In the Grip of Slavery, the Development of a Slave Society in Antebellum Buncombe County, Part I.


The Buck Hotel in Asheville, NC 1888.



Richard, [Aggy], Jo, and Leah. It is my will and desire that they have full liberty and I do by these presents give them full liberty to go and live with any of my children where their own children live, not as slaves, but as old acquaintances who have labored and spent their strength to raise my children and their own also. I enjoin upon my children who may have the children of said old Black people not to confine them, but let them go awhile to one and awhile to another where their children may be. I enjoin upon my children to see that the evening of the lives of those Black people slide down as comfortably as may be.[1]


­­­David Vance Senior, 1813


Every autumn in the mid nineteenth century, hundreds of thousands of hogs made their way from farms in Tennessee and Kentucky down the Buncombe Turnpike to market in South Carolina. The turnpike was created to blaze a safer route of transport for livestock through the treacherous and isolated Blue Ridge Mountains. The road ran parallel to the French Broad River, and created an opportunity for the slaveholding elite of Western North Carolina to profit from the traffic moving through their county. By 1835, many of Buncombe County’s most elite had moved their families, and their slaves, to homes along the new route to accommodate travelers like James Silk Buckingham, Esq., who observed that Buncombe County had been “esteemed the most healthy and beautiful portion of all the Southern country, which I can readily believe, from what I have seen of it.”[2] He lamented that slaves lived in “dirty and comfortless” conditions, yet “the business of the inn is left mostly to black servants to manage as they see fit.”[3] The system of slavery that Buckingham observed manifested itself in the second generation of Buncombe county’s elite who used slave labor to operate multifaceted inns and farms. These entrepreneurial farmers used their economic status and political power to transform the area along the French Broad River from society with slaves into a slave society.

John Campbell wrote in The Southern Highlander and His Homeland that the southern Appalachians were populated with poor yeoman farmers fleeing the oppression of slave labor. Campbell acknowledged that slaves were rarely used in the mountains, but concluded that, “Generally speaking… there were no Negros in the Highlands in early times.”[4] When it comes to the communities in the economic sphere of the Buncombe Turnpike, however, evidence displays Appalachian people who thrived in and enabled a unique slave society.

Ira Berlin defines both a slave society and a society with slaves in, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. The society with slaves is one where “slaves were marginal to the central productive process; slavery was just one form among many,” while a slave society is in contrast a society in which, “Slavery stood at the center of economic production…Whereas slaveholders were just one portion of a propertied elite in societies with slaves, they were the ruling class in slave societies; nearly everyone — free and slave– aspired to enter the slaveholding class.”[5] He argues that in the early European settlements in North America there were four distinct slave societies; the North, the Chesapeake, the South Atlantic, and the Lower Mississippi Valley.[6] His study of slavery in North America focuses heavily on the regional identities and markers of slavery, arguing that the presentations of slavery in different regions of the continent were important and changed from time to time and from place to place, and created a framework to understand how Buncombe County, particularly the communities along the Buncombe Turnpike, transitioned over time to become a slave society.[7]

The foundation of the slave society in Buncombe was laid by the first generation of wealthy mountain settlers. Bound Away: Virginia and the Westward Movement by Daniel Fischer and James Kelly outlines the migratory streams that left Virginia just before the American Revolution. Understanding the diaspora from Virginia into North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky is important to understanding the development of a slave society in Buncombe County. Just before the American Revolution the focus of the people turned from Europe to their own affairs, and the spirit of westward migration began. This new spirit of American movement west was the wave that inspired many young, adventurous men, coming mostly from elite families of Virginia, to blaze their way westward and begin a new chapter in American history. The migrants populated Kentucky, Tennessee, and western North Carolina and began farming there. The mountains of North Carolina proved fertile and the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee provided grazing land for livestock, particularly hogs and cattle.[8] The settlers created farms for subsistence and local market trade, and in some cases used slaves to do so.

Since Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone was published there has been an increase the study of regional slavery.[9] From the beginning of the new millennium many Southern history scholars have moved their focus to the study of the “other” South; Appalachia. Buncombe County in Western North Carolina, like Berlin’s other geographically determined slave societies was full of what have been described as “Mountain Masters;” men who in many ways fit the categorical standard of any other antebellum Southern slaveholder, that is, a gentleman farmer whose occupation relied heavily on slave labor, and had great social and political influence. As Berlin argued, these mountain masters must be studied in a way that takes careful account of their geography, time, and their cultural and physical capital in order to make a legitimate assertion that their society fit the mold of a “slave society.”[10] Many Thousands Gone does not include any part of the Southern Mountain region as one of its slave societies, and perhaps this is because the material covers a period slightly before heavy settlement in the area by Europeans. However, Berlin’s work gives a complete analysis of these other regional slave societies; leaving room for additional scholarship concerning those regions left behind in Many Thousands Gone.

