Moving West

PHD29102 Daniel Boone escorting settlers through the Cumberland Gap, 1851-52 (oil on canvas) by Bingham, George Caleb (1811-79); Washington University, St. Louis, USA; ( Daniel (1734-1820) and his wife Rebecca travelling westwards to Kentucky;); American, out of copyright

Daniel Boone escorting settlers through the Cumberland Gap

Two of my ancestors moved west over the mountains, one from Virginia and the other from North Carolina, within eight years of each other.  They were part of the “second wave” of settlement, yeoman farmers who supplanted the earlier hunters and Indian traders.  Both were moderately prosperous citizens, with standing in their communities.  Newit Drew, who left Southampton County, Virginia, in 1797, owned the mill that had raised his father into the local gentry.  Elijah Bettis, who left Moore County, North Carolina in 1805, was 55 years old, owned a large number of slaves, and was perhaps the only trained doctor in his community. Why did they feel the need to move?

The simple answer is: because they could.  Families were large in those days, and available land was quickly running out.  But the first wagons had passed through the Cumberland Gap, from Virginia to Kentucky, in 1795, and the Avery Trace, connecting North Carolina to Nashville, had become more or less passable by the same year.  The unreconciled Indians of Middle Tennessee had finally been crushed.  And in 1803, the Louisiana Purchase opened up an apparently endless supply of new land.

There were also other factors at work.  Two of the most important were the destructive pattern of frontier agriculture, and the rising economic inequality that resulted from the cotton boom.

When the first Europeans crossed the ocean to Virginia, they left behind them much of the heritage of European agriculture, including the need to replenish the soil with manure and the importance of rotating crops.  Land was so abundant, at the beginning, that a farmer could let his stock roam free in the woods, cultivate one piece of land until it wore out—usually within three or four years—abandon it, and move on.

If you owned enough land to support your family on a small part of it, you could move your fields from place to place, leaving enough time for the forest to reclaim each abandoned field before you cleared it once again.  Such rotation might extend the productive life of the soil, but could not stop its ultimate degradation.  Sometimes the land became useless within as little as one generation.

The migrating borderers carried that attitude with them.  Writing in 1933, with the catastrophe of the Dust Bowl before his eyes, agricultural historian Lewis Cecil Gray compared the wave of migration on the southern frontier to the passage of a “devastating scourge.”

No less important, as motives for migration, were rising inequality and increasing social stratification.  With the beginning of the cotton boom came the “third wave” of settlement.  The new arrivals were rich planters, with the resources to establish large new plantations worked by dozens or hundreds of slaves.  As they moved in, land prices increased to the point where the sons of yeoman farmers could no longer compete.  The social status of those farmers dropped as well, from respected citizens to country hicks unfit to associate with the newly created aristocrats.  In 1810, five years after Elijah Bettis and his family had moved on, an anonymous Moore County writer rejoiced that  “Happily for us the Scene is changed…The Society on Deep River is respectable the old Settlers [that would be Elijah and his relatives] have given way to men of property Decency & Character.”  The restless borderers had gone, to begin a new cycle on another border.

Further reading: Poquosin, by Jack Temple Kirby, is a highly readable study of agricultural, social, and ecological change in the area around the Great Dismal Swamp.


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