Life in the Southern Colonies (part 3 of 3)

Food & Lifestyle

February 6, 2013
by David Lee Russell Also by this Author


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Charles Town Drawing
Charles Town Drawing. Source: Library of Congress.

Transportation in the eighteenth century was a major factor in the growth of economic activity in the colonial period. The most common transportation of the day, and the fastest, was by horseback. As reported in 1779, a Whitmel Hill rode from Philadelphia to his home in Martin County, North Carolina in seven and one-half days. Horseback distances per day of fifty miles was considered extremely good, with a more usual day of thirty-five miles being the norm. Goods for many were transported by the local farmers and merchants via ox or horse-drawn cart or wagon. Carts usually carried no more than a half ton, while wagons carried loads of around a ton. The gentry owned horse-drawn carriages, a mark of distinction in its day. These carriages usually had two wheels and provided a rapid conveyance. Four-wheeled carriages and coaches were primarily used for long trips. Significant travel by foot was not at all uncommon in colonial times. One such trek by foot was taken by a group of Moravians as they walked a distance of around four hundred miles from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to Wachovia, North Carolina in thirty days.[60]

Merchants were involved in a wide range of active commercial enterprises, from the simple storekeeper to the wealthy shipping trader in an Atlantic port. The small merchants, whether in the towns or out in the remote farming areas, brought a vast array of goods purchased at wholesale from the larger merchants and then sold the goods to the locals at retail prices. Due to the seasonal basis of the agricultural economy, the merchants allowed their goods to be purchased on credit for three to nine months until the crops came in. Except for the a few wealthy merchants in the large ports, most of the merchants did not specialize in a single line of goods. They sold a variety of goods, typically in the categories of food, alcohol, textiles, hardware, farm tools and household goods.[61] The chief Southern colonial imports from England and other European nations were British woolen, linen goods, furniture, coarse cottons, fine cloths, Madeira wine, strong beers, stockings, silks, shoes, hats and ornaments.[62]

By far the most important commercial center in the colonial South was Charles Town (later Charleston), South Carolina. Due to the extensive demand for the rice and indigo of the lower South in Europe, the mercantile activity there was impressive. During the period from 1735 to 1765 some 500 separate mercantile firms were identified in Charles Town. An example of the trading activities is aptly represented by that of the wealthy Charles Town’ merchant Gabriel Manigault, who imported rum, sugar, wine, textiles, and wheat flour, and exported rice, naval stores, lumber, shingles, leather, deerskin corn, beef, peas and pork.[63]

By the early 1770s more than 800 vessels turned around at Charles Town annually including both British and American ships. A Charles Town visitor once remarked that he observed “about 350 sail lay off the town.” He was so intrigued at the number of vessels that he wrote “the number of shipping far surpasses all I had seen in Boston.” Incredibly the annual export-import trade in Charles Town exceeded even the tonnage through the port of New York, even though the population was only half as large.[64]

The beauty of Charles Town in the 1700s was not excelled in the American colonies. Josiah Quincy, a visitor to the city in 1773, said, “I can only say, in general, that in grandeur, splendor of buildings, decorations, equipages, numbers, commerce, shipping, and indeed in almost everything, it surpasses all I ever saw, or ever expect to see, in America.” In the diary of Hessian Staff Captain Johann Hinrichs in events in 1780 after the British siege of Charles Town, he described the city as follows:

The city itself (including the burnt buildings) consists of 1,020 houses, which are built along broad unpaved streets intersecting one another at right angles, each house having a garden and standing twenty to one hundred paces from any other. The warm climate makes the open spaces necessary…Broad Street is the most beautiful street. It is 100 feet wide and 1,120 long and extends from the Cooper to the Ashley, dividing the city into two parts. The principal street is King Street, 80 feet wide and 3,730 feet long…No other American city can compare with Charleston in the beauty of its houses and the splendor and taste displayed therein. The rapid ascendancy of familie which in less than ten years have risen from the lowest rank, have acquired upward of £100,000, and have, moreover, gained this wealth in a simple and easy manner, probably contributed a good deal toward the grandiose display of splendor, debauchery, luxury, and extravagance in so short a time. Furthermore, the sense of equality which all possessed during this time of increasing incomes induced the people to bid stranger to enjoy their abundance with them and earned the renown of hospitality for this city…The best houses are situated along the Cooper River and North Bay, where are also most of the wharves. In Bay Street, Meeting and Church streets are the many grand palaces, every one of which has porticoes with Ionic and Doric pillars.[65]

Other than Charles Town, two other Southern cities that were expanding in mercantile trade were Norfolk, Virginia and Baltimore, Maryland, the sixth and seventh largest cities in the colonies. In 1774, the population of Norfolk was around 6,500, with Baltimore at around 6,000 residents. These two cities, located in the Chesapeake Tidewater region, were heavily engaged in exports of mostly grain to the West Indies and southern Europe. Tobacco exporting had slowed by this time in the upper South from these two ports. Baltimore had grown from an undistinguished economic town to a small commercial center, and the only one in Maryland. In a first-hand account in 1771, William Eddis called Baltimore “the grand emporium of Maryland commerce” and wrote that “Baltimore became not only the most wealthy and populous town of the province, but inferior to few in this continent, either in size, number of inhabitants, or the advantages arising from a well-conducted and universal connexion.”[66] Norfolk had found growth in trade in wheat and tobacco. The lesser ports of Wilmington, North Carolina and Savannah, Georgia were worthy of some note in the trading growth and economic expansion of those regions.

The inland economic centers of interest in the latter colonial era in the South, while scattered across the landscape, did play an important role in supporting Southern colonial growth. In Maryland were the towns of Hagerstown and Frederick. The New Jersey tutor Philip Vickers Fithian described Hagerstown in 1775 as “a considerable village” that “may contain two hundred houses…many stores…and it is a place of business.”  By the Revolution, the town of Frederick, a German settlement, had grown to be larger than Annapolis or any other Tidewater town except Baltimore.

Annapolis was somewhat prevented from becoming a great port due to it location and poor roadways, even though it was a center of “official life and display” and the home of the Governor and his circle of high officials.[67]

Plan of the City of Savannah, Georgia, USA. 1770.
Plan of the City of Savannah, Georgia, USA. 1770.

In Virginia, Fredericksburg and Richmond were impressive. In the Tidewater of North Carolina the three key towns were Wilmington, Brunswick and New Bern. In the backcountry of North Carolina were towns that were largely slow to develop due to the lack of navigable rivers and limited roadways. The towns of note were Charlotte- described in 1771 as “an inconsiderable place hardly deserving the name of village”, Hillborough- the largest town in the Piedmont, Salisbury, and Salem- a growing commercial center.[68] Camden, in upper South Carolina was important. In Georgia, Savannah was the key capital and seaport town, and in the up country the town of Augusta was a prominent trading point, economic and social center. While each colony had pride in their towns, Charles Town remained the political, social, and economic center of the South at the eve of the Revolution.

Based in these key Southern towns, the merchants became among the wealthiest men in the South in colonial society. They played an important role in the political affairs, as well as in the economic realm of the South. By the 1770s they made up about 15% of the lower house of the Virginia legislature. Merchants were an esteemed group in their communities, which reflected the significance of the “business-driven” society of the colonies.[69]

The colonial artisan was generally an independent self-employed, entrepreneurial worker who had one or more specific craft skills. He generally owned his own materials and worked from his own home shop, or on the job. Most artisans owned land and were eligible to vote. His skills were often gained during some type of apprenticeship. Most artisans conducted their work in the towns and cities, but some were among the rural communities. For example, in Granville County, North Carolina evidence indicates that around 41 artisans lived there during the period between 1749 and 1776.