Focusing on the economy of antebellum Appalachian communities, Sociologist Wilma Dunaway concludes the mountain South had its own slave society. Dunaway provides the reader with compelling evidence in her study, Slavery in the American Mountain South to suggest that Appalachia did have unique slave society from those of the rest of the South, however, her book presents some grave flaws. Dunaway provides a copious amount of empirical evidence and data throughout her book, and this is no doubt a great triumph, however in some cases she falls short in her analysis of the primary source material. Dunaway uses generalized social classes as a skeleton on which to build and support her research and in some cases could be considered guilty of illusory correlation by concluding numerical data by examining primary sources rooted in memory rather than fact, like the WPA slave narratives. For instance, Dunaway observed, “Appalachian ex-slaves reported slave selling twice as often as other WPA interviewees…” so she concluded that, “about one of every three mountain slaves was sold…”[11] Although she erred in her analysis of the material, there is still significant evidence to support that she is right in concluding that “the political economies of all Mountain South counties were in the grip of slavery… slaveholders owned a disproportionate share of the wealth and land, held a majority of important state and county offices and  championed pro-slavery agendas.” [12] Dunaway’s work is useful in determining that Appalachia was indeed its own slave society, but her research flaws discredit her argument.[13]

The conversation about regional political identity in Western North Carolina just before and during the Civil War was spearheaded by Gordon B. McKinney. Dr. McKinney penned Southern Mountain Republicans: 1865 – 1900 which discusses the perceptions that shaped popular views of Appalachia and Western North Carolina in the wake of the Civil War. For many, Appalachia was seen as a region without slaves, and therefore and never established a slave society or had political goals and connections related to slavery. However in Southern Mountain Republicans McKinney argues that the popular assumptions about Appalachia’s feelings toward slavery and the war were “not built on a pre-existing tradition or community… The image of a distinct Mountain South political heritage was deliberately created by Republican politicians in order to appeal to Mountain voters.”[14] This statement makes it clear, that before the Civil War the majority of people of Western North Carolina were not abolitionists, and regardless of their economic background by the time the war came, they felt “awful Southern.”[15]

John Inscoe followed McKinney’s lead in attempting to dismantle the myth of a Western North Carolina absent of slaves and masters with his work Mountain Masters: Slavery and the Sectional Crisis in Western North Carolina. Mountain Masters examines Western North Carolina’s experience with slavery through the lens of the politics and prerogatives of the region’s most wealthy.  Inscoe presents evidence of the importance of slavery to the economy of the region, asserting that slaves were essential in the growing tourist economy and the keystone of the thriving small-farm based agriculture and micro-manufacturing industries.[16] Inscoe presents compelling empirical data demonstrating the popularity of slavery among the elite in Western North Carolina and blends it with interesting primary source records to create a full picture of a unique hierarchical and political struggle in the mountains of North Carolina that would easily translate into the rest of the Southern Appalachian region.

Other scholars in the field like Dr. Darin Waters, have worked toward bringing Buncombe County’s slave history to the forefront of the local history conversation. His doctoral dissertation “Life Beneath The Veneer: The Black Community in Asheville, North Carolina from 1793 to 1900” focuses on the social and economic development of the black community in Asheville, the seat of Buncombe County, taking into account the historical implications of race, circumstance and memory and how they affected this cultural center of Appalachia.[17] Waters argues that the black population of Asheville and the surrounding areas, while not nearly as sizeable as those further east or south, was an integral part of the region’s history and culture.

Context for life and the development of communities in Buncombe County and along the turnpike are abundant. Manly Wellman’s Kingdom of Madison, Wilma Dykeman’s The French Broad, and Gordon B. McKinney’s biography of Zebulon Vance all provide a picture of antebellum Buncombe County. Wellman and Dykeman each include chapters on the Buncombe Turnpike specifically. Dykeman most elegantly described the Buncombe Turnpike and its importance to the mountain people,

Narrow, rough, clinging to the cliffs, this was no highway over which the farmers of Kentucky and Tennessee could haul their great crops of corn and grain and hay to the deeper south markets, and so perhaps the ruggedness of this one third of the French Broad land became the major reason for the enormous droves of livestock that dominated, for three quarters of a century, its people, economics, and society. [18] This economic system was not absent of slaves, however.

