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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Difficult Lives


The Bondservants' Bargain
Hard Evidence of Heavy Toil
Proof of

Pleasure of a Pipe

The colonists were under daily physical stress. Except for the wealthy, the lives of settleres — men, women, and children — consisted of continual hard work. And, they did almost all of it — from clearing land for fields and gardens, to building houses and barns, to growing tobacco and corn — by hand, with very little labor-saving equipment and few draft horses or oxen.


Historical re-enactors demonstrating the back-breaking labor that left marks on the colonists' bones. 
Historical re-enactors demonstrating the back-breaking labor that left marks on the colonists' bones.  Image courtesy: Smithsonian Institution

A lifetime
of lifting and
bending leaves skeletal markers. Bones grow denser and change at the muscle and tendon attachment sites. Generally, it is not possible to pinpoint exactly which task caused a particular bone marker. The basic movement and degree of labor is evident, however. For example, bone development in the shoulders and arms shows repeated, rigorous use — but it cannot tell us whether the person was hoeing tobacco, chopping wood, or grinding corn.

17th-Century Chores:
Back Breakers and Upper Body Builders

  1. Wielding Axes - Even though the colonists adopted the American Indians' slash and burn farming, men still had to girdle and fell trees to clear land for fields and to cut firewood.
  2. Splitting wood - Colonists drove a metal wedge into large logs and pounded the wedge with a heavy maul to split them and make clapboards, fence poles, and split-rail fences.
  3. Hoeing and Weeding - Lower back strain was constant in hoeing soil to make hills for planting corn and tobacco, or weeding between the hills until the corn or tobacco grew tall enough to shade out weeds. With a wood shaft, an iron hilling hoe weighed 3 to 4 pounds; a weeding hoe was heavier.
  4. Toting Wood and Water - Carts or wagons were impractical in wooded settings. The colonists carried tons of fence rails, firewood, and buckets of water where needed.
  5. Pounding Corn - One of the hardest plantation jobs was daily grinding corn into meal for food. Colonists placed corn kernels in wood mortars and dropped heavy metal pestles onto them. A daily ration for an adult was about 5 cups, which required about 10 minutes of pounding per cup.

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