Eastern Shore sweet potatoes take New York by storm.
Illustration by Gary Hovland
In the fall of 1827, 13-year-old John W.A. Elliott was one of only two passengers aboard the schooner Providence as it set sail from the Eastern Shore with a unique cargo bound for market at New York City: 200 barrels of sweet potatoes. Elliott’s first-person account ran in Accomac’s Peninsula Enterprise 64 years later under the byline “Septuagenarian.” The “sweets,” reckoned Elliott, had been grown by probably 100 farmers on the Shore. Testing the waters in New York was a “dubious venture” for the tuber of a plant native to Central or South America that here had caught on mainly in the South, but Capt. Lewis Mathews and his crew of five were optimistic. Mathews was “freighted with at least a hundred memoranda” from growers authorizing him to “invest” the proceeds in necessities like flour, cheese, and shoes, “even dress goods,” but also on “numerous notions conjured up by the fancy of the females of many households.”
What a trip for the young Elliott, who admitted that the happenings on that voyage clung to his memory “as distinctly as those of any enterprise” of his life. The bustle on deck to prepare for the “encounter with the high seas” impressed the lad. Then a sail down the Chesapeake Bay and around the tip of the Shore and they were Chincoteague-bound on “favoring breezes.”
But things got more interesting as “snow squalls and heavy seas” soon sent them to harbor near Chincoteague, a Chincoteague whose “great oyster industry” and handsome town (of 1891) were not yet even a dream, where “the character and appearance of its inhabitants were as primitive and crude as their island cabins.” After a day, they returned to the “vasty deep,” he wrote, invoking Henry IV, Part I, but there was no further incident.
A smattering of sweet potatoes from the Carolinas had been sold in New York before, but a whole cargo of them from Virginia? That “stirred the market with no little excitement”! The deck of the Providence was soon abuzz, and Mathews was “pressed with many curious inquirers.” Individually, potatoes went for a shilling, about 24 cents, British coins still in good supply in this youngster of a country.
Mathews took a sampling of the tubers to H.P. Havens, the only New York merchant “known to the E. Shore”: “Two hundred barrels?” Havens replied. “The people here do not know what to do with sweet potatoes!” But ads were taken out, clerks sent to visit grocers, and the tubers sold in a couple of weeks for $2 to $2.50 a barrel. They also arrayed sweets on the deck of the Providence and sold them one or two at a time, in a “brisk retail trade.” The captain was able to fill the orders in his “memoranda,” and “many a larder was stored for the coming winter, many a long-felt domestic want supplied, and the heart of many an anxious belle gladdened by our coming.”
How did a 13-year-old boy come to be aboard this vessel with the risk of not-so-smooth sailing either to or in NYC? The other passenger was Thomas Bull Jr., Elliott’s 13-year-old pal. Bull Sr. was one of the owners of the Providence. Plus, the boys had a commodity of their own for the Manhattan market: shelled and dried black walnuts, a delicacy indeed, and these likewise sold out.
The Eastern Shore remained a key producer of the sweet potato well into the 20th century, and the New York connection endured too. In 1961 the Yankee Clipper, Joe DiMaggio himself, voyaged south for the cause. Joe was guest of honor in Onancock, where he crowned the winner of the Queen Mar-Va-Gold Sweet Potato contest, designed to put a pleasing face to the not-too-photogenic crop. Big Apple? Sweet Potatoes!