In The Grip of Slavery: The Development of a Slave Society in Antebellum Buncombe County, Part II

The increase in trade and economic development in Buncombe surrounding the new turnpike road was significant. Thousands of head of hogs, cattle, and horses came through Buncombe on their way to market. In November 1841 the Highland Messenger updated residents on the “great number of horses, cattle, sheep and hogs” that would be traveling through town to southern markets in the coming months. The paper assured all that with such an abundance of hogs there would be plenty of the “‘greasy doin’s’”.[1]  Stock stands became an essential part of the trip to market. The stands provided travelers with “provisions of all kinds common in the country,” including meals and medicines and a place to rest overnight. [2] An advertisement in the Highland Messenger in 1849 informed readers that they could purchase “Brandeth Pills,” a patent medicine meant to  cleanse the blood and, “assist nature to do her own work, in her own way, in her own time” at several popular stands, including Patton’s in Warm Springs and Deaver’s in Sulphur Springs.[3]

The increases in traffic on the road also lead to an increase in slave numbers. In 1800 about six percent of all people in Buncombe were enslaved, by 1840 that number had increased to nearly twelve percent.[4] While those numbers may seem small, the concentration of those slaves in the hands of stock stand owners was disproportionate. In 1840 9.2 percent of all slaves were held by five of Buncombe’s most wealthy men. Stock Stand owners David Vance, Samuel Chunn, Robert Deaver and Hezekiah Barnard owned 52 slaves total. Thomas Patton who ran a hotel in Swannanoa, just east of Asheville, had 59 slaves.[5]  According to Census records not all of these slaves were employed in agriculture, some were engaged in manufacture or trade, while others did jobs to maintain the stock stands.[6]

The typical Stock Stand estate was large in size and grandeur, serving as a gathering place for both elite travelers and livestock drovers. When the estate of James Weaver, a popular stand owner and half-owner of the turnpike, (at that time commonly referred to as “Patton and Weaver’s Road”) was sold in 1854 it included more than 1500 acres of valuable farmland both near the stand and further down the road, and “22 likely and valuable negroes, of different ages and sexes, ten of them grown or nearly so.” [7] Other large farms were sold in the area and included large fields of wheat, mills, and stands of mulberry trees. [8]  The grounds were well kept, and meant to provide guests with a comfortable experience. Robert Deaver, the owner of the Sulphur Springs Hotel, boasted about his newly enlarged spaces, pleasurable gardens and comfortable bathhouses to draw in visitors.[9] A traveler from New York, Frederick Law Olmstead, described one of the hotels near Asheville as having, “a long piazza for smokers, loungers and flirters, and a bowling alley and shuffle board,” to entertain its guests. [10]

Vance had twelve slaves in 1844 who worked to help operate his farm and stand.[11] Thanks to records from the sale of his estate, the some names of Vance slaves are recorded. Venus was the oldest, others in the group were Ann, May, and Bob. [12] Female slaves would have been doing primarily domestic tasks, especially along the turnpike. Advertisements in the Highland Messenger typically mention that a good female slave was a young, smart, and active girl who was a wonderful washer, ironer, and cook.  The production of textiles was important to many living in the mountains. Sarah Gudger, an ex-slave from Buncombe County, recalled in an interview conducted by the Federal Writer’s Project that she would spend hours and hours carding and spinning wool for weaving.[13] One of the Vance slaves known as young Leah was said to have been one of the finest cooks in Western North Carolina.[14] Slave Children also worked in the stands. Buckingham encountered children who were charged with household chores like sweeping, and Olmstead met slave children who helped in the kitchen. Thomas Patton often ran advertisements in the local newspaper offering up slave children to rent for $1.50 to $2.50 per month.[15]

Male slaves on the Vance farm would have been mostly participating in agriculture or some sort of trade. An advertisement for David Junior’s estate sale in the Highland Messenger says that one of his slaves was a young blacksmith.[16] A cane seat chair in the collection at the Zebulon Vance Birthplace at the farm on Reems Creek was said to have been made by an expert chair maker belonging to the Slimp family of East Tennessee.[17] Vance slaves would have been cultivating crops on the farm like watermelons, corn, and wheat, while others might be keeping watch over cattle and hogs and assisting drovers as they came to rest at the stand with their herds.[18] As the turnpike became a central part of the economy of Buncombe, African American slavery expanded from the field and home to other sectors of the economy such as craft trades like blacksmithing or tanning and large scale service industry requirements like cooking and cleaning, grounds maintenance, and supervision of the constant flow of livestock that made its way from Tennessee and Kentucky each fall.

