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In the years following the Revolution, it was not unusual that a couple like the Ashworths, with no extraordinary background or resources, could quickly become owners of so much land. This was an era when pioneer hardihood was essential to survival, and the desire for national expansion was widespread. The availability of cheap land allowed families to move through regular cycles of settling and resettling: if the new community prospered, they would sell the appreciated land, move again and buy more land on the frontier edge.
For these early settlers, peasantry, serfdom, and indentured servitude were clearly and bitterly remembered through family lore; their parents or grandparents had fled Europe to escape them. That heritage made the freedom of cheap American land an exhilarating experience. Land conferred status, and by building up equity and taking on debt, one could own thousands of acres, tracts that only the nobility in Europe could afford.
Productive land was an unbeatable asset in an agrarian society in which most of the necessities of life, and many of the luxuries, were self-provided. A poor man could buy 50 acres and grow enough to sustain his family. The more children he had, the more hoes could be in the cornfields; the more hoes, the more land he could work. Thus big families were the norm; every son or daughter could help put more acres into production, and every acre could sustain more hungry mouths. We can only imagine how these pioneers must have felt to be laboring solely under their own direction and for their own benefit, and we must marvel at their work ethic. For unlike the old-world aristocracy, landowners in America worked their own land. Nothing was wasted. They cut trees and hewed them into logs for a cabin, barn, and outbuildings, and used smaller branches for fences or milled them to build furniture. They dug up stones to use for building foundations and set the livestock and poultry to grazing on the newly cleared land. Streams were diverted through a coldhouse to provide fresh water and cold storage; the grazing animals provided eggs to eat or sell for cash, milk to drink and churn into butter, meat to be smoked and cured, as well as fat for soap, wool for clothes and feathers for pillows. On the cleared and rock-free plowed acres, settlers grew fruit and vegetables to be eaten fresh or canned for the lean months, used corn for fodder and for meal to bake bread, and recycled cobs as mast for hogs and shucks for insulating the house, stuffing the mattresses, and making dolls for the children (or casting spells). Productive land was a gold mine for those willing to work it.
Thomas Jefferson idealized the American yeoman farmer, extolling the enormous human energy that American freedom unleashed in families whose heritage was one of feudal oppression and serfdom. But Jefferson himself propounded another vision of life in America, one based on cash crops and slave labor. If land costs little, if transportation is convenient, and if a crop can be sold for cash (indigo, cotton, tobacco), then reliable, affordable labor can turn land into a large-scale, efficiently managed business enterprise that creates wealth. For Jefferson and many others, affordable labor meant slaves; but the “three-fifths compromise” of slavery was a time bomb ticking away, which, when it exploded, would affect many of the families of Fairview.
[Three-fifths was the proportion of a human being assigned to slaves by the U.S. Constitution. Before ratification, Southern states balked at the likelihood of Northern dominance as a result of inequitable representation, which was to be based on population. To ensure Southern votes, slaves would be counted as 3/5 of a person for census purposes, though of course they were denied any rights as people. The differences between slavery and non-slavery states would lead ultimately to secession and Civil War.].
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Pen and Plate Club
August 18, 2005
John C. Ager
This essay is a kaleidoscopic collection of stories reflecting the early history of the Fairview section of Buncombe County, NC. In large part, the writer is more journalist than researcher. I am indebted to Bruce Whitaker for his lifetime of effort to document the history of families in my community, and freely credit him as the source of the material that follows