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Pharsalia: An Environmental Biography of a Southern Plantation, 1780-1880

Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8203-3602-2
    Subjects: History, Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Maps
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xvi)

    With Pharsalia: An Environmental Biography of a Southern Plantation, 1780–1880, we are pleased to inaugurate a new book series, “Environmental History and the American South.” It is a superb volume with which to do so, for in the humble yet daunting task of telling the environmental life story of a plantation on the margins, Lynn Nelson gives us a history that should long occupy a central place in our understanding of the environmental history of the South. More than that, Pharsalia is a model of fine-grained agroecological history that transcends its regional focus and presents its readers with a...

    (pp. xvii-xx)
  6. INTRODUCTION. The Soils of Old Virginia
    (pp. 1-28)

    Hugh Hammond Bennett, founder of the Soil Conservation Service and one of America’s leading twentieth-century conservationists, liked to tell a story about his first experience with the agricultural and environmental history of Virginia. In 1905, Bennett had just graduated from the University of North Carolina with a degree in chemistry. His boss in the Bureau of Soils sent him, along with South Carolinian W. E. McLendon, to map the soils of Louisa County, in the center of Piedmont Virginia. The Piedmont was the heart of the South, extending from the Fall Line to the mountains, stretching south and west across...

  7. one Property Lines and Power before Pharsalia, 1738–1796
    (pp. 29-62)

    Pharsalia plantation had two sets of “parents.” The first were southerners: Maj. Thomas Massie, the wealthy Virginia planter who purchased the land from which Pharsalia was made and moved his family and his slaves to the banks of the Tye River at the turn of the century; his nineteen-year-old son William, who married Sarah Steptoe in 1815 and forced his father to carve off part of his estate to support his new family; and enslaved Afro-Virginians like Chester, Jessee, Mirah, and Rachel, and several others, who had been forced to follow Major Massie in his migrations from plantations in Essex...

  8. two Independence and the Birth of Pharsalia, 1796–1830
    (pp. 63-108)

    In creating Pharsalia, the Massies intensified the agricultural ecology of the triangle much more than the man they had bought out, John Rose. Their farming sprang, however, from the same gentry culture that had produced Parson Robert Rose and his descendants. The southern gentleman’s status began with mastery of his plantation, where his chattels produced wealth that he could translate into rank and prestige. His greatest fear, then, was losing that control and becoming a servant to other masters—political tyrants, volatile markets, rapacious creditors, or even a capricious Nature. As the promise of the Revolution faded into the uncertainty...

  9. three Pharsalia’s Ecological Crisis, 1828–1848
    (pp. 109-148)

    During the 1830s and 1840s, the problems practical planters encountered when building the double-cycle in the south Atlantic nearly overwhelmed Pharsalia plantation. William Massie had hoped that the agricultural system pushed by the leading conservationists of the antebellum South would make his plantation ecologically, and therefore financially, independent. But the shortcomings of high farming’s focus on managing soil fertility became clear as Massie and his slaves struggled with the land at the foot of the Blue Ridge. Importing techniques and crops into Virginia’s physical environment and agricultural tradition proved difficult. Massie’s attempt to replace tobacco with hemp ran aground on...

  10. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  11. four Capitalism and Conservation at Pharsalia, 1848–1862
    (pp. 149-189)

    As the double-cycle fell apart during the mid-1840s, William Massie took bold measures to raise the productivity of Pharsalia’s agricultural ecosystem. He abandoned his pursuit of ecological independence and brought new resources into the plantation’s ecosystem to increase productivity quickly. His new strategy began Pharsalia’s capitalist intensification and revealed a new outlook on his part and that of other nineteenth-century southern soil conservationists. Capitalist farmers were prepared to abandon tested ecological relationships if they saw the possibility of greater profits. If any part of their agroecosystem was not maximizing production, the capitalist planter tried to replace it. Since Pharsalia’s soils...

  12. five The Gentry Family and the Fall of Pharsalia, 1861–1889
    (pp. 190-222)

    Pharsalia was in its prime in the years leading up to the Civil War. Capitalist intensification had helped the plantation escape its ecological crisis and achieve a measure of profit and stability. Yet as William Massie’s life drew to an end, he still struggled to master its resources in the face of many challengers. The most serious of these threats did not come from outside his fences, as he had always expected. Capitalist intensification’s greatest failure in the triangle would be its inability to deliver on the aristocratic ambitions of the Massie family. Products of the Virginia elite, they wanted...

  13. EPILOGUE. Mourning Pharsalia
    (pp. 223-232)

    In the mid-1930s, the Virginia Writers’ Project, an offshoot of the Works Progress Administration, undertook the Virginia Historical Inventory (vhi). The vhi sent fieldworkers across the Old Dominion to write up descriptions of the state’s surviving eighteenth- and nineteenth-century structures. In Nelson County, Massie Thacker of Arrington was hired to complete the survey in the western part of the county, including the triangle at the foot of the Priest. In the summer of 1936, Thacker went to Tyro to speak with Florence Morton, one of Bland Massie’s daughters, and Mrs. M. E. Massie, Hope’s daughter, to get information about Pharsalia....

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 233-258)
    (pp. 259-286)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 287-296)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 297-297)