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7 From hinterlands to coffee production

São Paulo do Muriahé in the long 19th century

Vitória Schettini


The aim of this work is, first, to assess the occupation of the Minas Gerais eastern hinterlands (the sertões)[1], more precisely the central region, throughout the 19th century. Second, it seeks to understand the São Paulo do Muriahé parish, emphasizing its economic development between 1848 and 1888. The main objective is to approach the occupation of this territory and demonstrate how the villages, and later the cities, followed a logic rooted in the abundance of land, the workforce, and food production, especially coffee.[2] The analysis will be based on post-mortem inventories, and parish, notarial and census documents.

The Zona da Mata region in Minas Gerais was more effectively occupied by white people after the reduction of gold exploitation and the governmental incentive to extend the frontiers beyond mining. For over a century, its vegetation would remain almost untouched, despite the forests being the path for traders who circulated from São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to the interior of Minas Gerais in search of gemstones and precious metals. For this reason, the eastern hinterlands of the Zona da Mata Mineira were effectively occupied at the end of the 18th century. Before this period, there was a political blockage imposed by the Crown, aiming not to expand the areas beyond mining to strengthen surveillance and metal smuggling. These constraints and the natural difficulties led the Zona da Mata to a late development, in comparison with other mining areas (Lanna, 1986, p. 82). However, we know that, much earlier than previously thought, there were already residents dedicated to agricultural activities, especially in areas bordering the mining region, near the valleys of the Piranga and Pomba rivers (Carneiro, 2013, p. 228).

From this moment on, the natives who lived in the region joined other groups. Paths were opened, farms were conquered, and ranches were built. Gradually, trading activities gained body and shape until becoming smooth around the middle of 19th century; this, however, could vary between parishes, as this dynamism is directly linked to the logic of occupation (Freire & Andrade, 2019). Initially, the crops of maize, beans and sugarcane took some proportion, but coffee would eventually stand out as a reference product, granting the region the title of largest producer of rubiaceous in the Province at the end of the century (Orlando, 2020; Pires, 1993), as well as the largest in number of slaves (Martins, 2018; Libby, 1988).

According to Patrício Carneiro (2008, pp. 65-153), some ideas obscure the understanding of the processes of Mata’s occupation and formation, even into the colonial period. The first of them is linked to the period before the discovery of gold, as the East was an unstable, conflicting space with variable rushes of grubbing up and territorial occupation. The second view is explained by Mata’s geographical location, as it is situated on the edge of the mining region, transforming it into a transit and frontier area mainly characterized by population mobility. The third factor revolves around the end of the occupation of the Mata space, as determined by the colonial administration to inhibit the advance of smuggling, an action which turned to be unsuccessful. This area had been occupied gradually throughout the golden phase of mining and, with greater intensity, during and after the crisis of the extraction activity. In the latter period, the land’s soil, topographical and vegetation characteristics constituted, along with its open frontier condition and cheap workforce, the main stimulus to the violation.

Patrício Carneiro (2008, p.234) divides this process of the Mata’s grubbing up and occupation into three periods. The first, between 1694 and 1750, comprised two moments: the beginning, marked by the bandeirantes who patrolled the area since the 16th century with the aim to capture indigenous people, and who discovered gold there at the end of 17th century; a second moment comprising the first half of the 18th century, defined by the displacement of the population to the bordering areas (eastern edge of the parishes of Itaverava, Guarapiranga and Caminho Novo). The second period, which lasted between 1750 and 1813, saw the migration of inhabitants from the old zone of Minas (Termos de Mariana, São José Del Rey and São João Del Rey – parishes of Barra Longa, Sumidouro, Furquim, Guarapiranga, Caminho Novo, Itaverava, Borda do Campo, Cidade de Mariana, etc.) to the open frontiers of the valleys of Pomba, Doce rivers and Serra da Mantiqueira. The third period, which developed from 1813 onwards, featured the migration of large landowners, slaves and gold dates from the Ouro Preto, Barbacena and São João Del Rey to the Paraíba valley. Its main consequence was the formation of a new agro-exporting agrarian core in the south of Mata, arising from coffee activity. It is precisely this last phase which interests us in this article.

As a consequence of this logic, between the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, the territorial control in the eastern Mata area was intersected by the disputes between the settlers who expanded the agricultural, cattle breeding and mining activities, and the Indians who tried to defend their land possessions. One of the measures taken by the metropolis to solve this clash was establishing villages, prisons, and military divisions. In this case, there were proposals to intervene the space through the catechization and civilization of the forest dwellers, constituting one of the main strategies to dominate the groups considered undesirable (Chysóstomo & Santos, 2016).

