1850s American Farm

1850 Farm HouseBackground

By the 1850s, the Valley of Virginia was integrated into an expanding national market for agricultural and manufactured products. An improved road network was supplemented by water and rail transport that permitted Valley farmers and manufacturers to easily ship their products to eastern cities. In return, manufactured goods from Europe and other parts of the United States became available to Valley consumers, and Valley residents no longer had to make their own textiles and other necessities. Mass communication, in the form of newspapers and books, made Valley residents more aware of events and ideas from the outside world. In this environment, distinctions among the white descendants of Old World settlers declined and most embraced a common American culture and way of life.

While the descendents of colonists from England, Ireland, and Germany were creating a common American identity in the Valley with each generation, slavery and inequality was the legacy inherited by the descendents of African captives. Enslaved African Americans formed nearly 20% of the region’s population in 1850, which represented a small decline from 1820, though the actual number of Valley slaves increased over the thirty-year period. The number of free blacks in the Valley increased only slightly. Compared with Virginia east of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Valley slavery was modest in scope. Still, it was significant enough to be regarded with concern by some who thought it hindered the region’s economic progress, though most whites continued to support it.