Poor Whites of the Antebellum South: Tenants and Laborers in Central North Carolina and Northeast Mississippi / Edition 1

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In Poor Whites of the Antebellum South, Charles C. Bolton gives a distinct voice to one of the most elusive groups in the society of the Old South. Bolton's detailed examination reveals much about the lives of these landless white tenants and laborers and their relationship to yeoman farmers, black slaves, free blacks and elite whites. Providing a provocative analysis of the failure of the Jeffersonian "yeoman ideal" of democracy in white-majority areas, this book also shows how poor whites represented a more significant presence on the political, economic, and social landscape than previously had been thought.
Looking at two specific regions--the "settled" central piedmont of North Carolina and the "frontier" of northeast Mississippi--Bolton describes how poor whites played an important, though circumscribed, role in the local economy. Dependent on temporary employment, they represented a troubling presence in a society based on the principles of white independence and black slavery. Although perceived by southern leaders as a threat, poor whites, Bolton argues, did not form a political alliance with either free or enslaved blacks because of numerous factors including white racism, kinship ties, religion, education, and mobility. A concluding discussion of the crisis of 1860-61 examines the rejection of secession by significant numbers of poor whites, as well as the implications for their future as the Old South turned toward the new.
Poor Whites of the Antebellum South sheds light on a group often neglected in southern history. It is an important contribution that will be of interest to all students and historians of the American South.
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Editorial Reviews

Bolton (history, U. of Southern Mississippi) illuminates the social complexity surrounding the lives of a group consistently dismissed as rednecks, crackers, and white trash: landless white tenants and laborers in the era of slavery. A short epilogue looks at their lives today. Paper edition (unseen), $16.95. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822314684
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 12/28/1993
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 1,564,790
  • Product dimensions: 6.02 (w) x 8.95 (h) x 0.97 (d)

Meet the Author

Charles C. Bolton is Director of the Mississippi Oral History Program and Assistant Professor of History at the University of Southern Mississippi.

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Read an Excerpt

Poor Whites of the Antebellum South

Tenants and Laborers in Central North Carolina and Northeast Mississippi

By Charles C. Bolton

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9763-2


A Window into the World of Antebellum Poor Whites: The Story of Edward Isham

Poor whites of the antebellum South are generally invisible beyond the kind of records that consist essentially of numbers—census and tax records. Very little evidence survives, in other words, from which to build a portrait of human beings. Many of the clues we do have are encased in what is essentially a negative context—court records, ejectment proceedings, and records of insolvent debtors. But by searching through such material, we can begin to peer into this unchartered world and gain certain substantive insights into the kinds of daily lives that hundreds of thousands of southern whites lived in the days before the Civil War.

For example, a poor white man named Edward Isham became historically visible because he was hotheaded, sexually promiscuous, and frequently ran afoul of the law. After Isham was charged with murder in Catawba County, North Carolina, in 1859, the court appointed a young lawyer named David Schenck as Isham's defense counsel. Sometime before Isham was executed in May 1860, Schenck recorded the life story of Edward Isham in lengthy detail. The Schenck biography allows us to glimpse, despite the often atypical behavior of its protagonist, the social relations of the southern poor.

Edward "Hardaway Bone" Isham was born in the late 1820s in Jackson County, Georgia. During the 1830s his father lost the small tract of land he owned and moved the family to Pinetown in Carroll County, Georgia. There, his father labored primarily as a landless miner. During Isham's childhood, his parents separated, and he grew up in a house with his father and his father's common-law wife. Limited educational opportunities existed in the Pinetown area, and Isham attended school for a total of five days. Religion did not nourish in his hometown either. He recalled that during his childhood "no preacher could ever live or preach in Pine town, one lived there once and they tore down his fences and run him off."

