Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Absentee Landowning and Exploitation in West Virginia, 1760-1920

Absentee Landowning and Exploitation in West Virginia, 1760-1920

Barbara Rasmussen
Copyright Date: 1994
Edition: 1
Pages: 232
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Absentee Landowning and Exploitation in West Virginia, 1760-1920
    Book Description:

    Absentee landowning has long been tied to economic distress in Appalachia. In this important revisionist study, Barbara Rasmussen examines the nature of landownership in five counties of West Virginia and its effects upon the counties' economic and social development.

    Rasmussen untangles a web of outside domination of the region that commenced before the American Revolution, creating a legacy of hardship that continues to plague Appalachia today. The owners and exploiters of the region have included Lord Fairfax, George Washington, and, most recently, the U.S. Forest Service.

    The overarching concern of these absentee landowners has been to control the land, the politics, the government, and the resources of the fabulously rich Appalachian Mountains. Their early and relentless domination of politics assured a land tax system that still favors absentee landholders and simultaneously impoverishes the state.

    Class differences, a capitalistic outlook, and an ethic of growth and development pervaded western Virginia from earliest settlement. Residents, however, were quickly outspent by wealthier, more powerful outsiders. Insecurity in landownership, Rasmussen demonstrates, is the most significant difference between early mountain farmers and early American farmers everywhere.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4935-6
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-15)

    Insecure claims to their lands and a state government system that was prejudiced against their interests in eighteenth-century settlement days created a symphony of hardship for the original settlers in much of what is now West Virginia. Long-standing speculation in land and absentee ownership greatly influenced the fortunes of some mountain counties, while active local control of land guided affairs differently in others. The pattern of landownership has been crucial to the history of many West Virginia counties. I will study Randolph, Tucker, Pocahontas, Monroe, and Clay counties in the ensuing chapters.

    Four of these counties were dominated by absentee...

  5. 1 Imperial Politics: Early Speculators and the Leather Stocking Assault upon Virginia’s Transmontane
    (pp. 16-28)

    Petroglyphs, pictographs, and carvings on trees provide evidence that for centuries humans have lived and hunted within the Appalachian mountain ranges that now constitute modern West Virginia. Long before the arrival of settlers in leather stockings or investors in silk stockings, ancient Indian tribes populated the mountains. Mysteriously abandoned by those resident tribes, the region became the coveted hunting grounds of later, rival Indians. By the seventeenth century, the powerful Iroquois dominated the area and its lucrative fur trade. From that time on, Iroquois, Europeans, and Americans—individuals, corporations, and sovereigns—focused their desires for empire on the Appalachian Mountains...

  6. 2 Settler Politics: Jostling for Place and Power in the Brand-New West
    (pp. 29-44)

    Some of the wealthy landowners lived within the Monongahela region. Michael Cresap, George Croghan, Saveray de Valcoulon, Albert Gallatin, and Thomas, sixth Lord Fairfax were prominent western speculators.¹ Along the Cheat River, Francis and William Deakins conducted a land business that brought them into frequent contact with settlers. The fortunes of these and other speculators were mixed. Two centuries of encroachment and counterclaims ultimately reduced Lord Fairfax’s proprietary from five million acres to two million acres. The land was ultimately dispersed after the American Revolution to a syndicate led by James Markham Marshall, son-in-law of Revolutionary War financier Robert Morris?...

  7. 3 Backcountry Politics: Planter Economics and Frustrations in the West
    (pp. 45-55)

    Despite the obvious difficulties and disadvantages that accompanied settlers when they crossed the Appalachian Mountains, multitudes of them continued to stake their hopes for their futures on lands in Virginia’s transmontane. They could not yet know of the many tribulations that lay in wait for them as they began to construct their new world in the West. Between 1800 and 1851 the white population of western Virginia grew to exceed that of the eastern part of the state, but carefully planned political maneuvers prevented westerners from realizing their potential as the political majority in Virginia’s statehouse.

    As the population grew,...

  8. 4 Robber Baron Politics: Tax Breaks for Industry and Legislated Defeat for Western Residents
    (pp. 56-73)

    In the decades after 1830, interest in the economic potentials of the West gathered momentum. Absentee holders of Virginia treasury warrants took advantage of the federal government’s laissez-faire policy toward business to eject descendants of early transmontane settlers, who were by then called squatters.¹ These absentees, for so long unseen and unheard, began to consolidate their holdings in the interest of coal, oil, railroading, and timber. These developments proved stressful for the mountain economy.

    Other changes also adversely affected growth in the economy of the transmontane. As the nineteenth century advanced, partitioning of the large western Virginia counties into smaller...

