The archetypal image of the early American farmer who owned his land, was independent and self-made, does not stand true in the decades on either side of the War of 1812. During this period of Southern Maryland history, the area was characterized not by a multitude of large independent planters, but rather by tenants and wage laborers. There was a large wealth disparity in this period, in which the large plantation owners — those in control of vast tracts of land — held a disproportionate amount of wealth. These large landowners owned slaves to work their land and employed wage laborers as well. Some landowners also rented land to tenants. These tenants paid landowners in the form of cash rent, or a percentage of the crops they grew on the land. In many cases, the tenant would pay the landowner in tobacco, as tobacco had historically represented money in the early Chesapeake region. In St. Mary’s County, tenants comprised 65% of the population in 1800 and had risen to 75% by 1840. As these increasing rates of landless tenancy evidence, there was very little upward mobility in economic classes at this time; immobility or downward movement were far more common.
During this time in Maryland’s history, the inequality between economic classes in society increased. In nearby Prince George’s County, where a similar economy took root, the wealthiest 1% of the population in 1800 (17 householders) held 18% of the taxable wealth. In St. Mary’s County in 1800 for example, 65% of the population was landless, and that number had risen to 75% by 1840. Not only did the wealthiest hold greater amounts of money and property than did the poor, but the land owned by the wealthy was of greater quality than that owned by smaller farmers. The same applied to the slaves owned by the different economic classes; the wealthier members of society had disproportionate ownership of skilled and mature able-bodied slaves. Slavery also suffered: between 1804 and 1839 only 110 slaves were brought to the county. In fact, Maryland was the only major slave state to experience a decline in the raw number of slaves from 111,502 in 1810 to 87,189 in 1860. This static population was a result of relative isolation and lack of agricultural opportunities.
The quality of both the land and the labor supply available to them provided the wealthier members of society a tool to maintain their wealthy status and to continue to accrue wealth, further distancing themselves from the poorer classes of society. Because of the increasing economic inequalities, migration from southern Maryland to the new lands in the southwest was at its highest during the two decades before and after 1800. Small acreage produced dwindling populations: between 1790 and 1810 St. Mary’s County lost 18 percent of residents due to moves west for land. Between 1810 and 1940 the county’s population remained static there were low immigration and emigration rates. Those who migrated out of Southern Maryland were often the poor landless peoples who had no opportunities remaining in Maryland; the wealthy landowners, such as those at Sotterley Plantation , had no need to migrate westward.
Sotterley Plantation, in St. Mary’s County, is an excellent example of the plantations that dotted the landscape of 19th century Maryland, and is the only remaining Tidewater Plantation in Maryland that is open to the public. During the war, Sotterley Plantation and others like it were often targeted by the invading British fleet, as the British sought to strike against the American forces and plunder American households to support their armies. Although in some cases the British fleet did not invade with overtly hostile force, but simply traveled up the Chesapeake to the capital in Washington, the British plundering of the property of the Captain of the Maryland State Militia, William Kilgour, attests to the aggressive nature of the British forces in Southern Maryland.
“Georgetown, July 27, 1814: From the Patuxent.” Federal Republican: The Repertory August 02, 1814, XI: 66, Boston, MA.
Sarson, Steve. “Distribution of Wealth in Prince George’s County, Maryland, 1800-1820.” The Journal of Economic History 60 (2000): 847-855.
Sarson, Steven. “Landlessness and Tenancy in Early National Prince George’s County, Maryland.” The William and Mary Quarterly 57 (2000): 569-598.
Sarson, Steve. “Yeoman Farmers in a Planter’s Republic: Socioeconomic Conditions and Relations in Early National Prince George’s County, Maryland.” Journal of the Early Republic 29 (2009): 63-99.