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.
LYNN A. NELSON is an associate professor of history at Middle Tennessee State University.
PAUL S. SUTTER is an associate professor of history at University of Colorado, Boulder. He is the author of Driven Wild: How the Fight against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement.
Table of Contents
List of Maps xi
Foreword, by Paul S. Sutter xiii
introduction. The Soils of Old Virginia 1 One Property Lines and Power before Pharsalia, 1738–1796 29 Two Independence and the Birth of Pharsalia, 1796–1830 63 Three Pharsalia’s Ecological Crisis, 1828–1848 109 Four Capitalism and Conservation at Pharsalia, 1848–1862 149 Five The Gentry Family and the Fall of Pharsalia, 1861–1889 190 epilogue. Mourning Pharsalia 223 Notes 233 Bibliography 259 Index 287