  9. 5 Pufferbilly Politics: Coal Dust, Sawdust, and Cinders on the Farmland
    (pp. 74-89)

    Political defeat of the West in 1830 and 1851 created a nurturing environment in which wealthy and ambitious men could direct the industrial development within Virginia’s mountains. The influence of industry increased rapidly between 1850 and 1860. Traditional mountain farm society yielded political and economic leadership to absentee capitalists who in prior decades had successfully claimed the natural resources of the mountains. Timbering and mining proved to be incompatible with farming, and the political influence of the farming culture declined as industrialization advanced. The traditional economic activity was displaced, and new ways supplanted the old. By 1920 farmers had become...

  10. 6 Farmer Politics: Life and Work with and without Coal, with and without Absentees
    (pp. 90-100)

    A few counties in West Virginia did not industrialize and were not coveted by absentees. The farmers of Monroe County retained control of the land and the local government, with the result that traditional agriculture characterized the region through the twentieth century. A gentry class evolved that paid most of the taxes and held most of the political power. Like the Monongahela region, Monroe County was settled early in Virginia’s history; the county itself was carved from Greenbrier and Botetourt counties in 1799. Agrarian since its settlement, Monroe County fared much better economically than the counties in West Virginia that...

  11. 7 Champagne Politics: Scrambling for Every Tree, Crushing Every Foe
    (pp. 101-114)

    During the 1880s, industrialists tightened their grip on the timber and mineral resources of the Monongahela. The ensuing frenzy of mining and timbering in the years before the First World War forever changed life in the mountains. Participating wholeheartedly in the transition, the government of West Virginia issued increasing numbers of charters of incorporation to resource extraction companies. Hundreds upon hundreds of deeds for land and timber were registered in courthouses throughout the region. These activities foreshadowed the rapid disappearance of the forest and the final transition of the region from agriculture to industry. By 1890, nearly all the land...

  12. 8 Reform Politics: Tariff Woes and West Virginia’s Backwoods Campaign
    (pp. 115-125)

    No local character with the wealth and the stature of Kentucky tycoon John C.C. Mayo emerged from the Monongahela, but local leaders were essential to the success of industrialization within the region.¹ John Thomas McGraw of Grafton succeeded as an agent of the industrialists, primarily because he could deliver votes, but he never approached the wealth of Mayo or the power of Henry Gassaway Davis. McGraw was a corporate attorney for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and also served as internal revenue collector and chairman of the Democratic Executive Committee of West Virginia’s Second Congressional District, which encompassed Davis’s industrial...

  13. 9 Pulp and Paper Politics: Swashbuckling through the Forest and Poaching the Game
    (pp. 126-137)

    Samuel E. Slaymaker was one of the most successful timbermen in the Monongahela region. His successes on his own and his later associations with the Whitmer companies and Condon and Lane inevitably drew him to the top. By 1900 his affiliation with the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company allowed him to capitalize on his broad experience and expertise. From his Philadelphia office he kept close ties with William, John G., David L., and Adam K. Luke, who owned the firm. The WVPPC had mills in Piedmont and Davis, West Virginia; Luke, Maryland, just across the river from Piedmont; and...

  14. 10 Federal Politics: Conservation, Reforestation, and Economic Gridlock
    (pp. 138-152)

    The influence of absentee landowners and industrialists is a poorly explored chapter in the long history of the mountains of the Virginias. A further perplexing aspect of the region’s history is its ultimate transfer to the public domain as the Monongahela National Forest. The accounts of the great land companies and their stockholders do not discuss the fate of the residents who were dispossessed by the quest for timber and coal and land. The federal role in the dispossession of the mountain culture is poorly understood as well. Merchant capitalists held the original speculator claims in much of the region,...

  15. 11 Ptolemaic Politics: Copernican Thinking and Changing the Political Paradigms
    (pp. 153-162)

    Since the eighteenth century, the majority of landowners in the Monongahela region have favored higher taxes to fund improvements, but the region’s powerful absentee owners have succeeded in keeping property taxes low.¹ Absentees remain singularly important in influencing the affairs of the region. They profit from a long-standing, carefully tended land tax system that discourages growth and development within the mountains.

    Philadelphia; New York; Washington, D.C.; Portland, Oregon; Roanoke, Virginia; and Baltimore, Maryland, are the homes of those who wielded power and influence over the fortunes of the region’s occupants during the great industrial transformation. Their influence continues and is...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 163-188)
  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 189-208)
  18. Index
    (pp. 209-222)