“On the Beauty and Fertility of America”; chapter 14 of A Huguenot Exile in Virginia by Durand de Dauphiné (1687)


In “On the Beauty and Fertility of America,” chapter 14 of A Huguenot Exile in Virginia, Durand de Dauphiné describes the landscape and agriculture of Virginia, habits surrounding tobacco smoking, and the manner of house construction for both free and enslaved Virginians.


On the Beauty & Fertility of America

NORTH America is naturally a very beautiful country, & as for Virginia & Maryland, if you buy glance across the plains you will see them covered with lofty trees & lovely orchards of apples, pears, cherries, apricots, figs & peaches. Where there is no timber, there are fine pastures, or lands planted with tobacco, grain, vegetables, & all the necessaries of life. You will see the four great rivers meandering along, & from their tranquil, peaceful course be unable to discern from whence they rise, never overflowing, & never leaving the river-bed. Then if you look to the hills & low mountains, they will not offer you a hideous perspective, as do the mountains of Provence, Genoa & part of Tuscany & part of Spain, covered entirely with stones, rocks & sterile land bare of trees & vegetation, but deep woods, & where they have been cut or uprooted, good pastures & pleasant streams. However, as we poor refugees have greater need for utility than for delight, I shall dwell at greater length upon its fertility.

I have said that the soil in Virginia is very rich both for sowing & planting, but it is not equally good everywhere. In the province of Gloster Gloucester, where I stayed the longest, for it was there I had taken a room when we had landed, there is about a half a foot of black earth, in other places a foot, beneath which is sand. In those along the Germinie James river, & in southern Virginia, there is less of it, & consequently they yield less; but in that of Rappahannak, what I have seen of the county of Stafford, & particularly on the plantations of Monsieur Wormeley, it is more than a foot, & there are all kinds of soil, as in France, that is to say, heavy black earth, clays, others lighter mixed with small gravel, but black throughout. In the South I observed that the stems of their tobacco were thinner, the stalks of their Indian corn not as high & slenderer, from which I judged that the land was less fertile. They usually plant tobacco, Indian corn, wheat, peas or beans, barley, sweet potatoes, turnips, which grow to a monstrous size & are very good to eat. They make gardens as we do in Europe; hemp & flax grow very high, but as I have already said, they do not know how to prepare it or how to spin. Again the soil is so favorable for fruit-trees that I saw orchards planted, I was told, only ten years before, with larger & better grown trees than our twenty year old ones in Europe.

In the county of Gloucester wheat generally yields ten to one; Indian corn two hundred to one; the farmers reap only about a bushel of wheat each on their plantations for making pies, because of the great abundance of game & apples which make very good pies also. I asked why they did not grow more of it. They answered it yielded but ten to one, whereas Indian corn gave at least two hundred to one, & they were as healthy on this bread as they would be on that made of wheat. As for barley, they grow little of it, it yields eighteen to one; but they make so much cider, very different from Normandy cider, that if they knew how to manage, they would always have some left at the end of the year. In some places Indian corn yields as much as five hundred to one, which I could not have believed had I not seen it. Bread made of it is as white as paper & agreeable to the taste, but rather heavy on the stomach for those not used to it; nor can the dough be spread to make pies. To mix it they bring water to the over door & there reknead the dough; when baked it slices like the other kind. Most people grind it in handmills, sift it & use only the choicest for making bread; there remain grains like fine rice, which make an excellent but somewhat indigestible soup. With this soup they feed the slaves, & it costs very little maintain them, particularly the negroes, for in some places they are given bread & meat only on Christmas day. They do not know what it is to plough the land with cattle, but just make holes into which they drop the seeds, although it would be easy to till &, there being no stones, a single horse could be used to plough anywhere. Some possess a hundred cows or oxen & thirty horses for riding only, except on a few plantations too far from the sea & the rivers, where they are used to draw carts. Wood is so handy their slaves always carry it on their shoulders, & I would like to state & aver that were I settled there, provided I had two servants, a plough with two cows & another one with two horses, I could boast of accomplishing more work than anyone in the country with eight strong slaves.

