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Colonial History: Farming and Daily Life

Today, we can go to the store and buy groceries from the supermarket, go to the mall and buy clothes, then come home and turn on our televisions for entertainment. Imagine what life would be like without electricity, paved roads, supermarkets, or running water and you have an idea of what life was like in colonial America. Life in the American colonies was very different from life today. Food was grown by hand, clothes were homemade from local materials, and free time was scarce.

American colonial life revolved around chores, and everyone had to do their part. The typical colonial family consisted of a mother, father, and four or more children. Men oversaw farming, raising livestock, and hunting with their sons. While men worked in the fields. women were responsible for taking care of the farmstead. Typical women's chores included cooking, cleaning, tending vegetable and herb gardens, mending clothing, and raising children, skills that were passed on to their daughters. Education for children was different as well. Schooling was not compulsory in many of the colonies, and formal education only occurred at the elementary level.

Farming in colonial America differed based on the location. Poor, rocky soil combined with long, harsh winters that reduced the growing season made farming difficult in New England. Most northern farmers grew crops on small family plots, relying on crops such as maize, beans, and squash to sustain their families, with only a small portion going to markets for credit or currency. To stretch their food stores, colonists in New England hunted, raised livestock, fished, and gathered fruits and nuts.

In contrast, settlers in the middle colonies of Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey had less difficulty farming due to better soil and moderate climates. These conditions allowed them to plant more than one crop per growing season. In addition to the maize grown in the north, the middle colonies grew grain crops such as rye, barley, oats, and wheat in quantities large enough to both support families and be sold at market. Flour made from grains was traded throughout the colonies and shipped back to England. Collectively, the middle colonies became known as the bread basket of early America.

The southern colonies of Georgia, North and South Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland, like the middle colonies, were not settled by those seeking religious freedom; instead, the southern colonies were settled primarily by those looking for economic opportunities. Good soil and a long growing season allowed southern farmers to develop large plantations devoted to the growth of single cash crops. Cash crops were grown for trade, not food. In much of the southern colonies, tobacco was the crop of choice, followed by cotton, rice, and indigo.

No matter where the crops were grown, farming in the colonial period was hard work. Heavy machinery did not exist. Colonists tilled fields using simple tools such as iron-bladed hoes, while plows were used by those wealthy enough to own horses. Aerating the soil was done with large spiked rollers pulled by horses or oxen that could weigh more than a thousand pounds. Once the soil was tilled and aerated and seeds were planted, colonial farmers still had their work cut out for them. Early irrigation techniques consisted of flooding fields from freshwater sources or watering by hand, and plant beds were constantly weeded to prevent unwanted grasses from taking root. Harvesting was also done by hand using hand-held tools such as scythes, reap hooks, and grain cradles. For grains, harvest was just the beginning. Once harvested, the dried seeds had to be removed from the useless chaff using flails or winnowing baskets.

The most important building outside of the farmhouse in colonial America was the barn. Barns in colonial America were used to store tools, crops, and livestock. Though smaller than a barn, the shed was also an important outbuilding in colonial America. A single shed could be used to store tools or converted as necessary to be used as a smokehouse to preserve meats or as a primitive refrigerator in winter.