Throughout his life, Edward Isham moved frequently because of a need to search for work and also to avoid punishment for a series of petty escapades, almost invariably concerning fighting. His initial scrape with the law came in Carroll County in the mid-1840s when he apparently attacked a man in front of a justice of the peace as the victim sought a warrant for an earlier assault perpetrated by Isham. The justice arrested Isham, but he escaped jail and fled to his uncle's house in De Kalb County, Georgia. There, he joined the Methodist church, but the congregation soon dismissed him for fighting with a slave member. Isham then moved to Forsyth County, Georgia, to labor in that county's gold mines. While he was working on the public roads there, the local authorities charged him with stealing some milk and then assaulting his accuser. To avoid prosecution, Isham fled the county.

Occasionally, Isham traveled to Macon County, Alabama, to visit one of his brothers. During one of these trips, he became romantically involved with a married woman, and she eventually returned to Pinetown with him, where the two of them soon married. Shortly after the wedding, Isham left his new wife in Carroll County with his mother while he went off to look for work. He journeyed to Walker County, Georgia, where he worked splitting rails and farming as a tenant, but he had to forfeit his crop because of legal troubles resulting from a fight. From there, Isham proceeded to Chattanooga, where he worked on the railroad, but he soon "got into a difficulty with some Irishmen boat hands about some lewd woman" and had to leave that job. Finally, before returning to Georgia, Isham labored for a time as a fireman on a boat on the Tennessee River. When he returned to Walker County, he found that his wife had not successfully endured his long absence alone, and he promptly became embroiled in a fight with his wife's lover. With several outstanding arrest warrants issued against him, Isham continued to roam around the up-country and mountains of Georgia working at various jobs, although he periodically returned for short stays in the Pinetown neighborhood.

In late 1850 Isham took a job driving a herd of cattle from Pinetown to Montgomery, Alabama. After completing this task, he went to Macon County, Alabama, where, together with his brother, he "built a little shantie on the river and rafted lightwood to Montgomery." This little foothold, however, soon vanished. Isham became enmeshed in a love affair with his sister-in-law and found it expedient to leave town. He ended up back in Pinetown, where he married another woman, apparently without formally divorcing his previous wife. After he worked for several months in the Carroll County mines and made some money, Isham's troubles began again when he became romantically involved with a free black woman. This relationship and more fighting led to the issuance of additional warrants for his arrest. A group of men eventually captured him, but he broke out of jail and escaped to his mother's house in Chattanooga, where she had recently moved and "sold cakes and whiskey and boarded work hands for a living."

In Chattanooga, Isham met a woman of some means, and the pair traveled to Atlanta by train. After stealing money from this woman, Isham returned once again to his second wife in Carroll County. He worked steadily for about six months in the mines and on the railroad, but he eventually quit and started gambling with another man along the railroad line. The two men and their wives soon decided to go west. Settling in Johnson County, Arkansas, but unable to purchase land, Isham worked at splitting rails, hunting deer, and collecting bees.

Before long, Isham became involved in another fight that attracted the attention of the law, and he decided to leave Arkansas and his second wife and return to Macon County, Alabama. During this stay in Macon County, he and two of his brothers cut timber and formed "a company to fish and gamble." The enterprise, however, was soon dissolved because of frequent disputes. After this setback, Isham wandered through north Alabama, northwest Georgia, east Tennessee, and western North Carolina, working at a number of different tasks for various individuals, including one stint for a free black farmer in Tennessee.

In the late 1850s, Isham married for a third time. His new wife was the daughter of a man who had hired Isham to dig a well near the town of Statesville in Iredell County, North Carolina. Perhaps with help from his new father-in-law, Isham bought his first piece of land—a plot often acres. He promptly and successfully set about making a crop, but an Iredell County grand jury soon indicted him for fighting at the election, and Isham fled the area, leaving behind his new bride, his land, and his growing crop.

Isham spent the last months of his life performing odd jobs around the foothills of North Carolina, occasionally taking time out for socializing. For instance, he spent a week or more "gambling with some white men and free negroes" near Taylorsville, North Carolina. He performed his last job in Catawba County, North Carolina, where he stopped to dig some ditches for James Cornelius, a slaveowner. When Cornelius failed to pay Isham for the job, he filed suit, seeking $7, but the jury only awarded him $5. Unfortunately, this did not end the affair. Cornelius had the judgment stayed, and a few days later, he was murdered. The evidence overwhelmingly pointed toward Isham as the murderer, and a jury eventually convicted him of the crime. On May 25, 1860, Edward Isham died on the gallows.

