Yeoman Farmers

Yeoman farmers stood at the center of antebellum southern society, belonging to the ranks neither of elite planters nor of the poor and landless; most important, from the perspective of the farmers themselves, they were free and independent, unlike slaves. In Mississippi, yeoman farming culture predominated in twenty-three counties in the northwest and central parts of the state, all within or on the edges of a topographical region geographers refer to as the Upper Coastal Plain. Situated both physically and agriculturally between the Delta (Mississippi’s fertile crescent) to the west and the Blacklands (named for the high concentration of slave laborers there before emancipation as much as for the rich, dark soil) to the south and east, the Upper Coastal Plain is a moderately fertile land of rolling clay hills covered by a thin layer of dark soil and dense hardwood forests.

Those forests, which provided materials for early houses and barns, sources of fish and game, and places for livestock to root or graze, together with the fields in between, which were better suited to growing corn than cotton, befitted the yeomanry, who yearned for independence and self-sufficiency. Yeoman farmers usually owned no more land than they could work by themselves with the aid of extended family members and neighbors. On the eve of the Civil War, farms in Mississippi’s yeoman counties averaged less than 225 improved acres. Many yeomen in these counties cultivated fewer than 150 acres, and a great many farmed less than 75. For the yeomanry, avoiding debt, the greatest threat to a family’s long-term independence, was both an economic and religious imperative, so the speculation in land and slaves required to compete in the market economy was rare. Instead, yeoman farmers devoted the majority of their efforts to producing food, clothing, and other items used at home.

In 1860 corn production in Mississippi’s yeoman counties was at least thirty bushels per capita (ten bushels more than the minimum necessary to achieve self-sufficiency), whereas the average yearly cotton yield in those counties did not exceed thirty bushels per square mile. The cotton that yeomen grew went primarily to the production of home textiles, with any excess cotton or fabric likely traded locally for basic items such as tools, sewing needles, hats, and shoes that could not be easily made at home or sold for the money to purchase such things. Mississippi’s yeomen also cultivated large amounts of peas, sweet potatoes, and other foodstuffs and kept herds of livestock, especially pigs. In 1860 almost every family in Mississippi’s hill country owned at least one horse or mule, there were about as many cattle as people, and pigs outnumbered humans by more than two to one.

Not surprisingly, pork and cornbread were mainstays (many travelers said monotonies) of any yeoman family’s diet. For yeoman women, who were intimately involved in the daily working of their farmsteads, cooking assumed no special place among the plethora of other daily activities necessary for the family’s subsistence. Sewing or mending, gardening, dairying, tending to poultry, and carrying water were just some of the labors in which women and children engaged almost daily, along with spinning, weaving, washing, canning, candle or soap making, and other tasks that occurred less often.

In addition to such tasks as clearing land, planting, and adding to or improving his home and outbuildings, the male head of a yeoman household was responsible for protecting, overseeing the labor of, and disciplining the dependents under his roof. Like almost all white men in the nineteenth-century South, the men of the yeoman class exerted complete patriarchal authority, born of both custom and law, over the property and bodies connected to their households. Within the community, fistfights, cockfights, and outright drunken brawls helped to establish or maintain a man’s honor and social standing relative to his peers. Inside the home, domestic violence was encouraged as a way of maintaining order.

The average household on Mississippi’s yeoman farmsteads contained 6.0 members, slightly above the statewide average of 5.8 and well above the steadily declining average for northern bourgeois families. A quarter of Mississippi’s yeoman households contained at least 8 members, and many included upward of 10. About a quarter of yeoman households included free whites who did not belong to the householder’s nuclear family. Most were adult male farm laborers; about a fifth were women (usually unmarried sisters or sisters-in-law or widowed mothers or mothers-in-law of the household head); a slightly smaller percentage were children who belonged to none of the household’s adults. All of them contributed their labor to the household economy. In addition, many yeomen purchased, rented, borrowed, or inherited slaves, but slavery was neither the primary source of labor nor a very visible part of the landscape in Mississippi’s antebellum hill country.

Despite the size and diversity of their households, most Mississippi yeomen, along with their extended families and any hired hands, slaves, or guests, cooked, ate, drank, worked, played, visited, slept, conceived children, bore, and nursed them in homes consisting of just one or two rooms. More than four-fifths of the two-room houses—and more than a third of all vernacular houses—constructed in the state’s yeoman region before 1880 consisted of side-by-side “pens” bisected by an open passageway—the dogtrot house. The state’s signature folk architectural type, the dogtrot appealed to yeomen in part for its informality and openness to neighbors and strangers alike. Inside, the typical yeoman home contained a great number of chairs and other furnishings but fewer than three beds. The close proximity of adults and children in the home, amid a landscape virtually overrun with animals, meant that procreation was a natural, observable, and imminently desirable fact of yeoman life.

Beginning in the last twenty years of the nineteenth century, the declining popularity of the once ubiquitous dogtrot signaled the concurrent demise of yeoman farming culture in the state. Although the Civil War had exacted a toll on the lives and livelihoods of Mississippi’s yeomanry, the most pronounced shift in this way of life occurred between 1880 and 1910. Demographic factors both contributed to and reveal the end of independent farming life. In those three decades, the number of Mississippians living in cities or towns nearly tripled, while the keeping of livestock, particularly pigs, declined precipitously. As farm animals began to disappear from everyday life, so did appreciation for and visibility of procreation in and around the household. At the same time, family size in the region decreased, families became more nuclear, and houses grew larger and more private. By 1910, 93 percent of the vernacular houses in Mississippi’s hill country consisted of three to five rooms, while the average number of household members decreased to around five, and far fewer of those households included extended family or nonrelated individuals.

Further Reading

  • Susan Ditto, “Conjugal Duty: Domestic Culture on the Southern Frontier, 1830–1910” (PhD dissertation, University of Mississippi, 1998)
  • Sam B. Hilliard, Atlas of Antebellum Southern Agriculture (1984)
  • Fred Kniffen, in Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture, ed. Dell Upton and John Michael Vlach (1986)
  • Stephanie McCurry, Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country (1995)
  • Ted Ownby, Subduing Satan: Religion, Recreation, and Manhood in the Rural South, 1865–1920 (1990)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Yeoman Farmers
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date July 10, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 15, 2018