Colonial Settlement and Development of Plantations

In 1649, Richard Bennett founded the first recorded English settlement in this area. Escaping from religious persecution in Virginia, his group of Puritans settled north of the mouth of the Severn River (north of Annapolis). By the mid-1600s thirty patents for individual properties had been granted in Anne Arundel County, mostly in estuarine zones. By 1673 there were nine plantations along the Rhode River. One of these, owned by Thomas Sparrow, covered some 700 acres and included what is now known as "Java Farm."

Several factors motivated these English farmers when looking for a place to settle. The first, proximity to navigable water dictated the majority of settlement since all goods coming from, and going to Europe were transported by water. Consequently, the pattern of English settlement in Maryland follows the shoreline. Another factor influencing English settlement was soil quality. Again, historical records show that land with good soil was developed first. Often, the areas with prime soil coincided with old fields, areas that had been cultivated by Native Americans. Finally, English settlers looked for land with a good supply of drinking water. In the 17th century wells supplied water to land owners in Virginia, whereas in Maryland, the water supply came primarily from springs. Therefore, many settlers constructed their houses on flat land at the top of a hill with a spring close by.

Once a colonist received title to his land, he began to clear fields for growing tobacco. Since it grew as the chief cash crop in Maryland, the more land under cultivation, the greater the potential for profit. Quality tobacco requires a high level of nutrients and quickly depletes the soil of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. Colonists did not rotate their crops, nor did they practice fertilization of the soil in use. Therefore, nutrient depletion occurred and the soil could not sustain tobacco crops. As a result, it became necessary to abandon these nutrient depleted fields with poor soil quality and clear new ones where trees once stood. The attitude that the forests were unlimited and just "there for the taking" prevailed. By the 1720s trees in the Rhode River area were almost gone.

This had a tremendous impact on the environment of the area. Wild game, especially turkey and deer, had been abundant when the first colonists arrived. Within 60 years of the first colonial settlement, game was becoming more scarce as their habitat was being destroyed. By 1730 the Maryland legislature responded by passing a deer conservation law. Erosion of the land and the siltation of streams and rivers also increased, partly due to the constant clearing of new fields and partly due to the daily hoeing necessary to cultivate tobacco. Evidence of this is indicated by the fact that Muddy Creek, the main tributary of the Rhode River, had already received its name by 1705. As the number of colonists increased so did the environmental impact of their activities.


"As with all agriculturally based societies, the rhythm of daily life was inexorably linked with the land. But tobacco cultivation was an even more arduous occupation than most and required almost year round devotion. In addition to preparing the seed, planting, weeding, and harvesting, tobacco required a multitude of intermediary steps: preparing a hill for each plant, transplanting seedlings, worming, topping, succering {sic}, cutting and spearing, hanging, stripping, curing, bundling, and prizing or pressing into huge casks, which were finally rolled to the landing for shipment to England. All of these tasks were carried out by hand, and great care was needed not to bruise or otherwise damage the fragile leaf. In optimal conditions, a "hand," or laborer, might produce 1,500 pounds of tobacco in a year, the yield of almost as many plants on one acre of ground. In addition to all this, the men of the household would have grown corn and other staples for consumption, herded cattle, pigs, and other livestock, hunted, fished, and much more.

The women of the household, both servants and members of the planter's family, would have been responsible for a variety of chores, but probably would not have been required to work in the fields except in emergencies or in the case of the very poor. In addition to cooking and child rearing, woman's work also could have included gardening, milking and making cheese and butter, tending poultry, spinning and weaving, sewing, and washing clothes. Few of these occupations leave traces in the archaeological record other than ceramics, hoes, scissors, straight pins, and other domestic items."

Dennis Pogue, King's Reach and 17th Century Plantation Life, Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum Studies in Archaeology No. 1, 1990, p. 3.

From the description above, it is evident that tobacco cultivation was very labor intensive. Originally, indentured servants and the men of the household performed all of the field labor. The need for labor remained high even as the number of servants from Europe was decreasing. Slavery increased as a result of this imbalance. In Maryland, the majority of slaves were imported from Africa during the late 1600s and the early 1700s. These slaves took over the tedious job of tobacco growing. Although the importation of slaves continued until the Civil War, growth in the African American population in the Rhode River area resulted from natural increase.

In an effort to eliminate smaller farms, large plantation owners encouraged the use of hogsheads (large barrels that weighed up to 1800 pounds) for the transportation of tobacco, as opposed to the original form of shipment in bales. The hogsheads required large amounts of tobacco to fill them. Therefore, the smaller producers could not effectively produce enough tobacco to ship it in this manner at a profit. Rates depended on the number of hogsheads shipped, so the growers tried to pack as much tobacco into each barrel as possible. Intricate presses or " prizes " were developed to accomplish this task.

The price of tobacco in Europe depended on many factors. For example, the distance of the tobacco farm from a waterway dramatically affected the worth of a farmer's crop. The further from a wharf, the less valuable the crop. The use of hogsheads made the task of transporting the crop from farm to wharf more difficult. On plantations close to the water, slaves rolled the barrels manually to the wharf. On inland farms professional "tobacco rollers" used wagons whose wheels and axles were the actual hogsheads. Rollers avoided gullies and streams, thus they created meandering paths called " rolling roads."

As described by Dan Higman, "The tobacco fleet arrived in the Chesapeake Bay in November, comprising about forty ships in the 1660s and over a hundred in the 1700s. They fanned out into the estuaries to collect tobacco; about ten to sixteen visited Anne Arundel County... The ship captains and planters met, socialized, exchanged market information, and bargained for tobacco... Collecting enough tobacco to fill a ship took several months....When the fleet was loaded, it sailed down the Bay to Hampton Roads, where the tobacco was transferred to larger vessels for shipment to England, and an armed convoy was formed to deter pirates and privateers."

As trade between the colonies, the West Indies, and Europe increased, so did the environmental problems associated with shipping. An increase in the number of ships resulted in the cutting of more trees for shipbuilding purposes. Also, ships sailing from England required ballast such as stone for better stability on rough ocean waters. When the ships entered the shallow waters of the Bay and its tributaries, they needed to lighten the load, thus the stone or other ballast was thrown overboard. This practice increasingly caused problems to navigation through the more shallow waters, and laws were passed to prohibit this dumping.

Java Plantation was rarely occupied by its owner. Instead, an overseer was left in charge. This practice was criticized for its encouragement of excessive cultivation, which depleted the soil more rapidly and overworked the slaves. Java plantation followed the "boom or bust" economy of tobacco growing and although tobacco was the main cash crop, corn and wheat were also grown. However, whether due to ignorance or neglect, these crops were not rotated, nor was the soil fertilized to counteract nutrient depletion. Gradually the plow replaced the hoe, especially in the cultivation of corn and wheat. By the Civil War in the 1860s these two crops displaced tobacco, both in terms of income and acreage.