Tuesday, March 8, 2011


On last week's blog I posted the major timeline for Vermont agriculture for the 150 years from 1791 to 1941.  As I do more research, my interest throughout the whole period is the tipping points or reasons that major changes in Vermont agriculture and thus the use of the landscape took place over the years.  Clearly, some of the changes are due to international events, regional and national interests, other economic influences, and of course the people and their leaders.

This week I am commenting on the period from 1791 through 1808, or the period in the timeline "Transition from Settlement Clearings to Farms".  Much has been written about this period and is available from the Vermont Historical Society, in town historical material, and from other sources to include journals.  My interest is to focus on what led to the increased migration of white settlers to Vermont; why they came, and what they did after they came relative to agriculture and use of the landscape.


With the Treaty of Paris in 1763, England won the continent.  With this, France lost their authority over Canada, and northern lands were now open.  The lands were open, cheap, and accessible and of good soil fertility which was lacking in Southern New England.  The settlers of Vermont were hardy, accustomed from childhood to the use of axe and gun, and eager and full of ambitious purpose to found homes and communities of their own.   A large portion the settlers came from Connecticut and Massachusetts.  Of 85,072 population reported in 1790, approximately 81,200 were of English origin and 2,600 Scotch.  These two comprised more than 98 percent of the total population of the State. Between 1780 and 1800, the population of Vermont increased from 30,000 to 150,000.  (Ref. and Source:  History of Vermont, Vol. 1, by Walter Hill Crockett, 1921.)

Comment from State Board of Agriculture Ninth Report, 1885-1886: "My father used to say, one generation to clear the land of trees, the next generation to remove the stumps and level the land, and the third generation to work in the production of crops."

In 1796, while in England, Ira Allen wrote a letter to the Duke of Portland describing Vermont's resources:  "The soil with a little cultivation supplies inhabitants with all the necessaries of life in abundance, such as wheat, oats, rye, beans, barley.  They have no necessity to introduce foreign grasses, where every hill and valley affords abundance of herbage spontaneously, and every plain, permitted to remain a few months untouched, becomes a meadow.  The woods also produce other fruits in great plenty some of which you are obliged to pamper in your hothouses in England.  Our climate is mild, our soil fertile, our inhabitants industrious, our provisions abundant and cheap, and it is our determination to avail ourselves of these blessings and to hand them down at least unimpaired to our children."  (Ref. and Sources:  History of Vermont, Vol. 1., by Walther Hill Crocket, 1921; and Vermont Its Resources and Opportunities by Walter H. Crockett, Pub. By Provisions of No.71 of the Acts of 1915 of the General Assembly of the State of Vermont.)


After clearing of the land, a few crops between stumps were raised.  Corn was a stable crop along with beans, pumpkins, turnips and parsnips, a few potatoes and wheat, barley, and buckwheat.  Also, a cow and pig were often secured.  As soon as a regular system of agriculture could be established, sheep were kept for wool and considerable flax was raised.  Much of the economy at this time was barter except for the selling of "salts."  The manufacture of "salts" was an important item with the early settlers.  This product was made by burning hardwood trees to ashes, (clearing the land), and boiling the lye from the ashes.  These 'salts" were sold to manufacturers of pearlash, used in making soap, glass and other products.  The market value ranged from three to five and one-half dollars per hundred pounds, and was one of the few products that could be sold for cash.  Much of the product was exported to England.  Many a family has been saved from great suffering if not from actual starvation by the sale of "salts." In 1791, Vermont exported more than 1,000 tons of potash to England.  (Ref. and Source:  History of Vermont, Vol. 1, by Walther Hill Crockett, 1921)


Potash is the residue remaining after all the water has been driven off from the lye solution obtained from the leaching of wood ashes.  Pearlash is then made from the potash by baking it in a kiln until all the carbon impurities are burned off.  The fine white powder remaining is pearlash.  Potash and later pearlash were valuable items of the export trade to England.  Peddlers would travel from village to village collecting potash made on the farms.  For many, this was the only cash value received all year. (Much has been written about the impact on the ecology and environment of the state due to this rapid deforestation.)  England was keen on this product, as they had depleted their own timber resources.  They sent experts and manuals on potash making to the colonies to encourage production and even provided tariff incentives. England needed soap to wash the wool from their sheep prior to product manufacturing.  (Ref. and Sources: www.arboyce.com)

Note:  Samuel Hopkins of Philadelphia, Pa (Pittsford, Vt.) received Patent No. 1, on July 31, 1790 for an improvement "in making potash and pearlash by a new apparatus and process."  President George Washington signed the Patent.  This is said to be the first industrial chemical and is the first Patent granted.  (Ref. and Source: www.me.utexas.edu)

Blogger's Note:  As we discuss agriculture today and the influence that events elsewhere have on food production and supply, it is hard to ignore even the influences in prior times.  What if there had been no Treaty of Paris and the French and Indian Wars had continued? What if England had not had the need for potash and pearlash from the Colonies? Even as we discuss local food systems today, it is impossible to ignore the influence that regional markets and national and international forces have on Vermont’s working landscape.

In next week's blog I will discuss some of the local agricultural commerce that began to take place as settlements and better transportation modes were established.


  1. Roger, interesting info about the potash industry! I did not realize that England went to such lengths to encourage potash production in the Colonies. In any event, the potash industry is a part of our agricultural heritage that is now largely forgotten. One can still see potash kettles in the countryside, but many people do not know what they are. There are photos of two potash kettles in this post:


    So, was the Samuel Hopkins of Patent #1 fame from Pittsford, Vermont, or Philadelphia? Alas, I fear it was Philadelphia, in spite of the historical marker on US-7 in Pittsford. More on that case of mistaken identity here:


  2. The Justin Smith Morrill Homestead in Strafford is a National Historic Landmark. One of the gardens there has what I am sure is a potash kettle. See photo here:


    But it is not identified as such. I wonder if they know what they have?