Just as with the hogs, ease of transportation through western North Carolina to markets further south allowed for the maintenance of fear over slaves with the threat of being sold to the “cotton country.” Slave speculators traveled the Buncombe Turnpike, and mountain slave owners threatened slaves with disposal to the feared “cotton country” where the work was harder and masters were less benevolent. W.P Bost, a slave from Caldwell County, at the foothills of the Blue Ridge, observed slaves that were forced to walk chained together, “on the last of December so the niggers would be ready for sale on the first day of January.”[19] Sarah Gudger remembered that her master would bring speculators on to the plantation who would “talk to ol’Marse, and den dey slaps de han’cuffs on him an’ take him away to de cotton country.”[20] Dunaway argued in Slavery in the American Mountain South, “Mountain masters meted out the two most severe forms of punishment to slaves more frequently than their counterparts in other Southern Regions. Appalachian ex-slaves reported slave selling twice as often as other WPA interviewees; thus about one of every three mountain slaves was sold…”[21] Dunaway’s assertion suggests that speculators seem to have been prevalent, in fact, one of the slaves that worked alongside Sarah Gudger was according to her narrative bought from a speculator in Virginia.[22] However, there are only 321 recorded bills of sale for slaves in Buncombe County over the course of 89 years. Other systems like the leasing and hiring out of slaves appears more common.[23]

The slaveholders of Buncombe seem to have acted differently than Dunaway argues they may have while still maintaining economic power over those who did not own slaves. Uniquely, the buying and selling of slaves was not as common as leasing them out among many mountain slaveholders. Rather than continually buy and sell slaves mountain masters more frequently made the most of their investment by hiring them out to other members of the community. It was not uncommon to see some of the turnpike stand owners leasing out their slaves after the busy fall harvest and livestock driving season was complete. Around the end of November, advertisements in the Highland Messenger began to appear posted by subscribers who were looking for a slave to lease out, or someone attempting to make their slaves useful to someone else. In October of 1849, Thomas Patton offered up several of his male slaves to the Gold Mines, hoping to make extra profit from them.[24] The Patton family were the most frequent buyers and sellers of slaves in Buncombe county according to records held by the Buncombe County Register of Deeds. They had more recorded transactions with more slaves than anyone else between 1776 and 1865.[25] There is also evidence of the Vance family participating in the practice of leasing out slaves. While there is no surviving record of David Vance Jr. participating in this practice, there is evidence that his brother Robert leased out slaves. In his will, Robert indicates that one of his slaves was in the care of James Patton, and that rather than selling him with the rest of his estate, he could stay there, as that is what Robert believes would be his desire.[26]

According to newspaper advertisements, it appears that the leasing of slaves was more common than the intentional investment for speculation, while some other slave owners were selling large lots of young slaves, as many as twelve at a time.[27]  W.P Bost said the wife of his former master, “was a good woman. She never allowed the Massa to buy or sell and slaves.”[28] Gudger also mentioned that her second master never bought or sold any slaves.[29] After David Vance Jr.’s death in 1844 all of his slaves were to be put up for sale, but his widow Mira had purchased seven of the twelve slaves by the end of the sale. One slave in particular, Venus, was purchased for one dollar. [30]  Mira continued to have a unique relationship with former Vance slaves throughout her life. Two former slaves, Sandy and Leah Erwin, remained in contact with her until her death, and sat at the head of her casket at her funeral.[31]             The relationships mountain slave owners had with their slaves was diverse, and complicated. Family connections seem to have been more important to mountain slave holders, and were taken into careful account when buying, selling, and relocating slaves. Previously mentioned, Sandy Erwin came to the Vance family through Myra’s family and marriage. He was the property of Mira’s mother, Hannah Erwin Baird, and willed to her son A.E. Baird in 1849 with strict directions for him not to be sold out of the family.[32] While these social practices may seem as if they negate the idea that the communities along the Buncombe Turnpike generated an economy based on slavery, family wishes were fiercely important to mountain people in which this particular slave economy took rise. Hannah Erwin Baird would not sell Sandy because it was her wish to not sell anything given to her by her father, similarly, when Mira chose to purchase her own slaves back it was, according to later reports from her son Robert, due to her sentimental connection to them, and previous family wishes that they not be sold.[33]

