The Economic Engines That Fueled The Far Southwest Virginia Frontier

By: Lawrence J. Fleenor, Jr. & Edgar A. Howard

copyright- all rights reserved
Big Stone Gap, Va.
Dec. 1999

No society exists independent of its economic structure, and the economy of the frontier of far Southwest Virginia and adjacent parts of Kentucky and Tennessee has not been extensively studied. The frontier period was surprisingly short. A trickle of settlers began to take up land patents in Washington County and Scott County, Virginia in the mid 1760’s, and the settlement of the larger region of far Southwest Virginia was in full swing by a decade later. Land purchases by outsiders immigrating from the East had almost stopped by 1800, as by then the frontier had moved on to the West. Most of the land exchanges in these counties began to be between the original settlers and their children and their neighbor’s children. The last Indian raid into Virginia was the April 1794 Livingston raid by Chief Benge of the Chickamauga Cherokee. That year Col. James King started his iron works at the mouth of Steele Creek in Bristol. He shipped iron products “throughout the South” by boat from Kingsport, and paid his teamsters in cash. In 1803 James King, brother of William, started the Saltworks in Saltville. It was an industrial operation, with exports throughout the South, and with its commerce being conducted across a toll road running between Abingdon and Saltville, with tolls payable in cash only.

So the frontier period of this region ran roughly from 1765 to 1794, or 1800 at the latest. What was the economic structure that supported this frontier society, and how did it evolve so rapidly into a cash based farming and industrial one?

Even though original land patents and grants averaged around 150 acres, a number of the settlers were able to amass considerable estates consisting of thousands of acres of land, and of slaves. Neither were cheap. Land sold for an average of $3.00 – $5.00 an acre. Estates of 2,000 – 3,000 acres were not rare. Slaves cost $300 – $500 each, and even though most settlers did not own any, the large estates might average about a half dozen or so. Therefore, some settlers were able to amass estates worth about $14,000 in land and in slaves alone. (3,000 acres of land X $4.00 = $12,000 plus 6 slaves @ $400 = $2,400.)

In order to give some means of reference to understand the magnitude of this wealth in terms of that era, consider the value of the following items, taken from estate appraisals of that time and place:

wagon $65.00
woman saddle and gear 7.00
cow 7.00
horse 50.00
rifle gun 5.00
maple sugar per pound .10
hog 1.00
sheep 1.00

The life story of the typical settler was that he had arrived in North America either near penniless or in significant debt. After working out their indebtedness, they frequently hired on as farm hands in the East, where half a generation might pass before they had acquired enough cash to buy a land warrant from the government, to buy a little farming gear, and to support themselves and their family until they could make a home on their new land on the frontier. Once this was done, few had any extra cash left over.

The commonly held view of the frontier is that it was a cashless society, economically disconnected from the East, functioning on a barter economy based on an industry of hunting and gathering, and of marginal agriculture. If this were true, where did the cash come from to pay for the rapid build up of those wealthy estates, events that occurred with startlingly little passage of time?

Another question to be answered is why was it so common for some settlers to choose forested hilly or mountainous land for themselves, rather than the already cleared Indian fields in the river bottoms? Some of the first settlers did so, even when rich bottom land lay close at hand. Examples are the drainages of Cove Creek and of Smith Creek in Washington and Scott Counties, which were acquired early on by both settlers and by local land speculators. And then there is the widely held tradition that the settlers came looking for good land to grow tobacco. What evidence is there that tobacco was a significant factor in the local pioneer economy?

The local economy generated no cash within itself. All cash had to come from the East. The original settlers arrived with little disposable cash left over after they had established their homes on the frontier. So, by what means did they bring in all that cash from the East? Certainly, in the beginning, additional settlers from the East brought in cash with them, which they exchanged with the earlier settlers for land. But, as we have seen, this process had ended by approximately the year 1800, as settlement moved on to the West as the frontier rolled on. Where did the prospering large estate builders and the children of the original settlers get the cash to buy their land after the infusion of money brought in by the late arrivals dried up? It could have only come from the production and export and sale to the East of some transportable commodity which was in demand in the East, and which could be transported the four hundred miles or so to the cities and ports there. Could the forested hilly, mountainous, land so often sought by the original settlers have been part of the answer?

The hills of Far Southwest Virginia contained no valuable minerals, except for coal, which was not yet in commercial demand, and was too bulky to transport in the pioneer period. The hill crests were covered with a chestnut dominant hard wood forest. The lumber was too bulky to transport, and too common in the east to have been valuable. Whisky and tobacco are sometimes mentioned as export commodities by those few people who believe that the frontier had any economy other than one of local barter. But even whisky was bulky and wooden barrels difficult to transport on a trip that took a season to complete. Tobacco was even more bulky, and required weather proof transport in giant wooden hogsheads over impassable muddy roads. Tobacco’s value was waning by this time, and even the giant plantations of the Tidewater estuaries, such as Mount Vernon, were abandoning it in favor of bulk grains. What evidence is there of significant whisky or of tobacco exporting?