Since the pace of colonial life was slow, so was the change in technology for the artisan. The artisan practiced his craft using the traditional methods of his day, little changed over time. Like the merchant of his day, the artisan played an active role in the political life of the colonies. Without question, the colonial artisans participated in and had a greater impact on the political life of the colonies than their peers in Europe.[70] One could not forget the most renowned American artisan of the colonial era, Paul Revere of Boston.

While the economic life of the Southern colonies was a central theme of day-to-day activities for most families, all was not work and no play. For the rural farmers, the leisure activities included the usual drinking, hunting, fishing, and simple family-oriented pursuits. Involvement with their neighbors might encompass group activities like barn-raising, sheep shearing, and dining. The key social event for this rural crowd was the fair. Fairs often ran for several days and engaged the colonists in livestock trading, craft sales, wrestling matches, foot races, greased-pig chases, beauty contests, horse races, cockfighting, target shooting, cooking contests and the like.

While the city folk also took part in rural fairs, their leisure was centered around the community tavern, or “ordinary” as they were commonly known. A typical tavern of the colonial day was a combination hotel, restaurant, bar, civic arena, newsstand, dance hall, political party headquarters, gambling hall, card room music hall, and social club by all accounts. Outside these local pubs various activities took place including shooting, bowling, cockfighting and even fist fighting. Taverns were the gathering place for almost all walks of life on occasion. Organizations grew up using these taverns, including a quite popular group known as the Masonic Order. The Masons, with members including George Washington, established some forty “lodges” between Portsmouth and Savannah by 1776.[71]

Drinking in the colonial South was quite widespread. In Virginia, a “julep” before breakfast was felt to be a protection against malaria. A toddy of liquor, or drink of wine or beer, at the end of the day was “good for the body” and cheers the spirit. Laws were passed as early as 1643 in Virginia to “prevent the importation of too great a quantity of strong liquors” from surrounding colonies. The wines of choice for the average folk were Madeira and Fial, as well as French and European claret and port wines for the “better sort”. Beer was made of molasses or malt and was consumed in vast quantities.[72] Cider was also a favorite drink, supported by the local planters apple orchards. The culture of the Southern hospitality was greatly enhanced by the free offer of spirits for the guests, rich and poor alike.  At a funeral in Mecklenburg County in 1767, some seven gallons of whiskey were consumed and charged to the deceased estate.[73] Likewise, the history of the results of excessive drinking in the colonies remains permanently archived in the various country court records of these former Southern colonies.

Another interesting phenomenon of the colonial era associated with the tavern was the lottery. Over time lotteries were established by the colonies to obtain funds for the public good, including road building, bridge construction, colleges, churches and retiring the public debts. The lotteries usually involved ticket purchase in hopes of winning money, but lotteries also gave away houses, land, jewelry and furniture. These lotteries were quite popular, and esteemed personages like George Washington were known to have participated in them. Apparently, over time, these lotteries became rather corrupt and by 1726 every province, except Maryland and North Carolina, had banned all but government lotteries. The British crown in 1769 also outlawed even private lotteries, without specific approval. The leisures of the upper class tended to imitate rather closely that of the English aristocracy. They held great dances and balls where the attendees displayed their fineries. They also held horse races, fox chases and hunting events. For the well off aristocracy of the South, this lifestyle was quite popular. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were known to have actively supported these social pursuits. During January and February 1769, Washington took part in 15 hunting events with hounds.[74]