Although the cultural atmosphere tended to demonstrate that mountain masters were more apt to keep families intact, other records suggest it was only when it was to their financial benefit. Slaves were also rising in price and were an important investment for many mountain farming families; they could be used as replacement capital in case of an emergency or a poor harvest. Priscilla Vance kept her husband’s wishes by not selling Aggy outside of the family, rather allowing her a choice of with whom to live and requested that her children not be sold until after her death. However, David Junior had a difference of opinion. In an 1836 letter to his sister Jane Davidson, David writes about his mother Pricilla, “She had fixed and prepared her worldly possessions some time before her death, and I urged that she dispose of Ann & Hudson now. She said that they are to remain with their mother until her death.” Pricilla asked that after their mother died they be sold and the profits divided amongst her daughters. David begrudgingly wrote, “I would rather it could be done now.” [34] David’s decision to obey his parent’s wishes seems to be more connected to his obligation to honor his parents rather than some moral conviction.[35]

The investments in land and slaves by mountain masters marginalized poor whites who could not afford slaves or their own land. They were primarily farmers working for themselves and producing small amounts of goods for the local market, but they could not keep up with the competitive prices and the model of a self-sufficient tavern run on slave labor. In his travels, Frederick Law Olmstead encountered a man who informed him that “A nigger…that wouldn’t bring more than $300 seven years ago, will catch more than $1000, cash, quick, this year; but now, hogs, they ain’t worth so much as they used to be; there’s so many of them driven through here from Tennessee, they’ve brought the price down.”[36] With the influx of pork from Tennessee and Kentucky, local farmers could no longer make money selling livestock. This was especially true because stand owners (the would-be consumer of locally raised livestock) often accepted payment from drovers in the form of crippled animals. [37] Even more so than falling pork prices, slavery disrupted the participation of small farmers in the local market. Slaves allowed the inns along the French Broad River to produce nearly everything they needed from furniture to agricultural goods; further limiting the market for poor farmers. One mountaineer  living near Asheville lamented that, “Ain’t general for people to hire here only for harvest time; fact is, a man couldn’t earn his board, let alone his wages, for six months in the year.”[38] Low prices and sparse work made life difficult for less-than-wealthy mountain whites.

The use of slave labor by the largest landowners in Buncombe had created an economy where those who did not have political, social, and economic power could not find work. During Frederick Law Olmstead’s travels to the region he encountered several poor mountaineers who inquired about Texas, and the lands further west. Often they inquired about finding work there, or other economic opportunity. Olmstead concluded of the economic climate in the mountains that the poor whites simply could not make a living with “negro competition.” He went on to say that poor whites had virtually no economic stimulus as long as “the monopoly of the opportunity to make money goes to the negro owners.”[39]

The frustrations of poor whites in grip of a slave-based system manifested in alternate opinions on the issue of slavery in the mountains. Abolitionism or Colonialism were popular causes among some poor whites because of the lack of economic opportunity afforded them in a slave economy. However, the wealthy of the region felt differently. Often stock stands and hotels in Buncombe hosted wealthy travelers from the far South, and the survival of some of these hotels depended on the wealth of the southern planters and their ability to travel to the mountains. Drovers were known to trade livestock or other goods to pay for room and board, but the more elite were able to pay with cash money, an elusive commodity in Western North Carolina.[40] Thus, the economic station of the far southern elite was important to the stand owners. Ensuring that visiting southern gentry’s opinions of the hotels, and their servants, remained positive was imperative to their survival.

Just after the Buncombe Turnpike was completed in 1831, North Carolina modified its slave codes. These new laws included provisions which restricted the right of free blacks and slaves to interact or socialize in many settings, and allowed for local sheriff’s to begin “slave patrols” to watch for runaways or otherwise unlawful behavior by slaves.[41] Many mountain counties established such patrols, and in the years leading up to the Civil War many advertisements were placed in the Highland Messenger and the Asheville News offering rewards for found runaway slaves. Olmstead encountered several well-off mountaineers in Eastern Tennessee and Western North Carolina in his travels, most of whom were averse to the idea of freeing slaves, and one who thought they should all be sent to Liberia.[42] Many saw slavery in general as a curse upon society, but slave labor worked to the benefit of those who could afford it, and helped mountain masters maintain a secure grip on the regional economy.