This political attempt to civilize the indigenous contributed to gradually integrating the forest of central Minas Gerais with the northern Fluminense and other nearby settlements, presenting an open frontier site until the middle of 19th century. However, we should note that the formation of the Mata space was marked by heterogeneity in its general configuration, derived from the territorial occupation process and directly linked to the categories of colonizing agents, the implemented economic activities, the land use systems, the property regimes, and the evolution of the means of transportation (Carneiro, 2008, pp. 31-64). These factors are fundamental to understand that, at each moment of occupation, there were various economic and social profiles in its intra-regional cut.

1. Occupation and population growth at Zona da Mata Central

Elsa de Souza (1951), using the 1940 census, divided the Zona da Mata Mineira into three sub-regions: the Northern sub-region, composed of the municipalities situated on the right and left banks of the Doce river; the Southern sub-region composed of the valleys of the Paraíba do Sul River and its tributaries, the Preto and Paraibuna rivers; and the Central sub-region, composed of the valley of the Pomba river, the municipalities ranging from the left bank of the Pomba River to the upper valley of the Doce River, and from there eastwards to the limit with the province of Espírito Santo.

Based on this distinction, Ângelo Carrara (1999, p. 13) points out that the average property area in the north of the Zona da Mata was less than 60 hectares (148 acres), of which 40% was destined to agriculture, with the exploitation of wood for firewood and charcoal for the steel industry also occupying an important place. Around 60% of its territories were occupied by rural properties and 30% by virgin forests. This region comprised an authentic frontier zone, where half of the area had farms and ranches that shared landholding structures with the north of Espírito Santo.

Regarding the Zona da Mata’s south, Carrara (1999, p. 13) points to less divided properties in comparison with the north. Its average property area was over 79 hectares (195 acres), with less than 34 inhabitants per km2. This area included the municipalities of Recreio, Leopoldina, Volta Grande, Além-Paraíba, Mar de Espanha, São João Nepomuceno, Rio Novo, Bicas, Matias Barbosa, Juiz de Fora, and Santos Dumont. He also notes that more than two-thirds of these municipalities were occupied by pastures.

According to Carrara (1999, pp. 13-16), the Central Zona da Mata was the core of the largest concentration of indigenous population. The municipalities that comprised this sub-region (Ervália, Guiricema, Visconde do Rio Branco, Senador Firmino, Ubá, the northern part of Rio Pomba, Mercês, Rio Espera, Viçosa, and Teixeiras) had more than 40% of its usable area occupied by farming, with an average of 34 inhabitants per km2, the highest of the entire region. Its average property area was generally less than 35 hectares (86 acres).

My analysis will be focused on this sub-region, more precisely on the São Paulo do Muriahé parish, the territory illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1 – Location of the municipality of Muriaé – MG ***

Sources: Image produced using the free software QGIS version 3.10, from the Municipal Cartographic Base (IBGE, 2016-2017). QGIS Development Team. QGIS Geographic Information System. Open-Source Geospatial Foundation Project. 2020. Available in: <http://qgis.osgeo.org> Acessed on: Jan 20, 2020; Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (IBGE). Cartographic Base of Brazil, 2016, Available in: https://www.ibge.gov.br/geociencias/organizacao-do-territorio/malhas-territoriais/15774-malhas.html?=&t=downloads Acessed on: Jan 20, 2020.

The parish is located on the left bank of the Pomba River and is precisely surrounded by the Muriaé and Glória rivers, tributaries of the Paraíba do Sul River. Between these water courses, there were several paths, farms and inns, which led to the population of the province’s eastern region (Mercadante, 1973). This settlement in the hinterland had the Caminho Novo as its main entrance. This path was responsible for a greater circulation of trade between parishes belonging to Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais and allowed the presence of new explorers. According to Carrara (1999, p. 10 and 22), at the beginning of the 19th century, land occupation and access to land in the Central Zona da Mata comprehended two distinct areas. The first was constituted by the indigenous villages of Presídio, Guido-Wal and Manoelburgo, as well as the nuclei of the present municipalities of Visconde do Rio Branco, Guidoval and Muriaé; the second, where indigenous presence was relatively smaller, was located along the riverside of the Ubá River, between the three villages and the old village of Rio Pomba, founded in 1768.

