The First American Frontier: Transition to Capitalism in Southern Appalachia, 1700-1860

By Wilma A. Dunaway | Go to book overview
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Frontier Land and Wealth Patterns

The Basic Methods

Complex and tedious methods are required to research Southern Appalachian land ownership and wealthholding patterns during the frontier period because there is no single source of land records. While deeds comprise the type of public record that is most consistently available, they are of little utility for a project of this scope. Because they are recorded chronologically by parcel and because holdings are not aggregated for each owner, one must scrutinize the deeds over many years to ascertain, with certainty, whether any one owner held land. For this entire period, deeds are recorded in nonalphabetical order in all states, and the availability of name indexes is sporadic. Thus, to aggregate land holdings and transfers for a single name, one would have to check every annual county list of deeds over a period of about twenty-five years. Moreover, antebellum property holders were often slow in filing deeds at distant courthouses. To complicate matters, many other early Southern Appalachian public records have been lost or destroyed. The 1790--1800 census records have been lost entirely for Virginia and Tennessee and partially for other counties in Southern Appalachia.1

Consequently, it has been necessary to adapt data collection methods that permit the use of numerous state, county, and national sources from multiple archives. County tax lists offer the best archival source for researching frontier land distribution in a large region like Southern Appalachia. First, the tax manuscripts were roughly alphabetized, and information was collected and recorded for households within designated districts. Second, tax lists permit the aggregation of total landholdings for each owner, a procedure not possible when deeds are utilized. Third, many of these lists are accessible on microfilm or in published form. However, it is not possible to find in existence a complete set of records for any single year for all counties of Southern Appalachia.

It is necessary, therefore, to devise distinct sampling techniques for each state subgrouping of records. In most instances, I drew systematic samples, with randomnumber starts, by devising distinct methods for each state subarea. Tax lists for five 1800--1801Kentucky counties, representing three-quarters of the Appalachian land area, were systematically sampled. For Tennessee, all available, complete tax lists between 1790 and 1810 were systematically sampled; these eleven counties embraced about three-fifths of the Appalachian land area. For Virginia and West Virginia, I included in the universe every county for which 1800 tax lists and 1800 land books were available. Thus, tax lists for ten Virginia counties, representing two-thirds of the Appalachian land area, and twelve West Virginia counties, encompassing 90 percent of the Appalachian land area, were systematically sampled. Representing about one-half of the Appalachian land area for western North Carolina, 1800--1815 tax lists for three counties were systematically sampled because they were the only extant legible lists. In two cases, the entire available lists were utilized. For western Maryland, the entire 1804 Washington County tax list was analyzed. Deeds were utilized only in the instance of


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The First American Frontier: Transition to Capitalism in Southern Appalachia, 1700-1860


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