Farming in Tennessee: The Nineteenth Century
While emigrants moved to Tennessee for many different reasons, the promise of vast stretches of undeveloped land—much of it suitable for farming—provided the major impetus for early population growth. In pre-industrial Tennessee, agricultural enterprise emerged as the backbone of the state’s economy, maintaining that status until the twentieth century. The earliest settlers during pre-statehood and early Tennessee history often received land grants for military service, which provided them with a tangible reason to migrate to the territory. Standard land grants were allotted in blocks of 640 acres, which was considered ample property for a family to achieve prosperity in the new state.
The materials in this collection focus on the history of Tennessee agriculture prior to World War II. While the latter twentieth and early 21st centuries have seen agriculture in the state take a decidedly commercial turn, this collection intentionally showcases the lives of everyday farmers before the shift toward large-scale farming. These items trace the progression of agriculture from its inception as a subsistent way of life in Tennessee to the revolution of farming practices in the early 21st century.
Leaders of Tennessee, along with private railroad companies, worked diligently to recruit settlers to the state. Publications from the post-Civil War period depicted Tennessee as an ideal place for industrious farmers to settle. A pamphlet from 1897 uses the flowery writing that was typical of the time:
“Tennessee—The land where God has set his seal of love and Nature’s garden home was built—A state of wondrous resources, matchless scenery, ideal climate and happy homes—Every crop reported in the national census is grown in Tennessee—The finest stock growing section of the whole of the American Union—The Volunteer State is the center of education in the South—Facts for home seekers.”
The pamphlet assures readers that “Tennessee could furnish good homes to 10,000,000 people, and give to each head of a family a comfortable home.” Interested parties were encouraged to contact the Commissioner of Agriculture in order to find an appropriate homestead.
Several documents in this collection show evidence of the cohesive spirit embraced by Tennessee’s farmers and agricultural leaders. Early agricultural publications, such as Thomas Emmerson’s Tennessee Farmer, provided guidance and advice for the state’s early farmers. The Farmer was published monthly between 1834 and 1840 in Jonesborough. Emmerson was particularly adamant that the state’s farmers learn from the example of farming in North Carolina and Virginia, which had depleted their resources. He was a staunch supporter of crop rotation, diversification, and prudence in the use of mineral resources.
Later serials (at least one of which recycled Emmerson’s title) continued the practice of educating Tennessee’s farmers, improving farming practices, and advising farmers of new trends in agriculture.
When studying the materials in this collection and Tennessee agriculture in general, it is important to recognize the vast differences in farming between East and West Tennessee. East Tennessee farming, historically, was characterized by smaller-scale, subsistence farming. Log cabins reigned as the typical East Tennessee farmhouse. The landscape of West Tennessee and many parts of Middle Tennessee allowed for the growth of the more stereotypical picture of the Southern plantation. These two regions gave birth to such grand plantations as Belle Meade, in Nashville, and Rattle and Snap, near Columbia. (As this collection’s purpose is to highlight the average farmer, such large-scale operations are not treated here.)
The state’s diverse geography explains these differences in scale and style. West Tennessee identified with the deeper South in the years of “King Cotton;” the flatness and richness of the counties near the Mississippi River enabled West Tennessee farmers to produce high yields of the crop. In East Tennessee, smaller-scale crops like tobacco, wheat, and corn were grown.
Several individuals greatly shaped Tennessee’s reputation as a destination for aspiring farmers. F. A. Michaux was an early French naturalist and journalist who explored the Tennessee territory in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In Michaux’s account of his travels, Travels to the Westward of the AlleganyMountains, in the States of Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee in the Year 1802, the writer catalogs the flora he encounters throughout the region. His writings describe the fertility of Tennessee’s varied landscape, providing one of the earliest accounts of the state’s agricultural potential.
J. Gray Smith, a British immigrant to Blount County, Tennessee, also published a book to celebrate the resources of his new home. Unlike other champions of Tennessee agriculture, Smith was able to contrast his pastoral life in Blount County to the horrors of industrialism he had witnessed in his native country. In 1842, Smith published A Brief Historical, Statistical and Descriptive Review of East Tennessee, United States of America Developing Its Immense Agricultural, Mining, and Manufacturing Advantages, with Remarks to Emigrants.