As the spaces became gradually occupied and agriculture developed, there was a growing need to explore and cut down the forests, whether for building houses or ships, land transport, work tools, river navigation, among other purposes. These actions created some clearings in the middle of the forest.[3] Gradually, the potential of the hinterland’s natural resources gave a more objective sense to the notion of wealth. The obtention of hardwoods, flowers, dyeing products, medicinal plants, furs, birds, capuchin monkeys, and the exploitation of “less precious” minerals, such as iron, copper, manganese, etc., became the aim of these explorations (Espíndola, 2005, p. 84).

Cunha (2002, p. 2) helps us to understand the dynamics of redefinition of the mining spaces against the background of the final cooling of the mining economy, proposing a new regional delineation that explains the geographical redesign of Minas Gerais by virtue of the centrifugal effect. Cunha states that:

The population growth in other areas was a gradual process, but which, already in the second half of the 18th century, marked the development of many other areas beyond the mining core, as evidenced by the increase in the number of settlements and the creation of several new parishes in different parts of the territory (Cunha, 2002, p. 11).

The impact on Vila Rica is clearly seen in the continuous population losses in the old mining nuclei and introduces a specific characterization of mining. Together with this migration, the sub-regionalization of the territory —which can be based on the idea of urban and rural— emerges to understand that gold not only articulated geographical distribution but also redefined the mining space. Rodarte (1999) also affirms that, in the last quarter of 18th century, it is possible to envisage the importance of the old mining core in the network of cities. For the author:

[…] the change in the network of cities of Minas Gerais in the analyzed period, which occurred with the displacement of hierarchically superior centers to the southern portions of Minas, is in agreement with the economic historiography. These cities, which emerged as major centers in the 1870s, flourished with the new economic opportunities created by the coffee economy in the Zona da Mata, Vale do Paraíba, and in São Paulo (Rodarte, 1999, p. 91).

From this perspective, we must understand that the localities that began to emerge followed an internal logic, that is, the return to the agrarian world and the search for new frontiers. The cities, however, did not cease to be a reference point for this growth; the occupational dynamics in the east of the Zona da Mata emerged from the urban influence, as the political and legal support continued to remain in the pole-cities. Thus, the new villages did not cut the umbilical cord that tied them to the more developed centers.

According to the 1872 census, São Paulo do Muriahé comprised a wide territory, with a total of 11 (eleven) districts: São Paulo do Muriahé (headquarters), Nossa Senhora das Dores da Vitória, Nossa Senhora da Glória, São Francisco do Glória, Santa Luzia do Carangola, Nossa Senhora da Conceição dos Tombos do Carangola, Divino do Espírito Santo, São Sebastião da Cachoeira Alegre, São Francisco de Assis da Capivara, São Francisco de Paula da Boa Família, and São Sebastião da Mata[4] (Andrade, 1995, p. 155).

Obviously, the area occupied by São Paulo do Muriahé, in 1872, was not equal to the current municipalities, as its district territories became subdivided into several other cities. Besides the 11 districts mentioned, we can enumerate some later fragmentations: Fervedouro, Miradouro (Santa Rita do Glória), Vieiras, Barão do Monte Alto, Eugenópolis, Antonio Prado de Minas, Pedra Dourada, Espera Feliz, Caiana, Caparaó, Faria Lemos and Patrocínio do Muriaé (Costa, 1970).

This panorama marked by Muriaé’s great territorial extension, in 1872, is presented in the Figure 2. In the illustration, the municipality of Miraí is not eliminated, since at that time it was incorporated in the district of Dores da Vitória. The image also indicates, in different shades, the cities of Palma and Caparaó. However, it should be clarified that neither city belongs now to the micro-region of Muriaé, but to Cataguases and Manhuaçu, respectively.

Figure 2 – Mesoregion of Zona da Mata of Minas Gerais. São Paulo do Muriahé, 1872

Source: IBGE 2022 e Census 1872.[5]

Entering this space denominated Mata Mineira led to new geographical, political, social and economic contours. Gradually, as the landscape changes, trade becomes more object-oriented, tracing a new configuration of the villages. The great majority of the new settlements were installed around a church and near the river. Their inhabitants’ everyday life for was transformed by the availability of dry and wet markets, public services, the centralization of power, and an increased circulation of people. Some houses began to be built in rows, taking an unprecedented feature that granted the characteristic “spontaneity” and “organicity” of most mining cities (Fonseca, 2000, p. 98). At the same time, there were various initiatives to confer greater regularity to the streets and buildings, mainly linked to topographical characterization and the receptivity of the population.