From its early years, Buncombe was ripe for the development of a slave society. It’s wealthy, war-hero, politician, elite were able to use their resources to purchase large tracts of fertile farmland, and used slave labor build their wealth within the local market. As populations in Kentucky and Tennessee, as well as inside the borders of Buncombe County grew, the construction of a clear, safe road from Paint Rock to the Saluda gap became necessary to move people and goods to a wider geographical range.

With the help of their social status and the success of their fathers, the second generation of Buncombe’s elite slave holding class were able to tighten their grip on the economic activity in the region by serving drovers and wealthy travelers in self-sufficient stock stand inns and taverns. Between 1800 and 1840, nearly all of the stock stand owners slave numbers increased. By 1860, at the dawn of the Civil War, fifteen percent of the county population was enslaved by the most elite two percent.[43] Owning on average 10-15 slaves each, the stock stand owners were able to provide for nearly all of their needs from agricultural services to home and farm manufacturing needs like weaving, milling, and metallurgy. The self-sufficiency and privilege afforded the typical stock stand owner disenfranchised many of the poor in the area, leaving them without work most of the year while increased availability of livestock drove prices down, further hurting small farmers.

In the course of about fifty years, Buncombe transformed into a slave society. Wealth and power was consolidated along the turnpike by the slave holding elite, and by the time traffic was at its peak in the 1840’s slaveholding numbers had doubled. Slave owners made the most of their investment by leasing out slaves, or selling lots of them at market or to speculators. However, it is apparent that mountain slave holders had a unique relationship with their slaves, and according to narratives and evidence, slaves were typically held in family units and weren’t bought and sold in Buncombe nearly to the extent that they were elsewhere. Still, in 1831 North Carolina’s slave codes harshened and runaways were common. The use of slave labor marginalized the poor, but increased the wealth of stand owners. The economic opportunity the Buncombe Turnpike presented was quickly taken by the Buncombe County elite, and the economic model they used put slaves at the center not only as a labor source, but also as a long term capital investment.

While Buncombe and the communities along the turnpike may have transformed into a slave society, other counties and communities in Western North Carolina did not. Other western counties had much smaller numbers of slaves, and were more geographically isolated than Buncombe.[44] However, this research serves to highlight that slave societies can exist on the small scale. The complexity of antebellum Appalachia lies within its isolating geography, making access to larger outside markets difficult and economic opportunity scarcer.

Buncombe County had the right conditions, at the right time, in the right place, to become a small slave society. As Buncombe becomes an increasingly popular tourist destination, it is imperative that this history of slavery be more prominently woven into our public historical narrative. The notion of an Appalachia absent of slaves is unrealistic, and if we continue to ignore the presence of slavery in our past, we will be discounting the contributions made by enslaved peoples to Buncombe county and its early economic development. Finding information about those who were enslaved by the Vance family and others was a challenge; the history of slavery in Buncombe is already fragile. It is vital, then, that we take the opportunity and what little information history has left us, and preserve our past.


[1]Highland Messenger. Advertisement. Dec. 12, 1841, pg. 2. (accessed 8/27/15).

[2] Highland Messenger. Advertisement. Jul. 20, 1846, pg. 4. (accessed 8/27/15).

[3] “Conversation, Between Two Friends, about Brandeth’s Pills” Advertisement. Highland Messenger, Jul. 10 1846, 4. (accessed 8/21/15).

[4] “Buncombe County, North Carolina, 1840,” Historical Census Browser, University of Virginia Geospatial and Statistical Data Center. (accessed 08/20/15).

[5] David Vance, Samuel Chunn, Robert Deaver, Hezekiah Barnard Census Records, United States Federal Census Bureau. Buncombe Co., NC, 1840.

[6] David Vance, Samuel Chunn, Robert Deaver, Hezekiah Barnard Census Records, United States Federal Census Bureau. Buncombe Co., NC, 1840.

[7] William McSween, “Chancery Sale of Land, Slaves, and Turnpike Road,” Advertisement. Asheville News. Jan. 11, 1855, 3. (accessed 8/27/15).

[8] Highland Messenger. Assorted Advertisement Clippings. 1840-1855. (accessed 8/27/15). Mulberry trees are used in the production of silk. Some mountaineers thought that silk production would be easily profitable in the mountains, so the mulberry tree became an investment crop for a few optimistic mountain farmers. For more on silk in NC see, David A. Norris, “Silk,” Encyclopedia of North Carolina, William S. Powell, ed. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006) 1036.

