David Patrick McKenzie

Digital Public Historian

Virginia: Farming only since 1614?

The other night on my way to class, I found myself behind a truck with one of Virginia’s many custom license plates. But this one’s tagline intrigued me: “Farming since 1614.” As the pickup and I crawled down Lee Highway, I started to wonder, “Why 1614?”–particularly in light of Jamestown’s founding seven years before.

As it turns out, the Commonwealth chose 1614 because that was the date Virginia colonists first exported tobacco across the Atlantic. Being that Virginia’s economy depended upon the export of tobacco throughout the colonial period, I suppose I could see that logic.

But it still begs the question. Surely the Jamestown colonists at least practiced some subsistence agriculture before that time? Indeed they did–but even if they hadn’t, where would they have gotten their food?

Oh yes. From the Powhatans. Where did the Powhatans get that food? They farmed.

And there I exposed my Eurocentric bias. Virginia has not only been farming since 1614. In fact, agriculture in the present-day state goes back at least four or five centuries further.

While I’m in favor of the cause the license plate fees support–the Virginia Office of Farmland Preservation–I’m not such a fan of the plate’s message. It promotes the idea that Europeans brought civilization, including advanced arts like agriculture, to this continent. More importantly, it perpetuates the myth that Native Americans were uncivilized and not making full use of the land–the same myth European colonists would tell themselves after walking through miles of cornfields.

The Commonwealth should not be perpetuating such myths through its license plates. Many more people will see that license plate than, say, this blog post (not that exceeding my numbers would be difficult), or works about Native American agriculture.

As such, the Commonwealth should teach a lesson, and in the process boost state pride. How about a new message: “Farming for 1000 years”?

3 Comments

  1. Maybe Europeans farming in Virginia since 1614

  2. David- good point!

  3. Isn’t it amazing that Commonwealth researchers could produce a rationalization for the date of 1614, but yet did not consider the value of the Three Sisters farming strategy (maize, beans, and squash)? Yet another example of why (the study of) history matters!

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