Land appropriation for subsistence, which was the initial aim for the region, yielded a surplus that led to producing coffee for export. This dynamic was stimulated by the construction of railways and the presence of slaves. However, the flow of these products was difficult at first, as there were no roads to transport the surplus. One of the solutions found were donkey droves. According to Paulo Mercadante (1973, p. 62), Mata would send droves of donkeys with sugar, tobacco, bacon, and maize, and receive in turn other products from Corte and Recôncavo da Guanabara, such as weapons, ammunition, boots and tools, thus defining an initial economic flow (Andrade, 1995).

Given this exchange of people and goods, we can see that the slave workforce was essential for the occupation and settlement of the sub-regions of Zona da Mata (Martins, 2018; Carrara, 1999; Libby, 1988). At the time of the 1872 census, Mata – whose area corresponded to about 5% of the territory of Minas Gerais – held 16.57% of the total population and 24.39% of the slave population of the Province (Freire, 2009, p.25). However, the size of the slave population within each parish was quite uneven, according to the diffusion of production: the farther away from the area of coffee monoculture, the lower the proportion of slaves in the plantations. Out of a total of 157,909 inhabitants in the southern Zona da Mata South (comprising the municipalities of Rio Preto, Juiz de Fora, Rio Novo, Mar de Espanha, and Leopoldina), 55,584 (35.20%) were slaves. In the central Zona da Mata Central (Viçosa, Muriaé, Ubá, and Rio Pomba), 27,240 (19.94%) of the 136,603 total inhabitants were slaves. Finally, in the northern Zona da Mata North (Ponte Nova) out of the 54,032 total inhabitants, 7,551 (13.97%) were slaves (Carrara, 1993).

In Muriahé as a whole, including all its parishes, the slave population’s profile was quite evident from the censuses, and parish and civil documents. According to the 1872 Census, the parish included 6,938 slaves, of whom 6,348 were Brazilians or Creoles (91.49%), and 590 (8.5%) Africans; 47.2% were female and 52.8% were male, most of them single. The number of captives in São Sebastião da Cachoeira Alegre, Nossa Senhora da Glória and São Francisco de Assis do Capivary was 1,122, 918 and 902, respectively[6]. Despite “a certain balance” between men and women, in most studies of the time and region the parish was characterized by the prevalence of illegitimate or bastard births (Andrade, 2011), which fits the profile of small and medium slaves, as clarified by Andrade (1995).

Due to this new spatial organization of Minas Gerais, the Zona da Mata region saw a significant population growth between the censuses of 1872, 1890 and 1900. Braga (2017) informs that, in 1872, the entire population of the eleven parishes belonging to São Paulo do Muriahé was composed of 34,620 individuals. Eighteen years later, in the same territory of the eastern region of Zona da Mata, there were 50,189 individuals: 26,388 (52.8%) men and 23,801 (47.2%) women. This is a 31% increase in eighteen years. When comparing the censuses of 1872 and 1900, Braga (2017, p. 38-39) notices a population increase of 51.32%, a demographic growth that signifies the development of the region and which, in our view, deserves to be better analyzed.

In order to understand the connection between the occupation of the Mata hinterlands and their economic development, we will discuss the economic characteristics of the region and, more specifically, the parish analyzed here. The main objective will be to present the dynamics of investments between 1848 and 1888, pointing to the monetary investments after that time. Such analysis confirms the hypothesis that land, coffee and workforce were the main sources of economic investment in the region until 1888, after which period the rubiaceous became the dominant economic driver.

2. Economic characteristics of the region: dynamics and investments

The definitive occupation of the Mata Mineira region is directly related to the change of Minas Gerais’s economic axis. We reinforce that the first urban formations were inserted in the mining center, among them Vila do Carmo (Mariana), Vila Rica (Ouro Preto) and Conceição do Sabará (Sabará), from which several other administrative divisions would derive. It is also understood that these towns, parishes and cities grew more and more as the 19th century approached (Andrade, 2011, pp. 1-63). According to Costa (1970, p. 16), the creation of the villages, parishes and counties depended on the establishment of economic and personal interests available for the exercise of public functions, besides the existence of community spirit based on moral principles.

