Appalachia’s economic transformation from farms to coalfields has been previously analyzed from divergent viewpoints. Robert Weise now offers a new understanding of preindustrial Appalachia and its transition to industrial capitalism, reconstructing the social and economic behavior of local residents to show how the circumstances that defined the region’s household economy also predisposed it to exploitation.
Examining economic marginalization, household localism, the sale of mineral rights, and the process of industrialization in Floyd County, Kentucky, Weise offers new insights into the region. Through a close look at the lives of individuals, households, and neighborhoods—drawn from county courthouse records of families living in six geographically dispersed areas—he uncovers the strategies that were used for achieving independence and security.
Weise reveals how farmers practiced subsistence agriculture to meet household needs while at the same time making strategic use of commercial opportunities in order to buy the land they valued for their continued independence. Sales of tobacco, sorghum, cattle, and timber enabled men to assert their economic independence, but constant debt made land ownership precarious at best—leading them to sell mineral rights. Weise shows how men’s quest for the independence of their own households led to conflict with their wives and with other households, thereby limiting cooperation within families and among neighbors.
By closely studying the strategic blend of land ownership, subsistence agriculture, and commerce, Weise reveals how white male farmers in Floyd County attempted to achieve and preserve patriarchal authority and independence—and how this household localism laid the foundation for the region’s development during the industrial era. By shifting attention from the actions of industrialists to those of local residents, he reconciles contradictory views of antebellum Appalachia and offers a new understanding of the region’s history and its people.
The Author: Robert S. Weise is an assistant professor of history at Eastern Kentucky University.