This work aims not to generalize all of Appalachia as a slave society; rather to reexamine the practice of slavery in Buncombe over time to determine that Buncombe County, particularly the communities along the Buncombe Turnpike, transformed into a slave society. Unlike Inscoe’s Mountain Masters which focuses on the politics of slavery in the region, this work will focus on the development of a slave labor based economy in the communities along the Buncombe Turnpike and its transition from a society with slaves to a slave society.

Just after the Revolutionary War, North Carolinians moved onward into the backcountry and began settling around the French Broad River and its tributaries.[19] Over time, these communities surrounding the river developed a unique economy with slavery at its core. There were several contributing factors to the rise of a slave society in Buncombe that follow a pattern suggested by Ira Berlin.  According to Berlin, the development of a slave society began with the consolidation of the ruling class, particularly surrounding some sort of new commodity. This is typically followed by the marginalization of the poor, stricter slave codes, and an increase in their sale by speculators.[20]

The transformation of Buncombe is most easily revealed when studying the first two generations of the county elite and how they lived over time and place. Because of the service of Zebulon Baird Vance (a Buncombe county native) as governor, his family history is preserved in collections held at Zebulon’s birthplace, now a North Carolina state historic site. Their journey over time serves as a particularly good example of how a slave economy arose in Buncombe. The Vance family patriarch, grandfather to Zebulon, David Vance Sr., was born in Frederick County, Virginia in 1755.[21]  Presuming he spent some time in North Carolina before his marriage in Rowan County in 1775, it is probable that David left Virginia toward the North Carolina shortly after his mother’s death in 1772.[22] After the War of Independence Vance eventually made his way to Burke County, then Reems Creek in what would become Buncombe County in 1792. Vance, as a member of the North Carolina House of Commons along with William Davidson, made the proposal for the new county. The pair immediately became two of its leading members. David Vance was elected County Clerk and held that office until his death in 1813 and assisted in the surveying of the North Carolina, Tennessee border.[23]

In the time of David Vance Senior, Buncombe County was not yet a slave society. Early Buncombe was sparsely populated and isolated geographically to the larger markets lying further south. Western North Carolina farmers grew mostly cereals, corn, and other fruits and vegetables and depended on the local market to make their money.[24] Vance had only a few slaves in his early years on Reems Creek, but as Buncombe became more settled and established, Vance’s slaveholding increased more than threefold so that by the 1800 census the Vance family had ten slaves.[25] It is very likely that most of these slaves were adults (and therefore, productive) because the majority were probably purchased once the family settled into their new farm.[26]

Vance had a large slave holding relative to most in Buncombe, thus, like his peers, he was likely producing goods to sell in the local market. In his will, David Sr. requested that he be buried near his beloved peach orchard.[27] The fruit it produced could be sold unprocessed or in its distilled form as brandy. The farm on Reems Creek was rather opulent for its time, boasting a very large log home with a brick fireplace, an attached kitchen, and a number of outbuildings situated on more than 600 acres of land. Like many of his fellow settlers, Vance came from a background of privilege, and had served as an officer during the Revolution. He invested in property and was able to gain a foothold as a founding member of the largest county in the state.  Vance was also an elder in Reems Creek Presbyterian Church where he allowed at least one of his slaves, Agnes or Aggy (as she is sometimes called) to become a member.[28]

In the practice of mixed, small production agriculture, slaves were a part of everyday life, and were certainly being bought and sold in Buncombe, but because agricultural production was mostly for the local market, slave labor was not essential to uphold that economic model. Discussing early agriculture in Western North Carolina, Inscoe asserts, “Crop production would hardly amount to enough work to occupy a slave labor force all year round.”[29] These small numbers of slaves were simply an aide to the already wealthy of Buncombe to further increase their wealth. Slaves, like land, were a form of investment capital; almost certain to supply dividends.[30]

The isolating geography of the Blue Ridge Mountains made it difficult to get agricultural goods to market, but isolation worked in the favor of early mountain settlers who were able to acquire large tracts of prime farmland and profit from the agricultural production with little competition. Families who already carried political clout, and whose patriarchs had served in the Revolution, were able to settle first grew in social, economic, and political power leaving little room for newcomers or those with fewer resources to advance.[31] Vance used his wealth from farming and investing in land, and social clout as a former state representative and county clerk so that by the time of his death he had an ownership interest in more than 25,000 acres of land in both North Carolina and Tennessee.[32] The geography and pattern of settlement of Buncombe helped create the conditions necessary for the first important step toward becoming a slave society, a consolidation of political and economic power.

