The Dilemma faced by the Virginia Yeoman in Colonial Times 

(Preface to "The Planters of Colonial Virginia" by Thomas J. Wertenbaker)

America since the days of Captain John Smith has been the land of hope for multitudes in Europe. In many an humble home, perhaps in some English village, or an Ulster farm, or in the Rhine valley, one might find a family assembled for the reading of a letter from son, or brother, or friend, who had made the great venture of going to the New World. "Land is abundant here and cheap", the letter would state. "Wages are high, food is plentiful, farmers live better than lords. If one will work only five days a week one can live grandly."

In pamphlets intended to encourage immigration the opportunities for advancement were set forth in glowing colors. In Virginia alone, it was stated, in 1649, there were "of kine, oxen, bulls, calves, twenty thousand, large and good." When the traveler Welby came to America he was surprised to "see no misery, no disgusting army of paupers, nor even beggars; while Henry B Fearson noted that laborers were more erect ion their posture, less careworn in their countenances" than those of Europe.

In Virginia, as in other colonies, it was the cheapness of land and the dearness of labor, which gave the newcomer his chance to rise. The rich man might possess many thousands of acres, but they would profit him nothing unless he could find the labor to put them under cultivation. Indentured workers met his needs in part, but they were expensive, hard to acquire, and served for only four years. If he hired freemen he would have to pay wages which in England would have seemed fantastic.

Thus the so-called servants who had completed their terms and men who had come over as freemen found it easy to earn enough to buy small plantations of their own. That thousands did so is shown by the [Quit] Rent Roll . . . One has only to glance at it to see that the large plantations are vastly outnumbered by the small farms of the yeoman. It proves that Virginia at the beginning of the eighteenth century was not the land of huge estates worked by servants and slaves, but of a numerous, prosperous middle class.

Owning plantations of from fifty to five hundred acres, cultivating their fields of tobacco, their patches of Indian corn and wheat, their vegetable gardens and orchards with their own labor or the labor of their sons, the yeoman enjoyed a sense of independence and dignity. It was their votes which determined the character of the Assembly, it was they who resisted most strongly all assaults upon the liberties of the people.

As the small farmer, after the days work was over, sat before his cottage smoking his long clay pipe, he could reflect that for him the country had fulfilled its promise. The land around him was his own; his tobacco brought in enough for him to purchase clothes, farm implements and household goods.

But he frowned as he thought of the slave ship which had come into the nearby river, and landed a group of Negroes who were all bought by his wealthy neighbors. If Virginia were flooded with slaves, would it not cheapen production and lower the price of tobacco? Could he and his sons, when they hoed their fields with their hands, compete with slave labor?

The event fully justified these fears. The yeoman class in Virginia was doomed. In the face of the oncoming tide they had three alternatives - to save enough money to buy a slave or two, to leave the country, or to sink into poverty.

It was the acquiring of a few slaves by the small planter which saved the middle class. Before the end of the colonial period a full fifty per cent of the slaveholders had from one to five only. Seventy Five per cent had less than ten. The small farmer, as he led his newly acquired slaves from the auction block to his plantation may have regretted that self-preservation had forced him to depend on their labor rather than his own. But he could see all around him the fate of those who had no slaves, as they became "poor

white trash" And he must have looked on with pity as a neighbor gathered up his meager belongings and deserting his little plantation, set out for the remote frontier.

It was one of the great crimes of history, this undermining of the yeoman class by the importation of slaves. The wrong done to the Negro himself has been universally condemned; the wrong done the white man has attracted less attention. It effectively deprived him of his American birth-right - the high return for his labor. It transformed Virginia and the South from a land of hard working, self respecting, independent yeoman, to a land of slaves and slaveholders.


Thomas J Wertenbaker,

Princeton, 1957

(Author or "The Shaping of Colonial Virginia")

DJY [ I really feel quite strongly that the very earliest Yanceys in America were faced with this very real dilemma. And it seems that for the most part the Yanceys were among those Yeoman who did obtain a few slaves and because of this acquisition of cheap permanent labor were able to progress upward on the economic/social ladder - but slavery was something that few people, if any, could consider moral, just or right in the sight of God - and even various members of the Yancey family who owned slaves have recorded their feelings about this horrible injustice to the Negro.]