An Environmental Biography of a Southern Plantation, 1780-1880

Lynn A. Nelson
Foreword by Paul S. Sutter

A case study of the incongruous partnership of capitalism and agrarianism


"Lynn Nelson has given us a wonderful case study of southern agricultural practices during the nineteenth century. His 'biography' of Pharsalia, a plantation in upland Virginia, is in every sense a life story not only of planters and slaves but also of the crops, weeds, livestock, and other organisms that inhabited the land for nearly a hundred years. Exhaustively researched and quietly provocative, this important book should find a wide audience among scholars interested in the South, the environment, agriculture, or antebellum slavery."
—Timothy Silver, author of A New Face on the Countryside: Indians, Colonists, and Slaves in South Atlantic Forests, 1500-1900

"Lynn Nelson gets beneath the literature of nineteenth-century 'agricultural improvement' to the hard realities encountered by a Virginia planter who tried it. William Massie plowed deep, sowed clover, improved his seeds and breeds, and achieved some success by dogged good management. But in the end, Pharsalia foundered on the contradictions between high farming and ecological pushback from pests and weeds, crop markets glutted by cheap frontier production, resistance from black slaves and white neighbors, and the luxurious lifestyle expectations of Massie's children. Variations of this same dilemma haunt the dreams of soil conservation and sustainable farming in America to this day. Agricultural history needs more ecologically grounded studies like this one."
—Brian Donahue, author of The Great Meadow: Farmers and the Land in Colonial Concord

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Pharsalia, a plantation located in piedmont Virginia at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is one of the best-documented sites of its kind. Drawing on the exceptionally rich trove of papers left behind by the Massie family, Pharsalia's owners, this case study demonstrates how white southern planters paradoxically relied on capitalistic methods even as they pursued an ideal of agrarian independence. Lynn A. Nelson also shows how the contradictions between these ends and means would later manifest themselves in the southern conservation movement.

Nelson follows the fortunes of Pharsalia's owners, telling how Virginia's traditional extensive agriculture contributed to the soil's erosion and exhaustion. Subsequent attempts to balance independence and sustainability through a complex system of crop rotation and resource recycling ultimately gave way to an intensive, slave-based form of agricultural capitalism.

Pharsalia could not support the Massies' aristocratic ambitions, and it was eventually parceled up and sold off by family members. The farm's story embodies several fundamentals of modern U.S. environmental thought. Southerners' nineteenth-century quest for financial and ecological independence provided the background for conservationists' attempts to save family farming. At the same time, farmers' failure to achieve independence while maximizing profits and crop yields drove them to seek government aid and regulation. These became some of the hallmarks of conservation efforts in the New Deal and beyond.

Environmental History and the American South

Page count: 328 pp.
12 b&w photos, 4 maps
Trim size: 6 x 9


List price: $30.95

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Lynn A. Nelson is an associate professor of history at Middle Tennessee State University.