Gerard Troost, one of Tennessee’s first state geologists, and James Merrill Safford are also featured in this collection. Both men, geologists (among other pursuits), shaped the state of Tennessee through their exploration and classification of the state’s resources. Troost and Safford were both academically inclined. Before migrating to Tennessee, Troost founded the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Safford taught at Vanderbilt University and worked with Killebrew on the Resources of Tennessee. Both Safford and Troost served Tennessee as State Geologist.
Troost greatly influenced another early Tennessee leader, Tolbert Fanning. As an educator, Fanning considered a well-rounded life suitable for all. He spent his career as an editor, preacher, and publisher. In 1840, Fanning helped establish The Agriculturalist, the State Agricultural Society’s publication. Fanning also published The Naturalist, a journal that hoped to cultivate more advanced methods and more diverse products in Tennessee farming. While at Franklin College in Nashville, he promoted the theory of providing a well-balanced life, which included the occupation of farming. He required students to perform manual labor on the school’s farm in tandem with their coursework. This practical education proved especially beneficial after the college was permanently closed by the Civil War.
Probably the most famous proponent of agriculture in Tennessee was Joseph Buckner Killebrew, a well-educated and charismatic attorney and farmer originally from Montgomery County. Killebrew was influenced by his educational work at Franklin College with Fanning. Killebrew’s roles as agricultural editor of a Nashville newspaper and later as Tennessee’s Commissioner of Agriculture allowed him a broad stage from which to lobby for the development and utilization of the state’s natural resources. His Introduction to the Resources of Tennessee (1874) served as a 1,200 page compilation of each county’s natural assets. Building on his knowledge of the state’s resources, Killebrew worked as the Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis Railroad’s immigration agent from 1894-1904.
Killebrew, however, was not without his detractors. Some felt that the recruiter was painting a too-colorful and optimistic picture of Tennessee’s agricultural promise. On December 5, 1879, Murfreesboro’s Weekly News sought to balance Killebrew’s rosy portrayal of the state’s resources:
It is a little curious that Mr. Killebrew, and some others who are actively engaged in the work of inducing immigration to Tennessee from Northern States, should so sedulously direct attention to the barren lands and mountainous districts of the state, and labor so earnestly to plant colonies in sections that really offer the fewest advantages…We have brought, to our knowledge, numerous settlers returning disappointed to their old homes, after laboring years on land which, though bought at nominal price, could not in the very nature of things be made productive.
Clearly, some Tennesseans felt that Killebrew’s promotion of the state—or at least the less desirable regions of the state—were occasionally inclined toward dishonesty. Despite this backlash against him, Killebrew’s reputation has survived. He is best remembered for his agricultural contributions and innovations that were disseminated across Tennessee via several journals and other publications.
Tennessee’s rich heritage of agricultural industry continues today with a strong agricultural base of education in its state programs, cooperative groups, and even the Tennessee Farm Bureau. TSLA collects and maintains numerous categories of farming materials, including today’s Tennessee Home & Farm Illustrated magazine. These documents, books, and images trace the progressive agricultural industry, the richness and diversity of the land, and the history and culture of the Tennessee farmer.
Faulkner, Charles H. The Ramseys at Swan Pond: The Archaeology and History of an East Tennessee Farm. Knoxville: UT Press, 2008.
Killebrew, J. B. Recollections of my Life; An Autobiography, 1896.
Lester, Connie. Up from the Mudsills of Hell: The Farmers’ Alliance, Populism, and Progressive Agriculture in Tennessee, 1870-1915. Athens: University of Georgia, 2006.
Michaux, F. A. Travels to the Westward of the AlleganyMountains, in the States of Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee. London: J. Mawman, 1805.
Miles, Murray T. From the Ground up: A 75 Year History of the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation. Columbia, Tennessee:Tennessee Farm Bureau, 1996.
Otto, John Solomon. Southern Agriculture during the Civil War Era, 1860-1880. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1994.
Scobey, James E. FranklinCollege and its influences. Nashville McQuiddy Printing Co., 1906.
Tennessee Department of Agriculture: Tennessee Agriculture: A Century Farms Perspective. Nashville: Tennessee Department of Agriculture, 1986.
Tennessee Department of Agriculture. Tennessee: The Land Where God Has Set His Seal of Love and Nature’s Garden Home is Built. Nashville: Jas. J. Ambrose, 1897.
Winters, Donald L. Tennessee Farming, Tennessee Farmers: Antebellum Agriculture in the Upper South. Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 1994.