New York State, 1775
The book American Husbandry. Containing an ACCOUNT of the SOIL, CLIMATE, PRODUCTION, and AGRICULTURE, of the BRITISH COLONIES in NORTH AMERICA and the WEST-INDIES; with Observations on the Advantages and Disadvantages of settling in them, compared with GREAT BRITAIN and IRELAND was published in Britain in 1775, and written, anonymously, "by an American." It is a fascinating little piece - an attempt to convince Britons of the superiority of American soil, beauty, and even the Hudson River, to that of England.
Of particular interest to us in the Hudson Valley, of course, is the chapter specifically on New York.
The chapter begins with a discussion of climate and the various types of soils suitable (or not) for agriculture, often comparing New York to New England, which perhaps was more familiar to Britons at the time.
But of course, the thing that caught our eye the most, was the description of the Hudson River:
"The river Hudson which is navigable to Albany, and of such a breadth and depth as to carry large sloops, which its branches on both sides, intersect the whole country, and render it both pleasant and convenient. The banks of this great river have a prodigious variety; in some places there are gently swelling hills, covered with plantations and farms; in others towering mountains spread over with thick forests: here you have nothing but abrupt rocks of vast magnitude, which seem shivered in two to let the river pass the immense clefts; there you see cultivated vales, bounded by hanging forests, and the distant view completed by the Blue Mountains raising their heads above the clouds. In the midst of this variety of scenery, of such grand and expressing character the river Hudson flows, equal in many places to the Thames at London, and in some much broader. The shores of the American rivers are too often a line of swamps and marshes; that of Hudson is not without them, but in general it passes through a fine, high, dry and bold country, which is equally beautiful and wholesome."
Drawing, Hudson Valley in Winter, Looking Southwest from Olana, Frederic Church, 1870-1880. A snow covered plain is shown in the foreground and right middle distance. The Catskill mountains stretch from the right toward the left distance. Part of the Hudson River is shown in the left middle distance. The sky has light clouds with orange above the mountains and along upper edge. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.
"They sow their wheat in autumn, with better success than in spring: this custom they pursue even about Albany, in the northern parts of the province, where the winters are very severe. The ice there in the river Hudson is commonly three or four feet thick. When professor Kalm [Peter or Pehr Kalm, who visited in 1747] was here, the inhabitants of Albany crossed it the third of April with six pair of horses. The ice commonly dissolves at that place about the end of March, or the beginning of April. On the 16th of November the yachts are put up, and about the beginning or middle of April they are in motion again."
The chapter ends with a discussion of New York's agriculture, which grains were commonly planted where, the role of beer and hard "cyder" in everyday life, and all the possible agricultural goods and raw materials that could be exported.
Of American Husbandry, the British Royal Collection Trust writes, "Written anonymously by 'An American', this is a remarkable work on the climate, soil and agriculture of the British colonies in North America immediately prior to the outbreak of the American War of Independence. It covers all the major British possessions, starting in Canada, before moving through the thirteen colonies, the Caribbean and the newly-acquired territories in Ohio and Florida. It looks, not only at the environment of these colonies, but also at which plants have been successfully cultivated, demographics, the value of different commodities to Britain and recommendations on how to improve farming methods.
"Beyond the bulk of the text there are numerous references to the unsettled state of affairs in the region and the threat of an American declaration of independence, and the author dedicates the final two chapters of the second volume to the subject. Interestingly, he implies that independence is inevitable, being just a matter of time until the colonies would outgrow the mother-country, be it through population, commerce or grievance, but suggests several methods to postpone it such as: the acquisition of the French-held Louisiana territory beyond the Mississippi river or the establishment of a political union between Britain and America with the representation of American politicians in Parliament."
The fact that this book was published on the eve of the American Revolution is remarkable. The First Continental Congress had already sent its first "Petition to the King" to call for the repeal of the "Intolerable Acts" (also known as the "Coercive Acts") in 1774. The Intolerable Acts were a series of punitive reactions to the Boston Tea Party, closing Massachusetts' ports, revoking its charter, extraditing colonial government officials accused of a crime back to Britain (where they faced friendlier juries), and quartering British soldiers in civilian homes. The petition was ignored and the Intolerable Acts were not repealed.
In July of 1775, the Second Continental Congress penned and approved what is now known as the "Olive Branch Petition," which was delivered to London in September, 1775. A controversial last ditch effort to avoid war with Great Britain, this petition also failed, leading to the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
Against the backdrop of this political, social, and economic turmoil, American Husbandry becomes that much more interesting. A largely glowing report of the settlement prospects of the American colonies, it attempted to persuade immigration and investment, even as the two nations it sought to unite - the British Empire and the soon-to-be-new nation, the United States - were on the brink of war. One wonders - were any Britons influenced by this book, choosing to emigrate during this turbulent time? If so, which side of the conflict did they adopt in their new home? We may never know.
If you'd like to read the whole book, or the chapter on New York for yourself, you can find the full text of American Husbandry here.
Sarah Wassberg Johnson is the Director of Exhibits & Outreach at the Hudson River Maritime Museum, where she has worked since 2012. She has an MA in Public History from the University at Albany.
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