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Women, Work and Family in the Antebellum Mountain South  (Cambridge University Press, 2008)


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Appalachian Women’s Frontier Agricultural Labors

This is a copyrighted document from the electronic archive for Wilma A. Dunaway, Women, Work and Family in the Antebellum Mountain South (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

The presence of so many white females on the Appalachian frontiers is probably the best evidence of the degree to which Indian violence was exaggerated. In 1790 and 1800, white women were no less represented in the population in Cherokee frontiers than they were in the rest of the country. Nationwide, the under-representation of females was caused by the influx of greater numbers of immigrant males and the higher mortality of adult females, and the gender ration of settlers on Cherokee frontiers varied only slightly from national averages. Indeed, there was a higher proportion of white females in counties adjacent to Cherokee territory than there was in Appalachian counties of Kentucky, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. Since females represented the lowest proportion of the populations in areas that were not threatened by Indian-white conflict, it is clear that males were not reticent to relocate their wives and daughters to the frontiers.

By 1784, the vast majority of Southern Appalachia's lands had been redistributed to speculators and settlers through grants, military bounties, and public lotteries. Federal public land policies came too late to benefit Appalachia's poorer landless emigrants because this region "had never come under the federal land system." As a result, Appalachian land was heavily concentrated into the hands of absentee speculators and the region’s wealthier settlers. By 1800, absentee landholders owned three-quarters of the total acreage reported in county tax lists.

Southern Appalachia's frontier lands were also inequitably distributed among residents. In the face of absentee speculation and the concentration of land into the hands of local elites, poorer emigrants stood little chance of competing for farms or town lots. The richest quartile of settler households owned more than 80 percent of resident-held acres. The wealthiest decile of households engrossed more than three-fifths of the region's resident-held acres. In east Tennessee, one-sixth of the settlers held more than one-half of all acres titled to residents. In Appalachian South Carolina, 15 percent of the settlers owned all the resident acreage. Moreover, "the engrossing of the better lands by the great planters. . . had a part in pushing the poore and less efficient producers back from the rivers onto the ridges and westward away from navigable rivers." In Blue Ridge Virginia, for instance, the largest plantations and towns were situated in the fertile valleys while small farms were concentrated nearer the mountains and foothills. About two-fifths of the households were landless in western Maryland and western North Carolina, but only 14 percent of the families owned land in upland South Carolina. In the Appalachian counties of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia, less than two-fifths of the households owned land. Indeed, the poorer half of the region's white settlers owned less than one percent of the land.

Because of local land engrossment and wealth concentration, more than two-thirds of the settler households were poor. In 1790, Southern Appalachians were 1.65 times more likely to be poor than other U.S. households. The richest decile of households controlled half to two-thirds of the wealth in their counties. This meant that little more than two of every five of the frontier Appalachian wives lived in households that owned farms or town lots. About 4 to 6 percent of these frontier households were headed by women, less than one-quarter of whom held land. Economically and socially, settler women were polarized. While about one-fifth of them were in households that held slaves and were relatively prosperous by national standards, the vast majority of white settler wives and female household heads were impoverished. Female household heads consisted of two classes. While a majority were very poor, a tiny minority were either prosperous or wealthy. The richest quartile of female household heads owned four-fifths of the wealth held by this group of women. In reality, nearly settler wives or female household heads were three times more likely to live in absolute poverty (assets of less than $350) than to be prosperous.


Landholding Patterns among White Women on the Appalachian Frontier

These statistics help us understand why there were so many desperate white families illegally squatting on Indian lands. Despite the romantic historiography that permeates our popular culture, there was no such thing as "homestead rights" on U.S. frontiers. Legally, squatters were viewed as "trespassers, land pirates, wrong doers" who could either be removed by military troops for their illegal presence across treaty boundaries, raided by the Indians upon whom they infringed, or ejected by deed holders. Frontier newspaper advertisements provide glimpses of the treatment of squatters by absentee deed holders. One absentee land owner warned east Tennessee squatters who were farming on his acreage in Sullivan County: "I must remind the good people who have settled within the above claims that unless they forewith make acknowledgements of tenancy to me. . . suits will be commenced against them." Legal action could result in the sheriff’s confiscation of household goods and livestock or the jailing of a squatter until damage claims had been paid to the owner.

