves in increasingly difficult  circumstances resulting from the loss of income from their usual cash crop, slave desertions, and the generally depressed economy had to devise new production strategies to survive. Using York County as a case study, we can gain some insight into the responses of farmers in a long-settled, tobacco-growing area to the economic changes caused by war.

   thumb_YVC-combing flax at 1780s farm     Combing flax on the 1780s farm at the
The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.

Without their usual supply of imported cloth, many planters began cultivating greater amounts of fibers, especially cotton and flax. In 1781 a German soldier with the British Army was struck by the amount of cotton he saw in eastern Virginia, writing that it grew “abundantly here at Yorktown and in this region. Our entire camp stood in such a cotton field.”


Increased fiber production however was primarily aimed at making cloth for home or local use. How did farmers deal with the collapse of the market for their main cash crop? York County planters found that the state was an eager, if cash poor, customer for a number of commodities.

Provisions Needed for War Effort

In May 1780 Virginia’s General Assembly approved “An act for procuring a supply of provisions and other necessaries for the use of the army.” This law directed each county to appoint commissioners who were to determine the state and quantity of provisions in the possession of every person or household in their county, find where the supplies could be obtained, and make purchases at prices set by the General Assembly. If the owner refused to sell, the commissioners were empowered to seize what they needed for public use, leaving only a sufficient quantity for the use of the family. Owners of impressed provisions were given receipts, or certificates for what was taken, payable within six months of issue at 6 percent interest.

Impressment of provisions by the state was not new, but the 1780 law went far beyond earlier measures by giving more power to the state’s agents to take, by force if necessary, what was needed. The immediate motivation behind this change as stated in the law, was the “present alarming and critical situation of the war with a powerful enemy in the neighboring southern states.”

The war had finally moved south. The mounting sense of crisis became urgent early in 1781 when a British force invaded Virginia and moved through the state largely unopposed, burning and shipping tobacco and destroying military supplies at will. We need not detail here the developments that led up to the victory over the British at Yorktown, Virginia, in October 1781 – a victory that eventually resulted in American independence. What is of interest is the ability of local planters to provide the supplies necessary for that victory.

By 1783 about 230 York County planters or property owners had submitted nearly 400 separate claims for goods or services that had been supplied to (or impressed by) the military, mostly dating from 1780 to 1781. When the earliest surviving personal property tax list was taken in 1784, there were about 354 rural households in the county, so almost 65 percent of York County’s farming families contributed goods, personal possessions or services to the war effort during this period.

Among an amazing variety of items and services listed are raw hides, guns, carts and wagons, “country made” salt, canvas, wood, horses, almost 2,000 gallons of rum and brandy, and even “6 turkies and 6 geese.” A few farms supplied modest quantities of barley, peas, oats and wheat, with totals ranging from 170 to 380 bushels for each commodity, and one man put in a claim for 20 bushels of potatoes.

Beef and Corn Top List of Commodities Supplied

More individuals furnished the state’s agents with beef, corn and fodder than any other commodity. Nearly half (or 108) of the 229 claimants supplied a total of 135,500 pounds of beef, or on average about 1,250 pounds each. After beef, the next most common commodity supplied by York County residents was corn. About 46 percent of all claimants, or 106 people, provided a total of 19,120 bushels of corn for public use, or about 180 bushels per individual.|

Selling to the state as a customer meant that some of these planters did not get paid for several years or were paid in depreciated paper money. Nevertheless, the public claims show that farmers were quick to respond to the new market by changing their production strategies.

With the end of the war and the re-opening of the British market, many planters in York County temporarily returned to cultivating tobacco as a main cash crop. Most had never completely stopped growing the weed, since even during the war it could be used to pay taxes. By the early 1790s however, most York County planters began to drop tobacco as a main crop, and by 1800 very little was being grown in the county. Small farmers apparently opted instead to increase their production of corn or other provisions for the local market, and the larger planters gradually made the shift to mixed farming with grains, mostly wheat, as their major cash crop.

Some of the effects of the Revolution on York County’s planters were temporary and had no long-term impact. The war did however force planters to come up with new crop mixes and to diversify their production in response to wartime needs. After the return of peace, many of these planters eventually made a permanent shift from relying primarily on tobacco to an agrarian economy based on a mix of corn, small grains, hay and livestock.