Following this logic, we can see that agriculture in the Mata Mineira begins even before the definitive settlement of the white people. The trade of Psychotria ipecacuanha —an emetic plant of great commercial and exporting value, which the Indians exchanged for rum (José, 1958, p. 45)— is a good illustration of this, being a commercial incentive for clergymen, traders, military and adventurers who circulated throughout the region. However, over time, other crops also stood out, such as maize, beans, sugar cane and, later, coffee.

The documents that record everyday life in the region leave no doubt that coffee was the main economic product of the Zona da Mata Mineira in the 19th century. However, we insist that such model must be reviewed if we consider the Zona da Mata as a whole. The affirmation holds when thinking about the production of the rubiaceous from a comparative perspective. It is also based on the centrifugal effect generated by the (re)ordering and (re)distribution of the economic space, and by the model of coffee crop prevalent in the Sul Fluminense region. We consider, instead, that the agricultural diversity of the Mata region enabled each parish to have an exclusive model that cannot be taken as a whole, including coffee production.

When we refer to the Paraíba Fluminense valley, we note that coffee production was based on an extensive agrarian system, founded on rudimentary techniques, with the use of few technical implements, long fallow periods, forest clearings, and root burnings. The ample availability of land led to the use of the soil without any kind of concern regarding its depletion (Fragoso, 1993; Muniz, 2005). Of course, this factor was decisive to understand the agricultural production framework of the Mata Mineira and was the cause why coffee did not arrive at the same time in all sub-regions, being directly linked to land appropriation. As the white people entered the region, they brought along their economic forms of survival, leading the previously productive soil to its bankruptcy.

When studying the transition to the agrarian-export system, Oliveira (2005, p. 249) concludes that, rather than a mere extension of the Fluminense agrarian system, coffee cultivation in Minas Gerais developed thanks to the endogenous accumulation of mercantile capital in the province, differing from the models of Rio de Janeiro (by the absence of wholesale capital in the first investments) and of São Paulo (by transferring capitals prior to subsistence cultivation or exporting as commercial activities).

Pires (1993) reinforces this logic by affirming that the study about agrarian capital, investment and crisis in coffee growing in Juiz de Fora, between 1889 and 1930, is based on the agro-exporting model. For the author, it was coffee production that which favored industrial development; furthermore, this production did not go into decadence right after abolition, instead remaining active for many years.

According to Oliveira (2005), the expansion of coffee production in the Zona da Mata of Minas Gerais began in the first decades of the 19th century, accelerating from 1850 onwards; however, the huge production peak occurred at the beginning of the 20th century. According to Pires (1993), between 1847 and 1851, the Mata Mineira concentrated almost 100% of the state’s overall coffee production, especially Juiz de Fora and, from 1880 on, São Paulo do Muriahé, as we shall see later on. The Zona da Mata Mineira, in turn, represents, only 5% of the territory of Minas Gerais. The region benefited from its proximity to the Paraíba Fluminense valley, previously considered the largest coffee producer in the country, as well as from its suitability for the product, according to Lanna (1986, pp. 30-31). Due to its favorable conditions, it soon became one of the main commercial centers for the export of rubiaceous.

Thus, the commercial dynamism of the region owes to agriculture, the major cause of investment. However, being a lately settled area, this growth required larger amounts of workforce, seed programs, seedlings, and specific agricultural techniques. It was necessary to cultivate the land and to invest in improvements, which demanded time and capital. This scenario saw the first plantations of sugarcane, cassava, maize and, later on, coffee.

Table 1 allows reveals the substantial participation of the region in Minas Gerais’s coffee production until 1926. The percentages of production remained consistently high throughout the years, with small declines only in 1886, 1903, 1904, which are explained by the surge of coffee plantations in the south. Giroletti (1987) states that, in 1890, 75% of the state’s revenue came from coffee production. From 1870 to 1930, coffee constituted around 60% of Minas Gerais’ exports.

Table 1 – Proportional ratio of coffee production in the Zona da Mata to production in the state of Minas Gerais (selected periods)


Minas Gerais*

Zona da Mata*
















Source: Pires (1993, p. 96).
* In arrobas (a unit of measure equivalent to 25 pounds).

The rapid expansion of the domestic market in the coffee region had a favorable impact on the productivity of the subsistence sector (Fragoso, 1992, p. 976). However, Oliveira (2005) warns that the Mata Mineira profited from internalized capital in the province, which helped in the formation of an autonomous model of transition to coffee. Coffee growing in Minas Gerais did not depend on the expansion of the western frontier of coffee growing in Rio de Janeiro and, above all, it did not need to resort to mercantile capital, benefitting from the province’s self-produced capital. The Center-South exchange provoked a true mutation of food producers, traders and capitalists, raising them to the condition of great coffee growers.