The social and monetary capital that David Vance Sr. accumulated was passed to his sons. Vance died in 1813 and left David Jr., the father of Zebulon Vance, a large portion of his estate. David Jr. began his adult life with an advantage, as did most of the second generation of Buncombe’s elite. David Sr. left 898 acres in Reems Creek to David Jr. and his brother Robert, in addition to some 1000 acres or more in the state of Tennessee. Additionally, he was left with some livestock, and three slaves.[33] David Jr. began a family of his own in July of 1825 when he married Mira Margaret Baird, the daughter of another mountain master.[34] The Vance family continued to live on the farm at Reems Creek and by 1830, nine slaves lived and worked on the farm.[35] In passing down their political power, social, and physical capital to their sons, David Vance Sr. and his peers helped lay the foundation for the second generation economy.

By the early 1800’s, the abundant agricultural output of the surrounding areas and increasing populations in remote settlements like Warm Springs prompted a need for better transportation through the mountains to Asheville, the county seat. Traffic on this road already existed and yet Barnard’s station, about 15 miles south of Warm Springs, was the only place to find refreshment and rest at that time.[36] Wealthy residents of Buncombe took note of this need and proposed a plan to improve the road so that they could increase its economic potential. In 1823 a young David Swain, the future governor, helped finalize a bill to secure funding for a turnpike road to improve travel from Warm Springs to the Saluda Gap.  Regardless of some political disagreements, the Buncombe Turnpike was built through to Asheville by 1827, and the wealthy farmers and businessmen of Buncombe were ready to fill the need for places of refuge along the improved turnpike.[37]

With the new opportunity along the French Broad, economic activity shifted from simply farming to a multifaceted operation: the maintenance of a drover’s stand. Although the road was still too rough to easily move fragile vegetable crops, farmers in Tennessee and Kentucky found that the Buncombe Turnpike was a good route to move livestock to market. The drover’s stands provided a tavern like stop along the road so that those driving livestock could feed and water their animals, particularly hogs, and themselves. In addition for providing food and shelter for both people and animals, many stands operated a dry goods store, and the stand owners often served as a place to buy the local newspaper, the Highland Messenger.[38] M.W Alexander advertised in the same paper that his stand had a “well regulated bar” to serve spirits to its guests.[39] Stands also served more distinguished guests like James Silk Buckingham, Esq. who stayed in several of these stands during his travels through Western North Carolina. Buckingham noted one such stand about halfway in between Asheville and Warm Springs was “excellent…kept by a colonel,” which was “superior in its cleanliness and general order.”[40] Wellman proposes that Buckingham could have easily been speaking of the Vance home, which was well regarded for its cleanliness and hospitality.[41]

Just as their fathers had done when they first settled western North Carolina, the new generation of Buncombe’s wealthy were able to quickly purchase large tracts of land along the new road, and maintain their already consolidated political and economic power by capitalizing on the need for taverns along the Buncombe Turnpike. By the year 1834 David Jr. made up his mind about investing in the stock stand business. He sold off two tracts of land in Asheville, 650 acres in Reems Creek, and in 1839 Vance purchased a small amount of land off Casebolts Branch near the French Broad River. In 1840, David bought a share of 550 acres on the French Broad, and for the next two years he sold most of his farm on Reems Creek and bought 900 more acres of land near Lapland, what is now Marshall in Madison County.[42] The Vance stand stood in what is now the center of the town, directly across from the river.[43] By the time the Vance stock stand was in operation David Jr. held ownership interest in more than 1500 acres on the turnpike and 75 acres in Reems Creek.  According to the 1840 census he had 12 slaves, two were engaged in agriculture and one in manufacture or trade.[44] Vance’s peer, James Alexander, followed a similar pattern.  Land purchase records suggest that he purchased a small tract of land for a home and family farm, and later once they had established themselves, he purchased a larger piece for the operation of a stand.[45]


[1] “The Last Will and Testament of David Vance Senior, 1813,” Weaverville, NC, “Vance Family Histories,” Zebulon B. Vance Birthplace Collection,

[2] James Silk Buckingham, Esq. The Slave States of America, vol. II, (London: Fisher and Sons and Co.,, 1842) The Internet Archive, 197., (accessed 8/20/15).

[3] James Silk Buckingham, Esq. The Slave States of America, 193.

[4] John C. Campbell, The Southern Highlander and His Homeland, (New York: Russel Sage Foundation, 1921) 94. The Internet Archive, (accessed 11/10/15).

