Ordinary Life on the Potomac
by Colleen Walter, Site Interpreter
The National Colonial Farm at Piscataway Park depicts life of an ordinary tobacco farming family during 18th century southern Maryland.
Last week Matt Mattingly, Manager of the National Colonial Farm and Historic Interpretation, presented a talk to the docents of Gunston Hall entitled “Ordinary Life on the Potomac.” The docents there are most familiar with the life of founding father George Mason and the history of his home, Gunston Hall. Like many Americans, their primary understanding of the Colonial period is the history of the gentry class. Part of the mission at the National Colonial Farm is to present an alternate view of our history through the lens of a so-called ordinary family in this region on the eve of the American Revolution. Matt challenged the audience to consider how one can interpret a group of people who left behind little or no material culture. He first established that the “middling” sort should not be considered the same socioeconomic group as our modern middle class. Instead, they were in almost every way equal to their non-landowning counterpart, the tenant farmer.
So what evidence does exist for the life of the middling sort? Matt first discussed written sources like store records and receipts of what purchases were made and by whom and probate inventories itemizing what a person had at the time of his death. These documents reveal that the only difference in possessions between those of a tenant farmer and of a small landowner was the ownership of one or two slaves. Due to the isolation of the small landowner’s farm and the daily necessities of labor, the relationship between owner and slave was vastly different compared to the same on a large plantation. Working together by day and sharing many meals, middling sort owners generally considered their slaves to be “a lesser member of the family.”
Unlike their gentry counterparts, middling sort landowners worked side-by-side with slaves.
Although the abilities to read and to write were not yet common, travelers’ journals and even the occasional diary from the Colonial period provide the most illustrative views of the past. Archaeology also plays a key role in understanding those who possessed little material culture. Sometimes all that remains of a life will be a handful of pottery shards and a clay marble. Unlike the gentry class with its array of necessary and sundry items, the middling sort generally existed with a minimum of items. Though most of their possessions were strictly functional, a few, such as a looking glass or a single fork and knife, were possessed simply for what they represented–an emblem of a class they aspired to join. Through a careful examination of a combination of sources like these, a picture of the ordinary life begins to emerge.
Matt cautioned the audience to always consider what is probable, and not just possible. He spoke to the pitfalls and challenges of giving tours and working directly with the public. This new perspective of the American Revolution inspired the docents of Gunston Hall. They were interested to know more about how to conduct their own research and expressed the desire to carry that over into their own tours and presentations. Staff from the Accokeek Foundation were treated to a tour of Gunston Hall. It is always invigorating to share time with museum colleagues, and to see what other professionals are doing.