As pointed out in previous research[7], we should reinforce the region had its own peculiarities, such as the existence of small and medium owners without plantations who relied on slave workforce as economic support. Thus, socioeconomic position was defined by the number of captives belonging to a family. The land was not conditioned to that number of slaves, given the amount of unproductive soil, resulting in a variable agricultural production.

We tried to surmise the transformations from the monetary applications of the most salient categories of the post-mortem inventories in São Paulo do Muriahé, between 1848 and 1888. This corpus adds up to a total of 190 documents and will allow us to know the most important social groups and interests involved in the established relations. To better understand this reality, we will present the categories of the material goods comprising most of the fortunes we analyzed, along with their respective financial values. Having digitized the inventories’ data, we catalogued the part referring to the amount of goods, which are divided into original goods, self-moving (slaves), furniture, and active debts. After cataloguing, the main generators of wealth were selected through each gross total.

In the first period under analysis, between 1848 and 1859, the inventories had a combined value of 97:920$000; this amount comprised slaves (48:200$000, or 49.22%), land (43:100$000, or 44.01%), and coffee (6:620$000, or 6.77%), as shown in the following graphic.

Graphic 1 – Asset analysis. São Paulo do Muriahé, 1848-1859

Source: Inventários post-mortem, 1850-1859. FTPM, Muriaé – MG.

Between 1860 and 1869, out of a total of 93:648$825, captives amounted to 59:050$8000 (63.05%); lands, 32:514$825 (34.71%); and coffee, 1:900$000 (2.24%). We see, therefore, a significant increase in investments in slave workforce and a reduction in land and coffee in relation to the previous period.

Graphic 2 – Asset analysis. São Paulo do Muriahé, 1860-1869

Source: Inventários post-mortem, 1860-1869. FTPM, Muriaé – MG.

Between 1870 and 1879, out of a total of 308:283$000, slaves accounted for 75:700$000 (52.65%); land, 43:100$000 (36.67%); and coffee, 15:600$000 (10.68%) of the amount of 308:283$000 of the inventories applied. There is an increase of monetary investments in coffee plantations and land.

Graphic 3 – Asset analysis. São Paulo do Muriahé, 1870-1879

Source: Inventários post-mortem, 1870-1879. FTPM, Muriaé – MG.

Between 1880 and 1888, out of a total of 377:360$391, captives amounted to 160:340$000 (42.49%); land, 156:016$191 (41.34%); and coffee, 61:004$200 (16.17%). As a consequence of the debates about the end of slavery, we can see in this period a reduction of investment in slaves, —though the values remain high— and an increase of investment in land and coffee. Such data come from the very logic of the closing of the agricultural frontier and the greater circulation of capital.

Graphic 4 – Asset analysis. São Paulo do Muriahé, 1880-1888

Source: Inventários post-mortem, 1880-1889. FTPM, Muriaé – MG.

Analyzing the post-mortem inventories, we may observe that the personal wealth in São Paulo do Muriahé, one of the main parishes of the central Mata Mineira, was mostly based on slave ownership, though land and coffee became increasingly important with the decline of slave prices in the last period under study. From 1880 to 1888, the value of land was close to that of slaves, while coffee remained relatively minor in all the analyzed periods; rubiaceous production, however, grew consistently, except between 1860 and 1869. From 1888 on, coffee production intensified considerably, favored by its flow via railways, which arrived in the parish in 1886. The train can be considered a distinct factor of urbanization and an incentive to the city’s economic and population growth.

Although the region was characterized by its relatively small groups of slaves, this sector always represented the highest applicable value, even throughout the final periods of slavery and the times of intense economic changes. In turn, land increased its value as a consequence of the closing of the agricultural frontier and the Land Law of 1850. The land inserted in the middle of coffee production presents considerable price variation and economic instability. Regarding the captives, their market value decreased only in the last period (1880s), close to the abolition, while land value exceeds 40% between 1880 and 1888, regaining the financial importance observed between 1850 and 1859.

We can affirm, thus, that there were changes in the asset distribution of the parish; however, scrutinizing the data will help us avoid the traditional model (land, coffee and slaves) verify the investments in an progressively self-organizing economic structure. The increase in the value of land can be seen as a form of control of the farmers, revealing itself as one of the safest assets during periods of change, despite not being the main asset until the end of slavery. But it is important to highlight that certain other factors, such as the closing of the agrarian frontiers and the improvement in the conditions of the city, contributed decisively to the appreciation of land.

