Defining a Nation

Defining a Nation > Trade & Commerce > Chesapeake’s Wartime Agriculture

St. Leonard Creek
Sotterley Plantation, a National Historic Landmark featuring a plantation house, slave quarters, and beautiful grounds overlooking the Patuxent River, offers tours, exhibits, and programs on 18th- and 19th-century plantation life.

In 1812, much of the Chesapeake region was farmland. When the British blockaded the Bay in December 1812, they cut off an economic lifeline for farmers, businessmen, and the shipping industry, particularly those involved in trade with Europe.

British trade restrictions combined with confiscation of tobacco and ships, destructive raids, and encouraging enslaved blacks to escape their masters all affected the economy in the Chesapeake and elsewhere along the US coast.

During wartime and throughout the 19th century, tobacco was the main cash crop in Chesapeake areas where agriculture was prominent, especially Southern Maryland. Growing and harvesting tobacco required a large labor force, and slaves and tenant farmers made up a significant part of the agrarian population and economy.

Many Americans involved in agriculture had opposed the war, perhaps for fear of its potential effect on their livelihood. Their fears were well founded, for in many areas, particularly along the rivers, planters experienced great losses when their crops were destroyed, their livestock confiscated, and their labor force reduced. Merchants dependent on crops for trade were also affected, as storehouses were destroyed in enemy raids and the blockade halted shipping.

Most of the large-scale plantation owners were eventually able to recover from the economic losses they experienced. For many tenant farmers who worked the land, however, recovery was more difficult. When their crops were burned in British raids, many of these farmers were unable to pay their rent and were forced to leave, often heading west. John R. Plater from Sotterley Plantation noted that this was the plight of many tenant farmers who had resided on his land.

Sotterley’s Story

Sotterley Plantation in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, along the banks of the Patuxent River, was one of the many plantations in tidewater Chesapeake. The War of 1812 shaped the future of the plantation and the enslaved people who lived there. At the time of the war, the property belonged to the wealthy Plater family, whose members held prominent government positions and owned large swaths of land in Southern Maryland. The plantation, built in the early 1700s, had survived British raids during the Revolutionary War.

In 1814, British raiders at Sotterley and other plantations along the Patuxent burned outbuildings, took food provisions, and destroyed crops. Nearly 50 slaves left Sotterley with the British. They boarded ships in the Patuxent. Four of them—James Bowie, Joseph Wood, Ignatius Leale, and Peregrine Young—later returned to the plantation to help others including their families to escape. They were among the thousands of slaves who went to the British during the war and later settled as free people in Nova Scotia, the West Indies, and elsewhere in the British empire.

When George Plater V inherited Sotterley after the war, it was suffering from the loss of the slave labor, debt, and the national economic decline. He sold the plantation in 1822 and left the Chesapeake region for the West.


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