So much timber have they that they build fences all around the land they cultivate. A man with fifty acres of ground, & others in proportion, will leave twenty-five wooded, & of the remaining twenty-five will cultivate half & keep the other as pasture & paddock for his cattle. Four years later, he transfers his fences to this untilled half which meanwhile has had a period of rest & fertilization, & every years they put seeds in the ground they till. They sow wheat at the end of October & beginning of November, & corn at the end of April. This is the best grain to harvest, because those needing to can commence using it for bread at the beginning of September & the harvest is not over until the end of November. They only plant about a bushel, as otherwise the field would be too large, for this bushel takes up a lot of ground; they put four seeds close together under a small mound & every four feet apart sow four more. This space is necessary for its growth, because it has big roots, stalks three inches thick & seven or eight feet long. They plant four together so they can hold each other up, against the wind. They also plant two beans of an excellent kind, close to the four grains of corn whose stalks will serve them as poles to climb along. They transplant their tobacco in May, & leave three feet between each plant. Large quantities of it are used in this country, besides what they sell. Everyone smokes while working & idling. I sometimes went to hear the sermon; their churches are in the woods, & when everyone has arrived the minster & all the others smoke before going in. the preaching over, they do the same thing before parting. They have seats for that purpose. It was here I saw that everybody smokes, men, women, girls & boys from the age of seven years.

In the counties of the Rappahannock & Estaford [Stafford], corn yields four or five hundred for one & wheat fifteen or sixteen. What makes me believe it, besides having been told so, is that I saw some not yet gathered which had two or three ears on each cane or stalk; elsewhere I saw but one on each. As to wheat at M. Wormeley’s plantations I saw the cows, horses & sheep grazing on it. It was Christmas-time when I was there, & I told him they would spoil it. The servants replied that they left the cattle there until the fifteenth of March, & unless they had it thinned they would gather only straw.

Some people in this country are comfortably housed; the farmers’ houses are built entirely of wood, the roofs being made of small boards of chestnut, as are also the walls. Those who have some means, cover them inside with a coating of mortar in which they use oyster-shells for lime; it is as white as snow, so that although they look ugly from the outside, where only the wood can be seen, they are very pleasant inside, with convenient windows & openings. They have started making bricks in quantities, & I have seen several houses where the walls were entirely made of them. Whatever their rank, & I know now why, they build only two rooms with some closets on the ground floor, & two rooms in the attic above; but they build several like this, according to their means. They build also a separate kitchen, a separate house for the Christian slaves, one for the negro slaves, & several to dry the tobacco, so that when you come to the home of a person of some means, you think you are entering a fairly large village. There are no stables because they never lock up their cattle. Indeed few of the houses have a lock, for nothing is ever stolen. One can go two hundred leagues with a hatful of pistols without fear of having a single one stolen. When the women do the washing, if the clothes are not dry the same day, they leave them as long as three days & three nights outside. Robbery is so severely punished that were a man convicted of having stolen a hen, he would be hanged. In the same way all their cattle stay in the woods at night & they fear no thieves but wolves, against which they have faithful dogs; then too, if anyone kills a wolf the State gives him a barrel of tobacco, so for that reason they are very much sought for.

My host had only two young man-servants, no maid; he had bought one of those shameless hussies who came over at the time I did, & she had been ill ever since from work. He gathered ten bushels of wheat, two hundred of corn, having sown a bushel of each; fifteen bushels of beans, a quantity of sweet potatoes, perhaps fifty bushels of turnips had they been measured, & twelve hogsheads of tobacco making seventy-five hundredweight, which I saw him sell for eleven écus a barrel, & it had never been so cheap. A hogshead is 500 pounds.

APA Citation:
de Dauphine, Durand. “On the Beauty and Fertility of America”; chapter 14 of A Huguenot Exile in Virginia by Durand de Dauphiné (1687). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia.
MLA Citation:
de Dauphine, Durand. "“On the Beauty and Fertility of America”; chapter 14 of A Huguenot Exile in Virginia by Durand de Dauphiné (1687)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 19 May. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.