Maryland agriculture has gone through numerous changes since the first colonists arrived in 1634. Understanding the type of agriculture that plantations are adopting is a critical element of understanding the lives of African Americans: it was the need for their labor on agricultural fields that led to the emergence of the slave trade, and the profitability of cash crops such as tobacco, wheat, sugar, rice, and cotton that led to the emergence of a wealthy, white, planter class and an impoverished, black, enslaved population. In states like Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia, tobacco, rice, and cotton were king, and contributed for almost all of the economic prosperity throughout the South during the 18th and 19th centuries. These fortunes were built on the backs of enslaved labor.

In the North, dependence on large cash crops and enslaved labor diminished by the end of the 18th century. Manufacturing became the primary industry, resulting in booming populations in cities such as Boston and New York. While these regions had slaves during the 1700s, they began to outlaw the practice by the end of the century; the need for large agricultural labor forces were becoming unnecessary as agriculture became less popular and the crops less labor intensive.

Slavery in Maryland

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, Maryland was a tobacco growing colony. Gradually, the labor force transitioned from indentured servants to enslaved Africans, and by the Revolutionary War they comprised the large majority of agricultural labor. During the 18th and into the 19th centuries, however, things began to change. Tobacco had been harsh on Maryland soils, and planters in the northern and eastern shore counties began to replace it with wheat, which required less labor. This had an effect on enslaved labor, and planters began to find ways to get rid of their labor force. In the southern counties, however, tobacco was still a major cash crop, and was part of a diversified agricultural production. Because of this, the slave population remained steady leading to the Civil War.

For Maryland planters in the northern and eastern counties, the move to less intensive crops meant that they had to reduce their slaveholdings. Maintaining a large workforce was expensive: food, shelter, and clothing had to be provided for a number of laborers. Wheat, however, only required large workforces twice a year, for planting and harvest, unlike tobacco which required labor for most of the year. In order to reduce their slaveholdings, planters used a number of strategies. Some freed their slaves, either immediately or through a system called term slavery, where African Americans were enslaved until a certain age and then freed. Others rented their slaves to other plantations or into the growing industrial sector or to urban areas such as Baltimore. Finally, many sold their remaining slaves, either to the Southern Maryland counties or to the Southern states, where the demand for slave labor was growing. All of these approaches had dramatic effects on the stability of African American families. It also meant that Maryland had the highest percentage of free blacks out of any slaveholding state in the United States heading into the Civil War.

The Civil War and Emancipation

Maryland’s status heading into the Civil War was hotly debated. For many Marylanders, particularly in St. Mary’s County, secession was the obvious choice. However, pressure from the Federal Government resulted in Maryland remaining part of the Union. For enslaved African Americans, this meant continued slavery throughout most of the War; even the Emancipation Proclamation did not effect them, as it freed only those who were enslaved in the Confederate states. Nonetheless, the shackles of slavery had weakened, and many African Americans used the War as a means for taking their freedom through various means.

In 1864, Maryland ratified a new constitution, which included provisions for the freeing of the enslaved. For planters, this marked the beginning of a difficult period: most were concerned that the end of slavery meant the end of large scale agriculture. How would they ensure that the appropriate amount of labor would be provided?

Post-Slavery Agriculture

The end of slavery was not the only factor that led to the decrease of agriculture in Maryland. Westward expansion and the connection between Baltimore and the West via the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad presented agricultural competition that Maryland planters could not match. Wheat production in the state began to fall dramatically as midwestern farmers began shipping grain to Baltimore in waves. Tobacco production also decreased, the result of a depression in the 1870s, as well as the advent of flue curing. This new technology allowed tobacco farmers in North Carolina and Virginia to produce cheaper tobacco leaf at a greater rate, while it negatively effected the taste of Maryland’s unique leaf. Maryland’s already decreasing tobacco production dropped.

Instead, agriculture pursuits in Maryland focused on producing perishable goods such as meat, dairy, fruits, and vegetables, and using local railways to ship these goods into urban centers such as Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Philadelphia. Competition for these goods was limited due to the inability for western farmers to ship these goods across long distances.

The changing agriculture system had an effect on the use of black labor. While farm laborers were still needed, they were not required at the larger rates needed before the war. Nonetheless, white planters and black farmers entered into economic agreements that kept black families working on plantations producing limited amounts of wheat, tobacco, and perishable goods. These arrangements were often tenant or sharecropping arrangements. Black families also looked for work outside of the plantation, moving further north into urban areas to compete with immigrants for industrial and manufacturing jobs, or taking to the waterways to try their luck with oystering. The transition from slavery to freedom, while removing the chains of bondage, continued to provide difficult economic challenges for African American families.

The barns at St. Mary’s Manor represent the various changes in agriculture throughout the 19th and 20th centuries in Southern Maryland.

Learn about the transition from a 17th-century city to a 19th-century plantation →


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