[5]  Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000) 9.

[6] Berlin, Many Thousands Gone, 7.

[7] Berlin, Many Thousands Gone, 4.

[8] Berlin, Many Thousands Gone, 4.

[9] John Inscoe, Mountain Masters: Slavery and the Sectional Crisis in Western North Carolina. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2000) xvii.

[10] Berlin, Many Thousands Gone, 7.

[11] Wilma Dunaway, Slavery in the American Mountain South, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005) 241.

[12] Dunaway, Slavery in the American Mountain South, 242.

[13] Inscoe, Mountain Masters, 13.

[14] Gordon B. McKinney, Southern Mountain Republicans: 1865 – 1900 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press. 1998) 11.

[15] John C. Inscoe and Gordon B. McKinney, The Heart of Confederate Appalachia, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000) 58.

[16] Inscoe, Mountain Masters, 98.

[17] Darin Waters, “Life Beneath the Veneer: The Black Community of Asheville, North Carolina from 1793 to 1900” (doctoral dissertation, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, 2012) Carolina Digital Repository, (accessed 05/05/15).

[18] Wilma Dykeman, The French Broad, (Newport, TN: Wakestone Books, 1955) 137.

[19] John Inscoe, Mountain Masters, 13.

[20] Berlin, Many Thousands Gone, 9.

[21] Rowan County, NC. Marriage Records. David Vance to Priscilla Brank. (accessed 07/20/15).

[22] “Family Tree,” Weaverville, NC, “Vance Family Histories,” Zebulon B. Vance Birthplace Collection.

[23] Buncombe County, NC. Record of Court Proceedings. Old Buncombe Genealogy. (accessed 07/20/15).

[24] Inscoe, Mountain Masters, 18-20.

[25] David Vance, Sr. Census Record, United States Federal Census Bureau. Buncombe Co., NC, 1800. Photocopies. (accessed 07/20/2015).

[26] Some records suggest that only one of the original three slaves was female, but that information is not conclusive. In the 1870 Census, Hudson Vance, the son of Richard and Aggy Vance, claimed his parents were born in Virginia. Leah, the wife of Richard mentioned in David Sr.’s will is thought to have been born in North Carolina.

[27] “The Last Will and Testament of David Vance Senior, 1813” Weaverville, NC, “Vance Family Histories,” Zebulon B. Vance Birthplace Collection.

[28] “Reems Creek Presbyterian membership records,” Weaverville, NC, “Vance Slave Histories,” Zebulon B. Vance Birthplace Collection.

[29] Inscoe, Mountain Masters, 68.

[30] Inscoe, Mountain Masters, 69.

[31] Inscoe, Mountain Masters, 18-20.

[32] Buncombe Co., NC. Buncombe County Register of Deeds. “Online Records Search” results for David Vance 1790-1813. (accessed 07/20/15). For record of land in Tennessee, see “The Last Will and Testament of David Vance Senior, 1813.” in “Vance Family Histories.”

[33] “The Last Will and Testament of David Vance Senior, 1813”

[34] North Carolina Marriage Records Index, 1741-2011, 497. (accessed 07/20/15).

[35] David Vance, Jr. Census Record, United States Federal Census Bureau. Buncombe Co., NC, 1830. Photocopies. (accessed 07/20/2015).

[36] Wellman, Kingdom of Madison, 36.

[37] Wellman, Kingdom of Madison, 36-42.

[38] “Agents of the Highland Messenger” Highland Messenger, Sep. 10, 1841, 2. (accessed 10/15/15).

[39] M.W. Alexander, Highland Messenger. Advertisement. Jul. 10, 1846, 4, (accessed 8/27/15).

[40] Buckingham, The Slave States of America, 207.

[41] Wellman, Kingdom of Madison, 38.

[42] Buncombe County, Buncombe County Register of Deeds, “Online Records Search.” results for David Vance 1820-1845. (accessed 07/20/2015).

[43] “David Vance,” County Historical Marker, Marshall, Madison County, NC. “Marshall, NC Historic Markers,”, (accessed 11/17/15).

[44] David Vance, Jr. Census Record, United States Federal Census Bureau. Buncombe Co., NC, 1840. Photocopies. (accessed 07/20/2015).

[45] Buncombe Co. Buncombe County Register of Deeds. “Online Records Search” Results for James Alexander, 1825-1841, deed book and page: 14/83; 15/328; 16/245. David Vance 1825-1841, deed book and page: 21/440; 22/131. (accessed 08/27/2015).

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