At the end of the Revolutionary War, most of the emigrants flowing into Southern Appalachia were poor; but there was no free land available to them. In the Valley of Virginia, landlessness increased steadily from the 1750s until 1800. By 1782, almost all the small farmers of Blue Ridge Virginia were tenants. A 1795 report estimated that three-quarters of east Kentucky’s settlers were landless. After one traveler crossed the New River in southwest Virginia, he "kept an account of the number of souls [he] overtook in one day" who were going to Kentucky. In a thirty-mile stretch, he "overtook two hundred and twenty-one," and he thought they "seem[ed] absolutely infatuated by something like the old crusade spirit to the holy land." The 1797 journal of a traveler on the Wilderness Road describes the living conditions and the prospects for such poor emigrants.

I cannot ommitt Noticeing the many Distressd families I passd in the Wilderness nor can any thing be more distressing to a man of feeling than to see woman and Children in the month of Decembr. Travelling a Wilderness Through Ice and Snow passing large rivers and Creeks without Shoe or Stocking, and barely as maney raggs as covers their Nakedness, with out money or provisions except what the Wilderness affords. . . . to say they are poor is but faintly express'g there Situation. . . . Ask these Pilgrims what they expect when they git to Kentuckey the Answer is Land. have you any. No, but I expect I can git it. have you any thing to pay for land, No. did you Ever see the Country. No but Every Body says its good land. . . . and when arrivd at this Heaven in Idea what do they find? a goodly land I will allow but to them forbidden Land. exhausted and worn down with distress and disappointment they are at last Obligd to become hewers of wood and Drawers of water.

The traveler was correct in his predictions about what lay in store for such itinerants. As a direct result of land concentration, absentee speculation, and the rapid influx of impoverished emigrants, tenancy was entrenched on every Southern Appalachian frontier. During the late 1700s, absentee investors preferred to lease their holdings "for 21, 99, or 100 years, renewable forever, on encreasing rents." George Washington, for example, surveyed his West Virginia tracts into smaller parcels to "rent them for as much as [he could] get." Speculators preferred to utilize tenants to open new lands for two reasons. The first was:

to accommodate weak handed [i.e., poorer] people who were not able to purchase, thereby inviting and encouraging a number of useful Husbandmen and Mechanicks to settle. . . The other, that [owners] might have [their lands] restored to [them] at the expiration of the term for wch. they were granted, in good order and well improved.

In western Maryland, large estates were established by hiring German tenants to clear immense forests and to set up plantations for distant landlords. In east Kentucky and frontier Virginia, absentee owners hired landless families to seat their holdings, to clear and improve parcels, and to prevent the development of "claims by adverse possession" of squatters. Tenants also provided defense against Indian incursions, served as a stimulus for new inhabitants, and provided one-third of their harvest to enrich their landlords.

We catch brief glimpses of such impoverished families in the journals and diaries of middle-class or elite contemporaries, but we must remain cognizant of their animosities toward the poor and their prejudices against non-British ethnic groups. Traveling on the Wilderness Road, one itinerant spent a December night with an east Kentucky tenant in "a small Hutt on Little Rockcastle" that housed "9 people including women and children." Despite the warm hospitality of the poor household, the visitor ungratefully judged that the house was "distressingly Cold, nor can a more filthy place be imagin.d." Traveling further he encountered eighteen families who had settled at Crab Orchard, describing them as "but a remove from Indians in their manners or moreals." One traveler’s disdain for squatters was grounded in racial stereotyping. According to him, southwest Virginia was:

settled chiefly by the Scotch and Irish who. . . have moved hither in prodigious shaols from the back part of Pennsylvania and Maryland. . . . The mountain is thickly inhabited, by all sorts of ignorant people, who raise a little corn, but depend chiefly on hunting for their support. They live in little log huts, destitute of every convenience of life.

Toulmin contested such a biased view. While he found east Kentucky to be settled by "the poorest class of people," he insisted that claims about "the character of the inhabitants" were unfounded.