Ten years earlier, in the summer of 1850, a federal census enumerator had listed Edward Isham—the head of household number 1137 in Carroll County, Georgia—as a twenty-three-year-old, illiterate, landless miner. Most of Isham's immediate neighbors shared the poverty of the Isham household. Of the thirty surrounding households, only four owned any real property. Landless farmers, laborers, and miners headed most of the nearby households, and almost 60 percent of the men and women who headed these households could not read or write.

Applying the descriptive appellation "poor white" to Edward Isham and his landless Pinetown neighbors is problematic. Over the years, the term has acquired a discernible amount of negative baggage. In current southern usage, the phrase "poor white" means a person with little or no property who also has low social standing because of certain negative attributes: laziness, shiftlessness, and irresponsibility. By this definition, Isham might fall into the category of poor whites, but without further evidence, the label probably would be inappropriate to describe his landless neighbors.

The practice of making distinctions between different kinds of impoverished white southerners has deep roots. During the antebellum period, southerners differentiated between whites who were poor and "poor whites" or, even more descriptively, "poor white trash." Antebellum southerners seem to have separated the two groups on the basis of geography and culture. D. R. Hundley, a southern slaveholder writing about southern social classes in 1860, claimed that poor whites were those who lived in distinct, isolated settlements in the mountains, hills, pine barrens, and sandhills but not in his own plantation district. According to Hundley, poor whites did little farming; they survived primarily by hunting and fishing. Hundley described "the poor whites" as illiterate, superstitious, and, above all, lazy and perpetually drunk. According to Hundley's depiction of southern social groups, the only "degraded" or "poor white" southerners were those who chose to go off and live by themselves because they did not want to work and because they had habits at odds with respectable southern society, which they could more freely practice in isolation. For Hundley, the white poverty that existed in the antebellum South resulted from voluntary choices made by people already beyond the pale of respectable southern society.

While even some contemporary observers may have considered Hundley's portrait overdrawn, it served as a useful description to southerners at the time because it maintained that the slave system of the South had not impoverished whites. In part, Hundley's analysis of southern social classes was in response to assertions by northern travelers and abolitionists that an economy dependent on black slavery reduced all nonslaveholders to a position of permanent poverty and to subjugation by a class of aristocratic slaveowners.

Clearly, the question of poverty in the South, as in the nation at large, was often approached in a partisan manner that obscured more than it revealed. Twentieth-century historians have labored with some success to shed new light on the subject. Beginning with Frank Lawrence Owsley, historians of the antebellum South have shown that slavery did not impoverish all white nonslaveholders and that nonslaveholding yeomen who owned their own farms comprised the largest group of white people living and working in the antebellum South. Among others, Steven Hahn, J. William Harris, and Lacy K. Ford have recently expanded and enriched Owsley's conclusion that the nonslaveholding yeomanry of the antebellum South played an important role in the region.

Yet while the lives of the landed, nonslaveholding yeomanry of the antebellum South have been rescued from former obscurity, few efforts have been made to explore the history of landless nonslaveholders in the region. Before the Civil War, the number of landless whites in the South ranged from 30 to 50 percent of all whites. Descriptions of this sizable population, however, continue to be limited by both old stereotypes and by the successful reemergence of the yeomanry onto the historical stage. The Hundley definition of "poor whites" has survived in popular and scholarly circles—essentially unchanged from its 1860 definition—to describe a small segment of the antebellum landless white population, individuals whose lives resembled that of Edward Isham. At the same time, a much larger group of landless whites, those not isolated from southern communities either physically or culturally, has come to be regarded as almost indistinguishable from the broad categories of the "yeomanry," the "common whites," or the "plain folk." In effect, discussions about landless whites in the antebellum South remain confined, on the one hand, by an outdated stereotype of "poor whites," in which the most impoverished white citizens are poor because of their own voluntary actions, and on the other hand, by an assumption that the lives of the vast majority of landless nonslaveholders differed little from those of their landed counterparts.

