Petersburg and the Atlantic Economy

In 1784 John F. D. Smyth declared "The principle tobacco trade in America centers in Petersburg." 1

Officers of the Tobacco Trade Union, Petersburg, VA, 1899

Sixty miles west of Jamestown, Petersburg's English history began in 1645 with the establishment of Fort Henry to defend Virginia's western frontier. Situated on the Appomattox River and at the end of the Occaneechi Trail, a major trading path for Native American exchange, the area soon became southern Virginia's most important trading center, a point from which trade expanded south and west.  From about 1730 to the outbreak of the American Revolution, Petersburg, incorporated in 1748, was among the leading tobacco markets of the Atlantic world.  Thanks to the extension of credit from English and Scottish firms, "Petersburg was the most important point of tobacco shipping in Virginia immediately before and after the American Revolution and an important center for all trade with Southside Virginia and the north-central counties of North Carolina." 2 While Petersburg imported manufactures from Britain during the colonial period, it also developed as a center of manufacture in its own right.  Petersburg blacksmiths, wheelwrights, coach makers, soap and candle makers, tanners, saddle makers, coppersmiths, and shipbuilders produced supplies principally for consumers outside of Petersburg in Virginia and North Carolina.  Ships owned by Petersburg residents carried tobacco to England and returned with books, drugs, condiments, and other luxuries.  Petersburg served all of the American colonies as a primary center for milling. 3 Located at the head of the Appomattox River, Pocahontas Island, and its large African American comunity, was crucial to Petersburg's commercial development and trading activies.

In the early nineteenth century, manufacturing in Petersburg and around the nation, was stimulated by the economic disruptions of the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812.  The national economic expansion that followed the War of 1812 ended with the Panic of 1819.  While the banking collapse adversely affected Americans around the counrty, some of Petersburg's free black female residents appear to have capitalized on foreclosed property.  In 1819 and 1820 a surge of African American women entered Petersburg's tax roles; by 1820 two fifths of Petersburg's black landowners were women, several of whom acquired enslaved loved ones or laborers that year. 4

The national economy recovered around 1824 and by 1838 Petersburg was the site of an iron foundry as well as numerous cotton factories, flour mills, and tobacco factories.  By 1843 Petersrbug had established three additional cotton factories, a paper mill, and a woolen factory.  Tobacco was Petersburg's principal industry; yet, cotton milling complrised a large proportion of the city's economic output.  On a smaller scale, flour and iron were very significant industries as well.  Petersburg provided flour for markets as far away as California and Australia 5 , while her foundries supplied iron to the nation.  Still, "the rise of large industries [did not] eliminate the smaller ones" 6 in nineteeth century Petersburg.  Lumber, pottery, guns, paper, furniture, and soap remained important products that Petersburg provided for an Atlantic market.

P etersburg’s status as a center of industry stimulated its development as a center of transportation.  In the eighteenth century, the Appomattox River was the main artery of Petersburg’s trade.  In the early nineteenth century, while Petersburg’s original port was too shallow for the larger steam ships coming into use, Petersburg residents engaged in an Atlantic trade from the nearby deep-water port at City Point on the James River, thanks to river dredging as well as to the development of a railroad between Petersburg and City Point.  Vessels with Petersburg products reached markets in England, Holland, Germany, and France as well as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston. 7 The development of rail lines through Petersburg had a tremendous impact on Petersburg’s nineteenth century industrial growth, though they dealt a blow to the many of the black residents of Pocahontas Island who depended on a riverine economy. 8

The Petersburg-Roanoke Railroad established in 1831 was one of the first railroads in the United States. 9 The Petersburg Railroad Company connected Petersburg and Weldon, North Carolina in 1833, establishing Virginia’s first rail service to facilitate inter-regional trade.  Several additional railroad lines with Petersburg as its headquarters were built with the labor of enslaved African-Americans in the nineteenth century.  The growth of the railroad industry in Petersburg was also a testament to the city’s iron industry which employed free blacks and hired-out slaves: the majority of the cars for the Petersburg-Richmond railroad were built in Petersburg and the majority of the equipment for the Petersburg-Roanoke railroad was produced in Petersburg. 10 By the close of the antebellum period, Petersburg had southern, northern, western, and eastern rail connections. Once a strategic port city, nineteenth century Petersburg metamorphosed into a primary rail hub.