It is said that they are an idle, dissolute, quarrelsome, insolent set of adventurers, who were too vicious or too porr to live where they were born, and have therefore fled from the society of honest, civilized men. I have not met with a single person who has visited Kentucky that does not absolutely contradict this account. . . . I have met with no people in America more regular or more thriving.

Once tenants had cleared fields, planted orchards, cut roads and erected buildings, absentee owners could sell to wealthier emigrants at higher profits. An early nineteenth-century traveler described this practice on the east Tennessee frontier where "the second year after [the arrival of a tenant] the price of two hundred acres of land. . . increases nearly thirty percent; and this [improved] estate is purchased in preference by a new emigrant." None of the state or federal land laws conceded rights to "trespassers having no color of title" (i.e., squatters). Consequently, there was little prospect for a poor family to acquire land in Southern Appalachia. It cost $1,000 to set up a forty-acre farm on the Midwestern frontier, but private Appalachian acreage sold at higher prices than public lands further west. In addition, many early squatters were pushed off their improved land by those acquiring grants or military warrants. Settlers were often charged for acreage to which they had been granted "preemption" rights; and squatters were liable for damages to absentee holdings, under legislation like Kentucky's Occupying Claimant's Law. Even poor relief carried a price tag. For example, North Carolina and Virginia empowered surveyors to lay off tracts of waste lands for destitute residents from whom payment was due within two and a half years.

A majority of frontier white Appalachian women lived in landless households, and they led far from idyllic lives. In 1802, Michaux described an east Tennessee family whose "ragged clothes and the miserable appearance of their children, who were barefooted, was a plain indication of their poverty, a circumstance by no means uncommon in the United States." To secure annual tenancy or labor contracts, these families moved so often that very few of their names appear in the same county tax lists from one year to the next. Over half the white Appalachians in one tax list were missing from the next year's list, a trend which also characterized the rest of the country. On the northern South Carolina frontier, one contemporary observed: "Many there are who depend wholly on hunting for a subsistence. . . . I know of no expedient that will tend to render them fixable and permanent, except. . . obtaining new lands."

Travelers describe the precarious living conditions of tenant and sharecropping households. There were about 100 families leasing lands on the New River in southwest Virginia, and most of them lived in small log cabins with an adjacent clearing for crops, their livestock running loose in the forest. On the Little Kanawha River, there were "about a dozen very little Cabins built on the Banks in which families reside[d], with each a field of corn and a garden." Along the Ohio River in West Virginia in 1810, one traveler reported that his group rarely saw any type of farm other than "miserable log cabins of tenants so poor and ill provided, even with the necessaries of life." In Roanoke County, Virginia, a 1795 traveler came across a tiny isolated house, noting that "an Old Woman Lived in the Most desolate Maner that [he] had ever seen." When one widow and her six children moved to east Kentucky in 1791, they "had nothing to begin life with– horse, dog, cat, nor even a mouse." The female head of household "leased ground, cleared it for the use of it for seven years, and planted corn and laid it by." She hired out her two teenage sons "to work for a bushel of corn apiece a day." During harvest the family "reaped oats for a bushel of corn a day," and even "worked two months for a cow." Along the Holston River in upper east Tennessee, one visitor thought "the habitations" of tenants to be "more miserable" than those he had seen in southwest Virginia. In Wilkes County, North Carolina, a land speculator described several tenant families living "on a Bottom between the Mountains," cultivating parcels that were part of a 400-acre farm. To survive until crops came in, they "Live[d] upon venison" which they hung up and "cut away at till used." A sharecropping household at Yellow Mountain, North Carolina, consisted of "a Woman and Six Children who live[d] in a small shack."

At least one-fifth of the white settler wives resided in small farm owner households which were poor or low-income, but about one of every four wives was part of a middle-class household whose wealth ranged between $600 and $7,500. While only 5 percent of the female household heads owned slaves, about one of every six settler wives lived in a slaveholding household. About one of every five settler wives in the Appalachian counties of Kentucky, Maryland, and South Carolina had the benefit of slaves while only about one of every ten settler wives in the Appalachian counties of Tennessee and West Virginia utilized black servants. These females were afforded a lifestyle that protected them from the worst difficulties of frontier living, setting them apart culturally and socially from a majority of the settler women. As one traveler moved through upper east Tennessee in 1819, he commented on the dramatic contrast between small farmers and the slaveholding wealthy. Along the Holston River, the small farm owners "seemed more like the lessees of some large proprietor than the real possessors of the soil." As he passed through, he observed that "once in about every three or four miles," there was the large farm of a well-to-do slaveholder whose home was "an attempt at style and grandure."


