• Accokeek Foundation

Ordinary Life on the Potomac

by Colleen Walter, Site Interpreter

Demonstating a middling class 18th century southern Maryland family

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.”