November 12, 2001
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v2.1 Reference

In Old Virginia

Slavery, Farming, and Society in the Journal of John Walker

In 1824, John Walker purchased a 500-acre farm in King and Queen County, Virginia, and began working it with a dozen slaves. The son of a local politician and planter who grew tobacco, Walker lost status when he became a devout Methodist, raised wheat, and treated his slaves like brothers and sisters. He also kept a detailed and fascinating journal.

Drawing on this forty-three-year chronicle, Claudia L. Bushman provides a richly illuminating study, a microhistory that is rewarding to read. Walker sets aside most of the "Old South planter" stereotype. He sold wheat in Baltimore and Norfolk and invested in railroad stock, and yet he grew, spun, and wove cotton for clothing, tanned leather, and made shoes. He avoided lavish creature comforts in favor of purchasing the latest farm equipment. So far from losing out to soil exhaustion, he experimented with improved farming methods, nourished his land, and kept his yields high.

Walker's journal describes the legal cases he tenaciously pursued, records devotion to the local Methodist church, and explains his practice of Thomsonian medicine on slaves and family members alike. He provides insight into women's work and lays out the drama of blacks and whites living in close intimacy and constant fear. Walker humbly referred to himself as "a poor illiterate worm," but his diary dramatically captures the life of a small planter in antebellum Virginia.

About the Author

Claudia L. Bushman teaches history and American studies at Columbia University. She is the author and editor of seven books, including Mormon Sisters: Women in Early Utah; America Discovers Columbus: How an Italian Explorer Became an American Hero; and "A Good Poor Man's Wife," Being a Chronicle of Harriet Hanson Robinson and Her Family in Nineteenth-Century New England.


Claudia L. Bushman tells Walker's life story with verve and sympathy, tempered by evident distaste for the arbitrary power of the patriarch-slaveholder. Perhaps the author's most impressive accomplishment is reducing the journal entries of over forty years to a balanced and lucid account of Walker's life.

- Robert McColley - American Historical Review

This very readable book will surely become a 'must read' in agricultural history surveys both for the information it conveys and the questions it raises.

- Connie L. Lester - Agricultural History

In Old Virginia is microhistory at its best—illuminating, relevant, and highly readable. Bushman paints a vivid portrait of agrarian life in the Old South... [Her] monograph deserves a wide and attentive audience.

- Michael R. McCarthy - History

Bushman skillfully mines this rich vein of material to uncover a vivid portrait of antebellum farm life.

- Choice

A valuable edition on agricultural practices; at the same time, it explores aspects of rural culture that have not been the subject of sufficient study... Claudia Bushman meticulously teases out a great deal about the roles of slaves and women, ideas about health, agricultural innovation, and community structure.

- Ellen Eslinger - Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Readers will appreciate and enjoy Bushman's ingenuity and skill in crafting her study of antebellum Virginia. By comparing Walker's life and circumstances with those of his family, neighbors, and others, the author reveals important and ever-evolving social changes in southern society.

- Jeremy Boggs - North Carolina Historical Review

Bushman's detailed summaries of Walker's journal are filled with revealing details of day-to-day life in this small corner of rural Virginia.

- John T. Schlotterbeck - Journal of the Early Republic

A close and careful analysis... Walker's diary is an invaluable source for understanding the culture of antebellum Virginia and how one of the region's large grain growers adjusted to rising and falling crop prices, personal and family crises, and the Civil War... A uniquely lay-centered interpretation of the [Methodist] movement.

- John Fea - Religious Studies Review

Gives us a sense of both an earnest, if only moderately successful, small planter in antebellum Virginia and a region in the midst of relative decline.

- Peter A. Coclanis - Journal of American History

A compelling story.

- G. Terry Sharrer - Journal of Southern History


I found this book full of fascinating family and community history... Her research seemed quite thorough.

- Sarah L. Walker, King & Queen Historical Society

Drawing on the extraordinary collection of Walker's manuscript farm journals, this book imparts a strong sense of what life was like for this farmer and his family. Topics include husbandry, weather, local politics, work, domestic economy, religion and community, relations with neighbors and slaves, health and medical practices, and the property and land-use history of individual farms. Bushman's scholarship is sound and her writing is clear. Rich in charming detail, In Old Virginia will be a valuable resource for social historians of slavery and rural society.

- David F. Allmendinger, Jr., University of Delaware
Johns Hopkins University Press
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9780801867255 : in-old-virginia-bushman
336 Pages
$54.00 USD

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