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Slavery in the American Mountain South

Author(s):Dunaway, Wilma
Reviewer(s):Wahl, Jenny B.

Published by EH.NET (October 2003)

Wilma Dunaway, Slavery in the American Mountain South. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. xi +352 pp. $70 (cloth), ISBN: 0-521-81275-5; $25 (paperback), ISBN: 0-521-01215-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Jenny B. Wahl, Department of Economics, Carleton College.

Wilma Dunaway’s book collects facts and statistics about slavery in a region heretofore largely unexplored by scholars — Southern Appalachia, also called the Upper South. Because the region contained a much greater proportion of small plantations than the remainder of the South, she argues that her work offers insights about Southern life that previous studies of large plantations do not. One lasting contribution is a permanent electronic archive of her research materials. This repository includes statistics from census manuscripts and tax records of 215 counties in nine states, numerous slaveholder documents, and slave narratives, some from the WPA Federal Writers Project.

Dunaway, an associate professor of sociology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, finds that the Upper South is both more and less like the rest of the South than people have thought. Because she argues both, she relies heavily on the phrasing “on one hand, on the other hand.” Once readers get past this awkward construction, they will uncover some interesting findings.

Dunaway makes some similarities explicit. For example, she suggests that the Upper South was just as racist as the Lower, despite the lower concentration of slaves and free blacks in the population. Large plantations, though few in number, operated much like they did elsewhere, although resident slaves engaged in more diversified activities (p. 31). More generally, Dunaway claims that Appalachia “replicated many of the patterns of development that had characterized other peripheries of the capitalist world economy (p. 103).”

Additional similarities crop up, although readers must be familiar with other research to know that what Dunaway describes also characterized the rest of the South. For example, Appalachian states enforced strict codes to keep free blacks in line (p. 76) and restricted travel for slaves (p. 164). Slaves in the Upper South, like those elsewhere, used music and dance to keep their history and culture alive (p. 221). Echoing Gavin Wright, Dunaway presents figures (p. 41) showing that Appalachia’s huge investments in slaves relative to other forms of capital put them on a trajectory of growth far different than that of the more industrialized Northeast.

How was the Upper South different? Some differences had to do with the personal characteristics of slaves. Appalachian slaves had Native American ancestors 4.5 times more frequently than other U.S. slaves (p. 201). Dunaway’s lengthy discussion of the intertwined cultures of Cherokees and African-Americans is fascinating.

Slave work was distinctive as well. Appalachian slaves were more engaged in crafting textiles for market production (p. 107) and tending livestock (p. 66). They also mattered more in manufacturing and commerce (p. 73). Extractive industries were far more prevalent in Appalachia (p. 20), and slaves staffed these industries. Dunaway provides considerable detail and statistics about salt (p. 118-19) and gold mining (p. 124), for example. In agriculture, the smallness of plantations meant too few workers to permit the gender division of labor prevailing on large holdings (p. 55).

Dunaway suggests that farm size also led to different treatment of slaves. According to her, Appalachian slaves, like those on small plantations worldwide, encountered relatively more physical punishment (p. 166). Discipline occurred most often for verbal infractions and social transgressions. Although she calls this punishment for “noneconomic” offenses, one could argue that maintaining adequate control of the labor force is an economic pursuit.

Slaves in the Upper South seemed to suffer other sorts of harsh treatment more as well, although Dunaway only reports this rather than investigating why it might occur. For example, Appalachian slaves experienced disproportionately high rates of criminal convictions for violent resistance and attacks against whites (p. 183). They stole food more frequently (p. 185). Perhaps their ordinary diets were different than on plantations in the Lower South? Appalachian slave families were broken up more often — perhaps for sale to the Deep South? — and therefore had a higher incidence of runaways (p. 224).

Life differed for whites as well. Nearly 29 percent of all Southern families owned slaves, but only 18 percent of Appalachian families did (p. 25). A slaveowner in the Lower South was 12 times more likely to run a large plantation than his Appalachian counterpart. Yet mountain slaveowners controlled a much higher proportion of regional land and wealth than Lower South planters (p. 7). Consequently, wealth inequality and poverty grew significantly in Appalachia even as it remained stable elsewhere in the antebellum U.S. (p. 38).

This last fact, along with Dunaway’s earlier research on Appalachia, allows her to say much more about the region than how slavery worked there. She reports, for example, that regional schooling was so scanty that white Appalachian adults were more likely to be illiterate than other Southerners and other Americans generally (p. 44-46). In one intriguing passage, Dunaway notes that the majority of antebellum Virginia’s educational budget went to the University of Virginia, but it came from funds generated by sales of Appalachian tax-delinquent lands. Moreover, fewer than 10 percent of UVa students came from West of the Blue Ridge (p. 47). And life was almost as bleak for white tenant farmers and sharecroppers as it was for slaves, who often worked alongside them in the fields.

Dunaway’s descriptions and details of slave life are compelling. She tells of artisan William Lewis, who bought freedom for himself, his wife, and several other family members. He was such an excellent craftsman that he was chosen to forge Chattanooga’s town emblem, yet he could not conduct business in his own name and had to pay a white man to legalize his transactions (p. 80). The book includes entertaining and informative discussions of Appalachian churches, community parties, and methods of slave defiance.

Although Dunaway reports many useful statistics as well, these are often piled too closely together in the text for the reader to assimilate. I would have liked to see more topic sentences and summary tables and fewer lists. She also lapses into Marxist rhetoric, which detracts from her otherwise reasonably objective empirical work. Economists will be puzzled by her use of the word “maximize”: “The region’s farm owners maximized several free and coerced labor mechanisms” (p. 50). “By maximizing slave crews, James Mallory averaged four bales of cotton per hand” (p. 63). “Appalachians maximized their large iron deposits” (p. 104). Nonetheless, this book nicely fills some gaps in the literature on Southern slavery.

Jenny B. Wahl, Professor of Economics at Carleton College, recently published The Bondsman’s Burden: An Economic Analysis of Southern Slavery. Her current work is Truth in Fiction: An Economic Interpretation of the Novel.

Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century