White Women’s Agricultural Labor

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, it was common for females in at least half the farm households of New England and Pennsylvania to work in the fields. Despite that norm, European, wealthy, and middle-class travelers criticized the farm work they observed being done by Appalachian women. On the one hand, their prejudices reflected colonial antagonism toward the poor. Writing as a contemporary of such bigoted observers, Matthew Carey commented that middle-class and elite Americans erroneously believed that::

Every person able and willing to work may procure employment; that all those who are thus employed, may earn a decent and comfortable support; and that if not the whole, at least the chief part of the distresses of the poor, arises from idleness, dissipation, and worthlessness.

On the other hand, class-biased commentators simultaneously emasculated the males and stigmatized the females as "unladylike." Poor landless husbands were viewed as "lacking the civility and male identity provided by property" while the cultural ideal of elites was "the domestication of white women’s work," not manual labor outside their homes. Consequently, "women’s primary responsibility for agriculture merely confirmed the abdication by men of their proper role."

By the late eighteenth century, the class boundaries between "ladies" and working women were already entrenched in American society. Elites and middle-class journalists blamed poverty upon the unwillingness of the victims to work in order to shift public attention away from the concentration of land and wealth into the hands of the richest decile of households. From the researcher’s vantage point, the value of the class-biased reactions of such travelers is that their prejudice causes them to record women’s work that they would otherwise never have mentioned in their journals. What work, then, did white settler women do on farms? The frequent biased comments of visitors and travelers provide powerful clues that white Appalachian women worked in the fields and at a variety of outdoor tasks. Consider these early commentaries about women’s farm work in western North Carolina. One European visitor observed that "the ordinary women take care of Cows, Hogs, and other small Cattle, make Butter and Cheese, spin Cotton and Flax, help to sow and reap corn. . . gather Fruit, and look after the House." A second European was shocked that the wives of poor and middling farmers were "ready to assist their husbands in any Servile Work, as planting when the Season of the Year requires expedition." When he saw so many white women and their children working in the fields in upper east Tennessee and in western North Carolina, another traveling elite commented that these settler females had "become schquaws, very pretty ones, but schquaws notwithstanding." In other words, they were taking responsibility for what he considered to be men’s agricultural tasks, just as did Cherokee women. Moreover, many of these settler females lived "uncomen poor" in small log huts similar to the dwellings of indigenous Appalachians. In most frontier Appalachian households, "the women hoed the corn, cooked the dinner, or plied the loom, or even. . . took up the ax and cut wood with which to cook the dinner." Even in some middling, nonslaveholding households, women and girls assisted in the fields. Every household, whether poor or wealthy, had "a ‘truck patch,’ the cultivation of which fell within the women’s province." It was not ethnicity which determined whether a woman would engage in field labor, for poor and middling women from all emigrant and racial groups engaged in such work. In western Virginia and western North Carolina, for example, German women:

joined the men in the labor of the meadow and grain fields. . . . Many females were most expert mowers and reapers. . . . It was no uncommon thing to see the female part of the family at the hoe or plow.

In addition to their housebound duty as "a Spinner" of slave clothing, wives of overseers or farm managers were expected to be a "dairy Woman" to produce the outputs of milk, butter, and cheese for marketing and consumption, and a manager of "poultry yards."

