In May of 2022, the Hudson River Maritime Museum will be running a Grain Race in cooperation with the Schooner Apollonia, The Northeast Grainshed Alliance, and the Center for Post Carbon Logistics. Anyone interested in the race can find out more here.
Grains, as we've seen, were historically and are today a very important agricultural commodity, transported around the world. The 18th century is an especially important time for Grain Shipments in the Northeast, as the current 8-state region in which this competition will take place was producing a large amount of grain exported all around the Atlantic World.
New York sent large amounts of Flour and grains to the West Indies, alongside fish, vegetables, timber, and fruits. As the West Indies were essentially a monocrop sugar plantation run entirely with enslaved labor, they needed to import everything from elsewhere. Corn, wheat, and other grains were also sent to the Carolinas from New York, as explained in Peter Kalm's "Travels in North America." Additional grain trade to Europe took place from New York harbor.
New England also sent large amounts of grains as exports, though less wheat as conditions were not as favorable for growing it as they were in the Mid-Atlantic colonies. However, grain was shipped from New York and New Jersey into the New England colonies and States, while Fish remained a major regional export. Coastal trading in farm surpluses did include a significant quantity of corn and flour moving into cities such as Boston and being sold there.
In Charlestown, NH, the record books of Phineas Stevens' store in the 1740s and 1750s show many debts being paid off in Corn, which Stevens then shipped South into Massachusetts and Connecticut for sale in more densely populated areas. It was moved normally by Canoe down the Connecticut River, then by wagon from the river to a warehouse. The easy cultivation and transportability of grains, alongside their market value in cities made them a good cash crop where few others were available.
Aside from the scattered records of individual ships, companies, and ports, there is little to trace direct shipments and the volume of trade in grains, but it was certainly considerable. In many ways, it was Fish, Flour, Rum, and Timber which pervaded the export economy of the Northeast, and were sold to the entire Atlantic World. Domestically, a large amount of grain cargo was moved, whether by pack animals, carts, canoes, or ships. These exports then paid for manufactured goods such as glass, lead, paint, tea, coffee, paper, and others. Taxes on many of these imported goods would lead to grievances over the long term, which eventually spiraled into the American Revolution.
Grain in the 18th century was a very important commodity and remains so today. Then as now, the ability to export grain or the need to import it is a tool of foreign policy at peace and in war. While the Northeastern Economy is no longer based primarily on fishing and grains, there is a long tradition of producing and moving grains in the region on which we can draw as we move towards a carbon-constrained future.
You can find more information on the Grain Race here.
Steven Woods is the Solaris and Education coordinator at HRMM. He earned his Master's degree in Resilient and Sustainable Communities at Prescott College, and wrote his thesis on the revival of Sail Freight for supplying the New York Metro Area's food needs. Steven has worked in Museums for over 20 years.
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