Andrade’s research (1995, p. 93), despite presenting a different cut and methodology from our own, is very far from the data achieved. By making an accounting study based on the significant investments for the productive process (such as slaves, land and coffee), he points out that, between 1872 and 1884, slaves represented more than half of the investments, followed by land and coffee. Another remark by the author is that small owners bore little relevance in the set of investments, since large and medium owners concentrated more than 90% of them. This has historically justified its characterization as an extremely unequal society in relation to income distribution: most of the land and profits were in the hands of a few, while the vast majority lived in terrible economic conditions. Thus, the small and medium properties absorbed the large contingent of slave population.

Table 2 – Muriahé’s landowners and the concentration of slaves, land and coffee, 1872-1884







1034:194 (10%)8:640 (8%)18.686 (8%)61:520 (9%)



314:495 (90%)96:770 (92%)209.280 (92%)620:545 (91%)


20348:689 (100%)105:410 (100%)227.966 (100%)682:065 (100%)

Source: Andrade (1995, p. 63).

We see, therefore, that the locality analyzed was defined by land concentration, with a small minority dominating vast extensions of land, while the number of slaves and coffee growing were comparably modest, at least until the 1880s. But from this date onwards, coffee production took on new contours, and the region became one of the great exporters of the product by the end of the century.

However, we see that before coffee became the region’s main economic product, other foodstuffs were produced as well. This diverse production continued to supply the domestic market even after the intense cultivation of the rubiaceous, spurred by the units’ own sustenance and generating surpluses that were traded in other parishes and provinces. Thus, groceries agriculture contributed to laying the infrastructure for the development of coffee and the region’s definitive entry into a large-scale economy. This idea is affirmed by Carrara (1999, p. 31), when he assures that, before coffee and until the 1840s, the rural landscape of central Mata was dominated by maize, bean and sugarcane plantations, and also a few rice fields. More specifically, the documentation of Muriahé shows that maize and sugarcane production was present in all the analyzed periods between 1848 and 1888, but with a fast and notable decline in varied periods.

Câmara (2014, p. 59) throws light on this dynamic by stating that the number of bushels dedicated to sugarcane production falls considerably from 1858 to 1867, with 1866 being the least productive year, as only 19 bushels were dedicated to produce this crop. The same can be said of maize. The decrease in grain production is remarkable, although it was more balanced than sugarcane, with more bushels dedicated to production in 1858.

According to Table 1, there was also a decline in grains of rice, beans and fruit, following the same trend as sugarcane and maize. This fall can also be seen in the number of bushels used for production. In general, there is a visible reduction in these crops over the years, with an inversion in relation to coffee production. From the documents consulted, coffee appears timidly in Muriahé in the middle of the 19th century and takes on great proportions from 1880 onwards. At this time, the parish began a framework of export economy, facilitated by the flow of production with the arrival of railway tracks. These data are observed in Table 1.

Table 3 – Agricultural production in São Paulo do Muriahé, 1850-1888[8]


(in alqueires)
Maize crops
(in bushels)
Other crops
(in bushels) *












Source: Adaptation made by the author to the tables of Câmara (2014).
* Rice, beans, oranges, etc., in bushels.
** Even though the author does not use the same standard for coffee (feet) as for other products (bushels), Table 1 allows a glimpse of the growth in production relative to the increase in coffee production, an analysis made previously by Andrade (1995) and Andrade (2011).

As we can see, sugarcane, maize and other crops, such as rice, beans and oranges, constituted the internal supply of the parish. Furthermore, between 1848 and 1888, the investments in slaves, land and coffee stood out, representing the main assets in of the composition of wealth. However, new “wealth dances”[9] would occur in the municipality after abolition, at least until 1910. The table changes significantly, as coffee takes over as the largest financial investment item, as analyzed by Orlando (2020, pp. 116-133). Such result helps us to understand Prates’s statement (1906, p. 18) that, in 1905, São Paulo do Muriahé was the most important agricultural municipality in Mata and that coffee was the predominant crop.

Graphic 5 – Share in the amount of wealth – Assets – São Paulo do Muriahé, 1889-1910

Source: Orlando (2020, p. 124).