Perhaps the ethnic history of the settlers might contain some clue. Most of the English stayed east of the Blue Ridge. The settlers of Far Southwest Virginia were mostly from either Scotland, Ireland, or Germany.

The Scots-Irish are known for their habit of making whisky. But they had also been sheep herders in the old country. Long distance cattle and sheep drives had been a cultural hallmark for them, as well. Could the production and export of either live sheep, or of mutton, or of wool have been the answer to the economic riddle? The Virginia and Kentucky frontier is the wettest region of the contiguous United States, except for the coast of Washington and Oregon States. Sheep get a disease called ‘foot rot’ when they are raised in wet regions, and they also tolerate the summer’s heat in this region poorly. Sheep also need lots of grassy pasture to live on, and in the early years there was not much of that around. Tax records and estate appraisals of that era show that, while many settlers had some sheep, most did not keep more than they needed themselves for wool. In fact, the rapidity with which the Scots-Irish dropped their traditional sheep herding ways once they arrived in this country is startling.

The Germans, on the other hand, had lived in Europe on an economy based on raising hogs by letting them run loose in the woods, where they ate the wild nuts – primarily acorns. German cuisine was pork based. Is there any evidence that the commodity that generated the cash that supported the frontier economy was pork?

A History of Kentucky by Thomas D. Clark provides the first key. He states “By 1812 Kentuckians were driving 800,000 hogs a year eastward along the trails across the mountains.” The economy of Eastern Kentucky was similar to that of neighboring Southwest Virginia twenty years earlier.

The key to this economy was the American Chestnut. In the fall the forest floor was covered with these highly nutritious nuts. The settlers let their hogs, which were similar to today’s razor backs, run free in the forests, where they fattened on chestnuts. After having been branded by a system of notches and slashes carved into their ears (for example “a notch on top of the left ear, a slash on its bottom; two slashes on the top of the right ear, and a slash on its bottom”) which identified their owners, they were turned loose and reverted to the wild. Later they were hunted with dogs like wild animals, before being driven on foot to the markets on the East Coast. The drovers passed through Southwest Virginia, and would have picked up additional swine as they went. The hogs not only transported themselves to market, but ate off of the land while on the way. In the East they were shipped to the Caribbean, or to New England, or were converted to salt pork for the shipping chandler’s trade. Thus the Old World life style of the Scots-Irish continued on the frontier, but they abandoned the large scale sheep raising and driving in favor of their German neighbor’s hog.

This practice, without the hog drives to the East, continued till living memory, when the chestnut blight of the late 1920’s destroyed the American Chestnut and the economies and food chains based on it.

What evidences do we have that the counties of Far Southwestern Virginia that were near to Kentucky also practiced hog exporting? In The Civil War in Buchanan and Wise Counties; Bushwhacker’s Paradise, the author tabulates the stock owned in these counties. The county furtherest removed by the droving routes to the eastern markets, Buchanan, had 3,882 hogs, or 13.7 per farm. Wise County, located closer to, but not on, the droving routes, had 10,847 hogs, or 20.8 per farm. (These numbers are for the year 1860). As a comparison the comparable populations of sheep were 6.2 & 8.2 per farm; and the same figures for cows were 8.7 & 7.9 respectively.

These numbers represent well over one hog per person (including children) per year, an obvious excess. This excess had no local market, as everyone had their own hogs reproducing and fattening for free in the woods. The only possible destination for this documented excess was the Eastern Market.

The comparable figures for Scott and Washington Counties have not been tabulated, but we do know that among the most prominent land acquirers, and those who had bought much of the non tillable hilly land (think chestnuts), large scale hog ownership was extraordinarily common.

Consider the case of settler M. F., who started off owning nothing, but died having owned much of the Valley of the North Fork of the Holston from Pine Grove to Mongle Springs, a distance of about fifteen miles. Records have been found showing that at least 3,849 acres passed through his hands, and that he retained ownership of 1,807 acres at the time of his death. Further analysis shows that he acquired this estate at a net cash cost of about one fourth the going rate, the other three fourths of the cost having been his profit in his land speculation. He had to come up with the one dollar per acre that he did not make in land speculation from somewhere else. The answer to this question is in the analysis of his taxable assets. One year’s records show that he owned 180 hogs, while his household did not exceed about a dozen people. He owned no tobacco or evidence of distilling.

Settler H. R., of Washington County, lived a little after the pioneer period, but his estate in 1860 showed that he owned 2440 acres, and 100 beef cattle, 60 sheep, 68 swine, and 70 lb. of maple sugar, but no tobacco.

The back counties of Buchanan and Dickenson showed little difference in economic activity. To be sure, the farms were not of the large estate size sometimes seen in Washington and Scott Counties, but the ratio of stock owned was about the same. Settler J. M. owned 46 hogs and 31 cattle. Farmer A. V. owned 6 cows, but had 65 sheep and 50 swine and no tobacco nor evidence of distilling. Other farmers in these counties showed similar patterns. None owned over 50 pounds of tobacco, with those few who did own any usually having about 20 pounds.