In a letter to London from Hampton, Virginia in 1755, John Kello declared “Dancing is the chief diversion here, and hunting and racing”. Dancing may have been the most abundant amusement in all the colonies. The diaries of Philip Fithian, a tutor, speaks of an incredible ball given in January of 1773 by Squire Richard Lee at the Nomini mansion in Westmoreland County, Virginia, which lasted for four days-Monday morning through Thursday night when some seventy guests engaged in festive drinking, dining and dancing. On Wednesday evening at seven the ladies and gentlemen began to dance in the ballroom to French horns and violins, minuet; then jigs, then reels and lastly the “country dances with occasional marches.”[75] Often elaborate dinners, served by well-dressed black slaves, were given in the homes of the aristocracy in the South. Josiah Quincy of Boston was extremely impressed when he dined at the residence of one of the richest men in Charles Town, Miles Brewton. The comments about the dinner at 27 King Street revealed “the grandest hall I ever beheld,” gilded wallpaper, and the “most elegant pictures, excessive grand and costly glasses.” He observed, seated at the “most elegant table”, where three courses were served, with wine the “richest I ever tasted.”[76]

The cultural legacy of the South began in these colonial times. Theater gained some popularity even though there was religious objection. Though the earliest performances were held in taverns, between 1716 and 1736 buildings for theatrical use were built in Charles Town and Williamsburg. Again, Washington’s name comes up here as a theater supporter, having attended eleven events of the American Company in Williamsburg and eight in Annapolis between 1771 and 1772. At the time all plays were written by Europeans, until 1767 when the first full-length play written by a native American, Thomas Golfrey, Jr. of Wilmington, North Carolina, was performed by the American Company in Philadelphia (The Prince of Parthia).[77]

For those in all the rungs of the social ladder, the primary social events occurred during the holidays. Christmas was the most celebrated annual holiday in the South. The religious nature of this period was dominate in colonial days, since there was no Christmas tree and even Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, was only an active legend in Dutch New York. Merriment, feasting and the sharing of gifts was a part of the holiday. Thanksgiving, which originated in Virginia in 1623 to commemorate the first anniversary “of our deliverance from the Indians at the bloodie Massaker”, was celebrated by all families after the harvest came in with a feast of roast turkey and pumpkin pie.[78] Although Thanksgiving did not become a universal holiday in all the colonies until long after the Revolution, the original feast traditions were maintained to the present day.[79]

During the colonial period, a significant day for many was that of the Lord’s Day or Sabbath. This day was a British custom, which not only had its religious importance, but was also a day during which the conduct of most business or many leisure activities were prohibited as set forth by colonial legislatures. Although the legislative prohibitions were largely ignored in the South, it did at least afford all a day of rest. This tradition continues even today in spirit.

When the first Southern settlers touched land on American soil, they set up a cross and claimed the country for their church, and then for their king.[80] The religious culture of the colonial South, and the faith shown by those original settlers at Jamestown, was that of the Church of England (Anglican), or better known as the Episcopalian Church. This church was the largest denomination in the South.  As the oldest church in America, it had over half of its 480 churches located in the South at the time of the Revolution. Presbyterians were an outgrowth from the Scots-Irish peoples who came in the eighteenth century.

It was not until the end of the colonial period that the Baptist and Methodist churches were founded in the Southern colonies. The Baptist religion, although founded by William Rogers in Rhode Island, had spread into the South and was reasonably established. The Methodists, who first established a chapel in New York in 1767, were an evangelistic movement within the Anglican Church at the time, and did not consider themselves a significant body until after the Revolution. The remaining religious groups in the South included Quakers (in North Carolina), Catholics (based in Maryland), Lutherans (from the German immigration), Dutch Reformed, Jewish, French Huguenot and a few other smaller sects.[81]

Even though there were numerous religious groups in the South with varying theological beliefs, they all were based on a concept of God, and, in most cases, a God as described in the Bible. While there were certainly intense feelings of differences in creed, opinion, and religious perspective, it is noteworthy that there were few, if any (none in Virginia), actual documented deaths in the Southern colonies caused by ones religious view or witchcraft, which was not the case in the North. For most of the colonial church congregations, the underlying doctrine was that all were to show good conduct towards his fellow man.