Petersburg’s economy flourished during the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s.  In addition to the development of manufacture and commercial transport, international events conspired to expand the global market for Petersburg’s agricultural products.  In the 1840s England’s repeal of the Corn Laws and the opening of West Indian markets stimulated Petersburg’s grain market. 11 While the use of snuff in Britain declined in 1830s, the Crimean War (1854-1856) introduced cigarettes to English, French, and Russian soldiers “ushering an extraordinary worldwide growth in tobacco consumption and creating one of the world’s largest industries.” 12

Skilled slave artisans were crucial to Petersburg’s economic development.  Preceeding the official incorporation of Petersburg in 1784, free and enslaved African Americans were very active in the area’s tobacco factories and waterways as well as independent artisans.  In the nineteenth century free and enslaved black laborers were crucial not only to Petersburg’s tobacco industry but also to all of the city’s principal and ancillary industries.  Industrial slavery created new kinds of labor and social relations as the demand for skilled slaves altered the balance of power and possibilities for material advancement that inhered in agricultural plantation.  While slave hiring was a part of American slavery from the colonial period, the economic incentives wrought by the forces of industrialization in the 1840s and 1850s ushered in a great demand for skilled slaves hired out as factory workers and artisans. 13

Diane Barnes' research shows antebellum Petersburg to be "one of the most industrialized cities of the upper South....a bustling modern city" that succeeded because of the skilled labor its enslaved residents. She examines "the relationships between Petersburg's skilled white, free black, and slave mechanics and the roles they played in southern Virginia's emerging market economy." She illustrates how "slave-owning mechanics, both white and black, gained wealth and status...[and] joined an emering middle class" in Petersburg while the contributions of enslaved mechanics undergirded the city's economic foundation. 14

1 Smyth, John F. D. A Tour of the United States Of America . London: G. Robinson, 1784, p. 64.

2 Price, Jacob M. Tobacco in Atlantic Trade: The Chesapeake, London, and Glasgow . Brookfield, VY: Variorum Ashgate Publishing, 1995, p. 26.

3 Wyatt, Edward A. "Rise of Industry in Ante-bellum Petersburg," William and Mary Quarterly Vol. 17 No. 1, 1937, p. 2.

4 Lebsock, Suzanne. "Free Black Women and the Question of Matriarchy: Petersburg, Virginia, 1784-1820." Feminist Studies , Vol. 8 No. 2, Women and Work (Summer) 1982, p. 282.

5 Wyatt. "Rise of Industry in Ante-bellum Petersburg," p. 30.

6 Wyatt. "Rise of Industry in Ante-bellum Petersburg," p. 3.

7 Wyatt, Edward A. and James G. Scott. Petersburg’s Story: A History . Petersburg, VA: Titmus Optical Company, 1960, p. 86.

8 Smith, James Wesley, et. al. The History and Legend of Pocahontas Island . Petersburg, VA: Plummer Printing Company. 1981.

9 Jackson, Luther Porter. Free Negro Labor and Property Holding in Virginia 1830-1860 . New York: D Appleton-Century Co., 1942. p. 38-39.

10 Jackson. p. 45.

11 Jackson. p. 40.

12 Walter Reed Army Medical Center:

13 Booth, Albert Nathaniel. Slave Hiring in Petersburg during the 1850s . M.A. thesis. Petersburg, VA: Virginia State University. 1998.

14 Barnes, Diane. Artisan Workers in the Upper South: Petersburg, Virginia, 1820-1865 . Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008.

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