Work and Commerce

Farming & Milling

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Of all the crops grown on New York farms, wheat was by far the most valuable. When the colony’s beaver fur trade dropped steeply in the 1670s, the merchant community looked for new sources of income. West Indian requests for grain shipments were steadily increasing. Sugar plantations were focused on growing sugar for extremely profitable export, not for domestic use, and plantation owners did not want to devote valuable land to producing food for their own population. In particular, feeding the huge numbers of enslaved Africans who labored in the brutal conditions of sugar production was a problem.

To meet the growing demand, Long Island farmers turned more acreage into wheat production. By this time, wheat flour and bread were beginning to leave the colony at such a high rate,

“… that the government feared there would not be enough to feed the inhabitants, and a ban on such exports was in effect for a year, over the strong protests of Long Island farmers and New York City traders.” [1]

During this period, New York colonial Governor Thomas Dongan (Governor from 1683-1688), began to address the underpopulation of the colony and its shifting economy. His plan to grant large tracts of land to individuals and put the burden of populating them onto the owners opened the way for continued economic success. Several leading merchant traders quickly adopted Dongan’s plan, turning woodland into profitable wheat fields, and beginning the Manor system. They were so successful that by 1684 the New York City magistrates contended,

“the manufacture of flour and bread…hath been and is the chief support of the trade and traffic to and from this city and maintenance of its inhabitants in all degrees.” In 1686, wheat had become so important to the local economy that New York added the flour barrel to the official seal of the province. [2]
Seal of the City of New York, featuring a Dutch-style windmill and barrels of flour, in addition to beavers.

Cooks and commercial bakers of the period used wheat flour to produce more than just bread. The Dutch had brought with them a tradition of pancakes, waffles, oliebollen ("oil balls," a precursor to the modern donut), and many other everyday and special occasion items made from wheat. English tastes also demanded wheat flour for pastry, pies, tarts, boiled puddings, cakes, and "small cakes"—now known as cookies—all of which were consumed daily in many households. Ships moved flour to the West Indies and brought sugar back to New York. Merchant ships carried spices, flavorings like rose and orange flower waters, dried fruit, and nuts from the Middle East and India, to enhance these treats. In the West Indies and Caribbean, the wheat flour of New York was used to produce bread to feed not just the Europeans but also the thousands of Africans bound to the sugar plantations.

New York’s environment was conducive to grain production and milling. Throughout the colony, fast moving streams and rivers powered the gristmills.  Mill stones were often imported from Europe. Enslaved men learned specialized skills to dress the stones—or prepare them for use—and maintain the mills.

New York’s rich forests fed the call for lumber, and sawmills also cropped up along the waterways. Also frequently tended by enslaved men, the lumber mills provided building materials and the staves for barrels used in shipping.

Frederick Philipse was one of the first manor lords in New York to capitalize on the wheat trade. His tenant agreements required residents to both grow wheat and use one of the Philipses' two mills. These mills were large commercial operations. The Lower Mills, located on the Nepperhan, or Saw Mill, River, had three sets of stones, while the Upper Mills on the Pocantico had two. At the Upper Mills, at the height of the season, 30,000 pounds of flour was produced weekly.

Both the Lower and Upper Mill complexes also had bakehouses. Ship's biscuits, later known as hard tack, were produced both for trade and as bread for Philipse’s vessels. A mixture of flour and water, ship's biscuits resembled fat crackers rather than a yeast risen soft bread. They could last for years and were used on ships of all sorts.

The vertical integration of the Philipses' trade - their tenant farmers paid rent in wheat, it was ground in Philipse-owned mills, sent on Philipse-owned ships, and traded to Caribbean sugar plantations, including one Philipse-owned plantation in Barbados - helped make the Philipse family the wealthiest in New York.

During the Revolutionary War, wheat played a role in strategy. Farms and armies alike often burned wheat fields to limit the food supply of the enemy.

Following the war, generations of over-farming had left the soil poor and lowered production levels. Information on soil augmentation with manure or fish to improve nutrient values spread slowly. Wheat farming continued in the Hudson River Valley, but over time, the breadbasket of the colonies shifted from New York and Pennsylvania to regions further west.

Remnants of the heyday of wheat farming and milling can be found throughout Long Island and the Hudson River Valley. In gardens, sidewalks, and standing alone one can fine mill stones used as decorative accents. The foundations of many historic mills can still be seen on the shores of streams and rivers throughout the state. There are few historic working mills, but the Philipsburg Manor Upper Mills still offers visitors an opportunity to see the waterwheel turning and to witness the process that was so common two centuries ago.


[1] Kim, Sung Bok. Landlord and Tenant in Colonial New York: Manorial Society, 1664-1775, Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Va., by the University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1987, p. 27

[2] Ibid, p. 28

Further Reading:

Stoll, Stephen. Larding the Lean Earth: Soil and Society in Nineteenth Century America, New York: Hill and Wang (2003).