[9] R. Deaver. Advertisement. Highland Messenger. Aug. 14, 1840, 4. (accessed 8/27/15).

[10] Frederick Law Olmstead, A Journey in the Back Country, (New York: Mason Brothers, 1860) The Internet Archive, 251., (accessed 8/27/15).

[11] N. Blackstock and B.J Smith, “Administrator’s Sale” Advertisement. Highland Messenger, Jul. 19, 1844, pg. 4. Accessed 8/27/15.

[12] “Ledger of August 1844 Administrator’s Sale,” Weaverville, NC, “Vance Family Histories”, Zebulon B. Vance Birthplace Primary Source Collection.

[13] Sarah Gudger and Marjorie Jones, interviewer. “Sarah Gudger, ex-slave, 121 years.” Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writer’s Project 1936-1938. Library of Congress. (accessed 05/05/2015).

[14] “Letter from Pack Library,” Weaverville, NC, “Vance Family Histories,” Zebulon B. Vance Birthplace collection.

[15] Thomas Patton, Advertisement. Highland Messenger, Jan. 16, 1846, 2. (accessed 8/27/2015).

[16] N. Blackstock and B.J Smith, “Administrator’s Sale” Advertisement. Highland Messenger, Jul. 19, 1844, 4., (accessed 8/27/15).

[17] Entry in Vance Birthplace Digital Collections Catalog, Weaverville, NC, Zebulon B. Vance Birthplace Collection.

[18] Frontis W. Johnston, ed. The Papers of Zebulon Vance, Vol. I. (Raleigh: North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, 1963.) 10.

[19] W.P Bost, “W.P. Bost” Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writer’s Project 1936-1938. Library of Congress, 1. (accessed 05/05/2015).

[20] “Sarah Gudger ex-slave, 121 years,” 4.

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

[22] “Sarah Gudger, ex-slave, 121 years,” 6.

[23] Buncombe County Register of Deeds, “Slave Deeds,” Buncombe County Register of Deeds and the UNC Asheville Center for Diversity Education. (accessed 03/01/2015).

[24] Thomas Patton, Highland Messenger. Advertisement. Oct. 31, 1849. Accessed 08/27/2015.

[25] Buncombe County Register of Deeds, “Slave Deeds.”

[26] “ The Last will and Testament of Robert Vance,” Weaverville, NC, Vance Family Histories, Zebulon B. Vance Birthplace Collection.

[27] William F. McKesson. Advertisement. Highland Messenger, May 21, 1841. (accessed 8/21/15).

[28] “W.P. Bost,” 1.

[29] “Sarah Gudger ex-slave, 121 years,” 3.

[30] “Ledger of August 1844 Estate Sale,” Weaverville, NC, “Vance Family Histories,” Zebulon B. Vance Birthplace Collection.

[31] “Letter from Pack Library,” Weaverville, NC, “Vance Family Histories”, Zebulon B. Vance Birthplace Collection.

[32] “Last will and Testament of Hannah Erwin Baird, 1849,” Weaverville, NC, “Vance Family Histories,” Zebulon B. Vance Birthplace Collection.

[33] Inscoe, Mountain Masters, 92.

[34] “Letter from David Vance Jr. to his sister, Jane Davidson, 1836,” Weaverville, NC, “Digital Collection,” Zebulon B. Vance Birthplace Collection.

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

[36] Olmsted, A Journey in the Back Country, 226.

[37] Wilma Dykeman, The French Broad, 147.

[38] Olmstead, A Journey in the Back Country, 227.

[39] Olmstead, A Journey in the Back Country, 265.

[40] Dykeman, The French Broad, 147.

[41] North Carolina General Assembly, “Slaves and Free Persons of Color: An Act Concerning Slaves and Free Persons of Color”, 1831. University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Documenting the American South. (accessed 7/20/15).

[42] Olmstead, A Journey in the Back Country, 263.

[43] “Buncombe County, North Carolina, 1860,” Historical Census Browser, University of Virginia Geospatial and Statistical Data Center. (accessed 08/20/15).

[44] Historical Census Browser, University of Virginia Geospatial and Statistical Data Center. (accessed 08/20/15).

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