The number of actual churchgoers at the beginning of the Revolution was estimated to have been as low as one in twenty in the South. The reasons for such a low percentage were probably the relaxation of the intolerance of the religious dictates as known in Old World Europe and the mobility of the colonists, which spread the devout followers out across the lands.[82] Many who were living on the fringes of settlement in the South were not exposed to active religious groups until later in the colonial period. An attempt to turn this irreverent trend occurred in the 1740s with the “Great Awakening” as it was known. Much effort was put into this movement in America and many changes did occur among the religious sects, but by 1745 the zeal had waned somewhat.

In defining the full spectrum of the culture and character of the Southern colonists, is not complete without understanding the educational heritage of these people. In general the educational perspective of the South followed that of England, where only the rich, upper class received formal instruction. Education was considered an individual matter of no concern of the public. Education usually began at home, where children were taught the basics of spelling, reading and writing. Often the church did take up the cause of base instruction, as ministers, once they can on the scene, were often the most educated of the community. One interesting test of the literacy of a community was provided by noting the number of persons who could sign their name. Philip A. Bruce found that in Virginia in the seventeenth century, over fifty percent of jurors, and thirty-three percent of the women could write their name. Vast improvements occurred and by the mid-eighteenth century, only fourteen percent of the population could not write.

The great planters were able to provide their offspring schooling as taught by educated indentured servants or a local preacher. The subjects taught in that era usually included Latin, Hebrew, Greek, ancient history, arithmetic, geometry, trigonometry handwriting and bookkeeping. Although some schools and academies were established, there was only one institution of higher education in the South before the Revolution. With the support of many education enthusiasts, including the Virginia Governor Francis Nicholson, and Dr. James Blair, who was the Commissary to the Bishop of London-which placed him at the head of the clergy-appealed to King William and Queen Mary “for your Majesty’s charter to erect a free school and college for the education of their youth”. “Sir” replied his Majesty, “I am glad that the Colony is upon so good a design, and will promote it to the best of my power.” Thus, was established the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia which was chartered in February of 1693.[83]

An attempt was made in the early 1770s to establish a local college in Charles Town, South

Carolina, as a bill was introduced in the colonial Assembly. This bill was voted down by the rich who opposed it because they feared that “learning would become cheap and too common, and every man would be giving his son an education.” The first institution of higher learning in South Carolina, the College of Charleston, opened its doors to students in 1790.[84] On January 15, 1771 the North Carolina Assembly passed “An Act for the Founding and Establishing and Endowing of Queen’s College in the Town of Charlotte in Mecklenburg County” North Carolina. While the charter was disallowed by the king and the Privy Council in April 1772, the school continued to operate as a private institution until the troubled period of the Revolution.[85]

Detail of a map by Thomas Kitchin of the Southern colonies shortly after the conclusion of the French & Indian War and on the eve of Revolution. Source: Todd Andrlik
Detail of a map by Thomas Kitchin of the Southern colonies shortly after the conclusion of the French & Indian War and on the eve of Revolution. Source: Todd Andrlik

For the poor masses, the apprenticeship system served to provide vocational skills training for a useful life. Along with the specific trade, the masters were required, often by law, to teach basic reading and writing. If college was in order, wealthy Southern planters sent their children either to England to attend a university like Oxford or Cambridge, or to one of the nine universities in the Northern colonies including Harvard, Yale, King’s College or Princeton.[86] In fact, very few youths ever attended college in the colonial era. By 1776, there were only some three thousand college alumni in all of the Thirteen Colonies. Of the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence, only nineteen had attended American colleges.[87] Formal education was a special privilege of the wealthy minority, while the average Southern colonist would remain only minimally educated or, at best, a learned man from self-study. As one surveys the events that led up to the Revolution and the formation of a new nation, it is important to realize that the Southern colonies were indeed fortunate to have such a learned and able class of men who served to lead the middle class majority towards a future of liberty and prosperity. Without these educated and responsible Southern men, it is unlikely that the South would have been as economically or politically successful as it was in the colonial period.