The 70 pounds of maple sugar owned by H. R. is of obvious significance. That much maple sugar was a great deal more than he and his family needed for a condiment for their own table, or for the curing of hams for their own use, and would suggest a commercial venture. Table sugar, as we know it today, would not become readily available for another half a century. Making maple sugar required a tremendous effort. A gallon of sap will make only about a tablespoon or two of sugar, and the labor to saw and split the firewood necessary to convert the sap to sugar was awesome. Maple sugar is not to be found in the estate records of most of the pioneers, but a large minority made significant quantities. By in large, these maple sugar producers owned slaves. So, here we have evidence of commodity specialization on an industrial scale. Doubtlessly, some was sold or bartered locally, but was maple sugar the export commodity that we are looking for?

A review of the estate appraisal of N. F., M. F’s brother, and who settled in Washington County in 1773, gives further insight into these issues. He, also, had immigrated in near poverty, but had amassed around 900 acres by the time of his death. He did not engage in land speculation. Where did he get the money to buy this land? He owned no tobacco, only 14 cattle, 26 sheep, and 39 hogs. He had a household of about 15 people. What he did own was 93 pounds of maple sugar!

We also find a wealthy neighbor of his, C. C., who owned about 2,000 acres of very good land, being in the large scale production of maple sugar at “Sugar Hollow” in lower Rich Valley.

The key to the maple sugar issue is a review of the other items in N. F.’s estate. He owned twenty three still tubs, 26 crocks with strainers, an apple press, and a still (the researchers have found only two stills documented among the estates of his neighbors). Not listed were his orchards of peaches and of apples, and he also had 54.5 bushels of rye. This is the only rye the researchers have found documented.

N. F. was a commercial distiller of apple and of peach brandy; and of rye whisky. The maple sugar was used in this process. The ardent spirits were put into large hogsheads, and were sledded to Lynchburg, where they were loaded on board a boat for export. Brandy making was a German cultural trait, while rye whisky is the hallmark of the Scots-Irish.

So, here, we have evidences of the Frontier economy. As far away as Eastern Kentucky, and certainly including Far Southwest Virginia, the economies from almost the beginning were not isolated, and were tied in with the East. The counties of Washington and of Scott had some large estates, while the back counties had only small farms. Doubtlessly much local bartering went on, but there was a large cash commerce with the East, and there is evidence of differences of emphasis within the region, and of specialization of production bordering on the industrial level in Washington County.

Most of the farmers through out the area were engaged in significant hog production for export. Others, primarily in Russell and Dickenson Counties, did raise some excess sheep, even though there hogs were the main commodity produced. There was little tobacco raised, and none in quantities sufficient for export. Distilling was not wide spread, and no evidence of corn whisky production on a commercial scale is found. Two large commercial enterprises of brandy manufacture with a little rye whisky also, are documented, and a major part of that industry was the related production of maple sugar on a comparatively large scale. Traditionally these large distilling enterprises were licensed with the Federal Government, but in some instances they also hid a larger local illegal moonshining operation.

In summary, the frontier economy of Far Southwest Virginia and adjacent areas of Tennessee and of Kentucky was not in complete isolation from the East. While land speculation was a significant endeavor for a few, commodity export to the East for cash, mostly of hogs, was nearly ubiquitous, and had existed almost from the beginning. Specialization of production of commodities developed early on, and led seamlessly into industrial production, beginning even as Indians were still raiding the region. Large estates and small fortunes rapidly developed from the beginning. There was cultural borrowing from among neighbors of different ethnic origins. This view of the local frontier economy is much different from the conventional ideas so firmly believed. The frontier was not cashless, tobacco and bourbon whisky were not significant items of export, and large scale specialized commercial manufacture of maple sugar involving the use of slaves was common. One even sees evidence that there was more cash on the frontier than there was in the same region in the period of devastation following the Civil War more than half a century later.


Armentrout, Janet – communication to the authors

Clark, Brad – conversation with one of the authors

Clark, Thomas D. – A History of Kentucky

Fischer, David H. – Albion’s Seed

Hearl, G. Lee – communication to one of the authors

“National Geographic” – vol. 196, no. 6 pg. 126

O’Donnell, Mabel – Singing Wheels

Robertson, Rhonda – The Washington County Surveyor’s Record 1781-1792 –
tract analysis extracted by the authors

Rolston, Fielding – communication with one of the authors

“Smithsonian” – January 2000 issue’s article on George Washington

Summers, Lewis Preston – History of Southwest Virginia and of Washington

Washington Co. Historical Society’s on line records of wills, estate
appraisals etc.

Weaver, Jeffrey – The Civil War in Buchanan and Wise Counties –
Bushwhacker’s Paradise