Helped only by their children, poor female heads of household did every type of farm work. For instance, Anne Dennis immigrated at the age of thirteen to the Appalachian frontier of Virginia. She married at age 23, but she was a widow in less than a decade. By the 1790s, she had moved to Alleghany County with her children, acquired a small farm, and built a cabin. While giving us clues about the kind of work she did every day, one nineteenth-century historian described her in disdainful romantic rhetoric as "very masculine in her appearance, and seldom wore a gown, but usually had on a petticoat with a man’s coat over it, with a rifle over her shoulder and a tomahawk and butcher knife in her belt." In frontier tax lists, the most significant assets reported for women were livestock. Among those female heads of household who were impoverished or working class, their accumulated wealth lay in cattle, hogs, and a few horses. Bickley described the frontier exports of hogs and cattle from southwestern Virginia to northeastern Virginia and to Baltimore and the movement of horse herds to the Lower South. To produce those herds, "much of the livestock [wa]s bought on credit, and paid for upon the return of the drovers" from annual drives. In Tazewell County alone, "the merchants ha[d] claims upon the people of the country, for upward of one hundred and forty thousand dollars" every year. Judging from county tax lists, some frontier female heads must have participated in such credit systems.

Women who owned farms averaged less than fifty acres, but they invested heavily in livestock production. Small farm owners like Hanah Daily, Sarah Slater, Elizabeth Maxey, Sarah French, and Elizabeth Oney averaged six horses and eighteen cattle in a county in which male farm owners averaged only 2.3 horses and 6.7 cattle. Without adult males to help with field work, these poor female heads were hoping to earn much of their household cash from selling cattle and horses, and they would have had to risk indebtedness to produce surplus livestock, a decision that would have jeopardized their land ownership. After the annual livestock drives, one merchant ran this notice in a frontier newspaper:

Notice is hereby given. . . to all persons indebted to the subscriber, by bond, note, or book account to settle them within 30 days from the date hereof, or they will be put into the hands of the proper officers for collection.

Failure to repay debts was prosecuted like a crime, and sheriffs earned commissions for collecting unpaid liens. When debts went unpaid to merchants or local banks, land speculators often bought up their liens and seized lands. One frontier newspaper provides the history of such financial disaster. In April, 1792, a Knoxville land speculator ran a public notice stating "Notice is hereby given. . . that I have in my possession certain obligations binding the first settlers of the Reedy Creek tract. . . to yield quiet and peaceable possession of their places and 3000 acres of land." A month later he began to advertise those lands for sale. When the owners failed to vacate, he ran a third notice in September announcing that the previous residents would now have to become his tenants or suffer legal consequences. "As to the original settlers claims," he alerted the public, "those who wish to know what became of them may inform themselves by referring to the [deed] entry books."

While I could not locate the kinds of detailed sources for the late eighteenth century and early 1800s that are available for subsequent decades, it is clear that frontier women were engaged in the same kinds of agricultural tasks that females did in the later antebellum period, including field work and outdoor farm tasks, production of poultry and milk cows, livestock tending, and meat processing. One of the forms of women’s work which is documented in the early census manuscripts is their production of tree sugar. In southeast Tennessee in the late 1790s, the Indian agent saw Cherokee women at a small camp collecting maple tree sap to produce sugar in their traditional fashion. It is likely that white settler women acquired their techniques from neighboring indigenous women. Like their Cherokee counterparts, poor settler white Appalachian women conserved trees, established work camps, and produced the syrup and tree sugar with little or no help from adult males. There was nothing culturally peculiar about this process because the 1810 census compiler stressed that imported sugar was very expensive, and he recommended an even more widespread "preservation and general propagation of the sugar maple-tree." Nearly 10 million pounds of maple sugar were produced by U.S. households that year, and "it [wa]s not rare for careful and attentive families to make 3 or 400 pounds weight in a season." Even though census enumerators were inconsistent in reporting production of women’s maple sugar, the output is reported for 26 Appalachian counties of southwest Virginia, West Virginia, east Kentucky, and east Tennessee. While there were only about 11 pounds of maple-sugar produced to every adult female in the country, Appalachian women averaged per female115.4 pounds valued at $17.27. Women’s tree sugar production was also documented by travelers during this era. In 1793, Toulmin observed that all east Kentucky households "ma[d]e sugar from the natural sugar tree." In southwest Virginia, Louis-Philippe consumed home-made tree sugar at local inns, observing that "everyone sees to [her] own supply, and "this sugar is excellent." Further south in east Tennessee, he also consumed tree sugar at inns, in homes, and in a Cherokee village. He complimented the work of local women by commenting that "the sugar is always black muscovado, or unrefined maple sugar, which I like better."