For Orlando (2020), land represented the basis for structuring the coffee plantation, which justifies the strong presence of this item in most of the consulted documents, in some cases even as the highest ranking asset. Coffee, houses and land form the group of the largest assets invested. The significant presence of houses strengthens the idea of the city’s urban growth. Investments in improvements are not far behind, followed by active debts, animals, objects, food, and securities.

There is a traceable change in the values invested over the years under study, but agricultural production remains constant in all the periods presented. There is a decline in the production of maize and sugarcane as a consequence of the greater presence of coffee, with the rubiaceous becoming the city’s largest asset by the turn of the century. Obviously, these data point to the statement that coffee only reached the level of export product thanks to the production surpluses generated by the cultivation of basic commodities such as maize, sugar cane, rice and beans.

Final considerations

Throughout this work, we tried to highlight the dynamics of occupation and development of the Zona da Mata Mineira, especially its central sub-region, from before the definitive opening of the territory by the competent bodies until the beginning of the 20th century. This logic did not occur randomly; on the contrary, it originated in the open frontier profile, due to the availability of workforce and the favorable conditions for the cultivation of foodstuffs. The reduction of gold mining had a considerable impact on the increase of internal migration, which brought new designs to the Minas Gerais landscape. Given its proximity to the edges of this area, Zona da Mata was a privileged region for the entry of a significant population contingent.

As previously emphasized, the emergent villages were not organized according to pre-established schemes aiming at a territorial organization; instead, growth occurred rapidly and continuously throughout the 19th century. With the mining crisis, the responsible bodies needed to populate them quickly, so that they could obtain new dividends generated by the collection of taxes and tithes. This search for other spaces contributed decisively to a new territorial outline of Minas Gerais and new dynamics in social relations. In this sense, the economic factor was crucial for the solidification of this society.

With an initially shy economy, São Paulo do Muriahé started to show signs of sufficiency, coming mainly from small and medium plantations, and slaves; these production units were responsible for starting its market power and participation in the economic life of the parish. But the little representativity of small owners in the set of investments and values gave way to a hierarchical and unequal society in terms of income distribution. We believe, therefore, that large-scale coffee production was only possible due to the production surplus originating from medium and large owners, although we do not exclude the participation of minority groups in relation to the number of slaves. Our analyses allow us to identify a gradual growth of the coffee crop throughout the analyzed periods, which leads us to affirm with certainty that its success came in the late 19th century, unlike what was previously thought.

With the arrival of the railway, a new production and investment scheme was outlined, and coffee became one of the major investments in the locality, visibly changing its landscape. The city grew, new investments were made, and new population groups were introduced, making its economy even more dynamic and directly impacting on its growth. However, we should clarify that it was the monetary resources resulting from the accumulation of capital generated by basic crops which contributed to Muriahé’s entry into a larger economy.

To conclude, we reinforce that coffee was not the driving force for the occupation and expansion of frontiers in the region, even if we understand that the product would become the great driver of urban growth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But this success was mainly due to a logic that integrated the abundance of land, workforce, and agricultural production.


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  1. On the concept of backwoods and its difference in relation to the coast, see  Amantino (2008).
  2. It is worth clarifying that the concepts of parish, civil parish, city and town are administratively different. For more details, see: Chaves (2013).
  3. For more details about the exploitation and use of wood of Mata Atlântica, see: Dean (1996); Pádua (2004); Cabral (2007).
  4. At that time, the districts of Nossa Senhora das Dores de Vitória and Divino Espírito Santo held the status of Curates, i.e., they were under the responsibility of a vicar or assistant parish priest.
  5. The 1872 Census lists the following municipalities belonging to São Paulo de Muriahé: Fervedouro, Divino, Espera Feliz, Caparaó, Caiana, Carangola, Faria Lemos, São Francisco do Glória, Miradouro, Tombos, Pedra Dourada, Eugenópolis, Vieiras, Muriaé, Rosário da Limeira, Miraí, Antônio Prado de Minas, Patrocínio do Muriaé, Barão do Monte Alto, Palma and São Sebastião da Vargem Alegre.
  6. General Census of the Brazilian Empire, 1872.
  7. For more details, see Andrade (1995) and Andrade (2006).
  8. 1 alqueire is equal to 48.400 m2. SILVA, Marcos Noé Pedro Da. Medidas Agrárias. Brasil Escola, [S.l], [201-?]. Available in: https://goo.gl/cZRbq. Acessed in: Mar 9, 2022.
  9. Expression used by Almico (2001).

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