As the colonial period ended with the coming of the American Revolution in the mid-1770s, life in the Southern colonies had achieved a level that was unknown to most of the world at that time. The privileged among the Southerner elite had certainly little to envy of others, except perhaps the wealthy upper classes and royals of Europe, but the middle classes in the South lived a significantly more rewarding life than their peers around the world. It was a life full of opportunity and freedom that was the envy of the world. Having achieved a legacy of such social and economic success, the political success gained with the American Revolution would serve as the foundation for all the grandeur of America, and for the life that we know here in the South in the twenty-first century.

[60] William S. Powell, North Carolina Through Four Centuries, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1989), pg. 140-141.

[61] Edwin J. Perkins, The Economy of Colonial America, 2nd ed., (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), p. 124.

[62] Richard L. Morton, Colonial Virginia, Vol II, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1960), p. 824.

[63] Edwin J. Perkins, The Economy of Colonial America, 2nd ed., (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), p. 135.

[64] Walter J. Fraser, Jr., Charleston! Charleston!, (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press. 1989), pg. 127-128.

[65] Bernhard A. Uhlendorf, The Siege of Charleston (Diary of Captain Hinrichs), (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1938), pg. 326-329.

[66] Charles Albro Barker, The Background of the Revolution in Maryland, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1940), pg. 17-18.

[67] Charles Albro Barker, The Background of the Revolution in Maryland, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1940), pg. 12-18, 53.

[68] Hugh T. Lefler and William S. Powell, Colonial North Carolina, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973), p. 166.

[69] Edwin J. Perkins, The Economy of Colonial America, 2nd ed., (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), pg. 137-138.

[70] Edwin J. Perkins, The Economy of Colonial America, 2nd ed., (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), pg. 117-122.

[71] Authur M. Schlesinger, The Birth of the Nation, 6th ed., (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1976), pg. 215-217.

[72] Mary Newton Stanard, Colonial Virginia, Its People and Customs, (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1917), pg. 127-128.

[73] William S. Powell, North Carolina Through Four Centuries, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1989), p. 121.

[74]  Authur M. Schlesinger, The Birth of the Nation, 6th ed., (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1976), pg. 218-219.

[75] Mary Newton Stanard, Colonial Virginia, Its People and Customs, (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1917), p. 146.

[76] Walter J. Fraser, Jr., Charleston! Charleston!, (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press. 1989), p. 129.

[77] Authur M. Schlesinger, The Birth of the Nation, 6th ed., (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1976), pg. 220-21.

[78] Mary Newton Stanard, Colonial Virginia, Its People and Customs, (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1917), p. 331.

[79] Authur M. Schlesinger, The Birth of the Nation, 6th ed., (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1976), p. 219.

[80] Mary Newton Stanard, Colonial Virginia, Its People and Customs, (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1917), p. 320.

[81] Authur M. Schlesinger, The Birth of the Nation, 6th ed., (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1976), pg. 81-82.

[82] Authur M. Schlesinger, The Birth of the Nation, 6th ed., (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1976), p. 73.

[83] Mary Newton Stanard, Colonial Virginia, Its People and Customs, (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1917), pg. 263-264, 283-284.

[84] Walter J. Fraser, Jr., Charleston! Charleston!, (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press. 1989), pg. 132, 179.

[85] Hugh T. Lefler and William S. Powell, Colonial North Carolina, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973), pg. 212-213.

[86] William B. Hesseltine, The South in American History, (New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1946), pg. 51-52.

[87] Authur M. Schlesinger, The Birth of the Nation, 6th ed., (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1976), p. 181-184.


  • I have just finished reading your three part article on “Life in the Southern Colonies.” I truly enjoyed it and found it very useful in respect of various topics in debate today, on the political front. Being somewhat of a history buff, I find it really upsetting that so many people speak of history with so little knowledge of the times about which they speak.
    The study of this nation’s history is so very important to its future, yet so poorly given to the youth in our schools. Students coming out of our high schools know nothing of the hard trials that led the founders to draw up our Constitution as it was written. They even included the means for it to grow with the nation.

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