Recently the Illinois State Archaeological Survey excavated the site of a small, short-term farmstead in rural Morgan County dating to the 1830s and 1840s. Found in an abandoned well was a rare intact plowshare made of hand-forged iron by an unknown blacksmith.
Although fragments of plows are sometimes recovered archaeologically (but rarely identified as such due to their rather anonymous appearance), the intact plowshare from the Orberate site is a unique contribution to the archaeological literature of Illinois. The artifact is also an early one, manufactured well before the occupation of the site and brought to the farm from elsewhere. The plow is of an early design—dating to the eighteenth or very early 19th century—and predating John Deere’s historic design by at least 20 years.
The effect of John Deere’s 1837 revolutionary patent of the steel plow on the expansion of prairie soil agriculture is well known in Illinois. But of course, Deere’s was not the first steel plow to cultivate Midwestern soil. Indeed, the history of the modern plow begins before the turn of the nineteenth century (e.g. McClelland 1997; Miller 2000).
The function of a plow is to cut through the turf and to turn the soil below in order to loosen it for planting and also to push surface vegetation downward to provide nutrients for crops. This can be accomplished by several processes. One is to cut the soil horizontally, deep enough to sever the root system of active vegetation. Another is to cut the sod in a vertical plane that enables the turning of a “furrow” (or a long row of turned earth). Finally, the soil can be turned in such a way as to push surface vegetation to the bottom of the furrow.
A plowshare is used to cut the turf, and a “moldboard” then turns that loosened soil. Early moldboards were made entirely of wood and mounted behind a “share” that cut the soil before it was turned by the plow. A disadvantage to the wooden moldboard was that soil tended to stick to its surface, necessitating regular cleaning during the process. Wooden plows also were less effective in turning the soil and breaking up clods. This sometimes required a field to be plowed twice: first in one direction, then again at a 90-degree angle, to better break up the soil.
Early designs such as those made by Charles Newbold (1797) and Jethro Wood (1819) represented new, iron versions of the ancient implement. These plows were more effective in cutting turf and turning soil. They were sharper, more durable, and did not require constant cleaning during plowing. Prior to circa 1800, few patents were awarded for new plow designs. Between 1797 and 1814 only 13 patents were filed, and more than half of these were after 1812.
Steel appeared on plows in the 1830s, when blacksmiths began fastening strips of steel to the wooden moldboards (Kendall 1959). For example, in 1833 John Lane (of Lockport, Illinois) not only fastened strips of steel to the moldboard but also to the edge of the share. By 1839, the number of patents for new plows had increased to 124. John Deere patented his famous plow in 1837, but his factory did not achieve large-scale production until the late 1840s. Deere’s early plows were first made from discarded circular saw blades cut into strips, which were attached to a polished wrought iron moldboard (Kendall 1959). These plows were designed with a curvature that turned the soil efficiently, and a highly polished surface that did not allow the sticky prairie soil to cling to its surface.
The majority of the farming in Illinois prior to 1850, however, likely employed wooden moldboard plows. The mass production of the Deere plow was slow to start. His shop made one plow in 1837, two in 1838 and 10 in 1839. In 1840 he produced 40, in 1841 74, in 1842 100, and in 1843 400 (Drache 2000). This increased after Deere relocated from Grand Detour, Illinois, to a larger facility in Moline, wherein in 1848 he produced 700 plows. The true mass production of all-steel plowshares likely appeared only after the introduction of the “Bessemer Process” in 1856, which could produce large amounts of steel cheaply.
Considering their fundamental importance in the lives of Illinois farmers it is important to note that archaeological evidence of these implements is rarely recovered (or recognized) at the sites of their former farmsteads. The reason for this is simple—steel plows were durable, valuable, and could be repaired.
The plowshare from the Orberate site is a form of the “Carey” plow, although it is also known as the “Dagon,” “Connecticut,” and “Enfield” plow (McClelland 1997). It was in common use by 1800. None of the wooden elements of this specimen have, of course, survived in the ground.
The Illinois State Museum has in its collection a complete wooden plow with an iron plowshare that closely resembles the plowshare from the Orberate site. It was brought to LaSalle County, Illinois from Connecticut in 1834. That example has the same pyramidal shape, and its moldboard has only a slight curve in its wooden surface -reflecting the problematic nature of this early design.
The early 19th century was a turning point in the development and modernization of farm equipment. Deere’s design was indeed revolutionary, but its production and adoption by area farmers took time. Effective marketing may be the reason for John Deere’s success over other contemporary manufacturers. Meanwhile, earlier designs, such as the example from the Orberate site, represent the range of earlier less efficient designs that had been manufactured and adapted since the 18th century by local blacksmiths. The specimen is singular in the archaeological collections of Illinois and reflects a pre-industrial technology and agricultural folkway that had largely disappeared by the Civil War.
- Drache, Hiram M. 2001 The Impact of John Deere’s Plow. Illinois History Teacher 8(1):2-13.
- Kendall, Edward. 1959 John Deere’s Steel Plow. Contributions from The Museum of History and Technology 2:15-25. Smithsonian Institution. Washington, D.C.
- McClelland, Peter D. 1997 Sowing Modernity: America’s First Agricultural Revolution. Cornell University Press. Ithaca, New York.
- Miller, Lynn R. 2000 Horse drawn Plows and Plowing. Small Farmers Journal Inc. Sisters, Oregon.