The following chapters focus on the economic, social, and political lives of landless whites in the antebellum South. My intent is to bring into sharper view the lives of landless whites in the antebellum South and to discover how their experiences actually resembled or differed from those of other white nonslaveholders.

It is not difficult to determine the reason why so little is known about the landless whites of the antebellum South: the documentary record that has survived is meager. Much like other illiterate and impoverished people, landless whites of the antebellum South did not leave behind collections of letters or other written records. Because of their economic condition, they rarely held offices or otherwise occupied the kinds of positions in society around which evidence accumulates that can be historically preserved. Nevertheless, historical evidence about the region's landless white population does exist. It can be found in scattered references throughout various manuscript collections of wealthier southerners, in county and state records, in newspapers, and in the manuscripts of the federal censuses of 1850 and 1860.

A word about research strategy is in order here. Because of the fragmentary nature of the existing evidence about landless whites, an investigation concentrated on a specific geographic location seemed to offer the best opportunity for linking into a useful pattern the disparate pieces of available information. But what particular geographic location should be studied? Much has been written about the "American frontier" and the "southern frontier"—those transient regions whose locations moved steadily across the continent throughout the nineteenth century. Generalizations about the social relations on these frontiers—as contrasted with the social relations in the more settled regions of the United States—have also been the subject of scholarly attention. Since these comparisons have so markedly enriched our understanding of the varieties of the American experience, it seemed promising to incorporate this comparative framework into the present inquiry. Accordingly, two regions of the South are examined in the present study: fourteen "settled" counties in the central Piedmont of North Carolina and four "frontier" counties in northeast Mississippi. Within each of these regions, two counties were selected for detailed study: Randolph and Davidson counties in the central Piedmont of North Carolina and Pontotoc and Tishomingo counties in northeast Mississippi. A comparison of landless whites in these two regions offers the prospect of revealing more about the world of poor whites than the study of a single area would allow. Certain distinctions about research strategy also bear mention. The state of Mississippi has an incomplete historical record compared with North Carolina. It therefore often proved necessary to probe for evidence from other areas of Mississippi besides the northeast counties in order to complete a portrait of that region's poor white population.

Given the relative scarcity of evidence concerning landless whites in the antebellum South, the biography of Edward Isham provides a rare and relatively detailed look at the life of one of the region's poorest white citizens. It should be recognized, however, that the Isham biography— viewed casually—tends to reinforce the negative stereotypes that have existed, and continue to persist, about impoverished white southerners. It is prudent to keep in mind that details of Edward Isham's life are available essentially because much of his behavior deviated from the expectations of the larger society. His "biographer" confided to his diary that Isham's crime was "certainly the most cool and deliberate murder I ever investigated." David Schenck may have been compelled to record Isham's story precisely because it illustrated the life of a man who "deserved" to die.


Excerpted from Poor Whites of the Antebellum South by Charles C. Bolton. Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Tables and Figures
1 A Window into the World of Antebellum Poor Whites: The Story of Edward Isham 1
2 "A Third Class of White People": Poor Whites in North Carolina's Central Piedmont 11
3 A Troubling Presence: White Poverty in a Slave Society 42
4 Poverty Moves West: The Migration of Poor Whites to the Old Southwest 66
5 Poor Whites in the Cotton South: Northeast Mississippi 84
6 Electoral Politics and the Popular Presence: The Political World of the Antebellum South 113
7 Electoral Politics versus the Popular Presence: The Secession Crisis in North Carolina 139
8 Electoral Politics versus the Popular Presence: The Secession Crisis in Mississippi 161
Epilogue: Poor Whites and the "New South" 181
Appendix: A Note on the Use of the Federal Manuscript Census 187
Notes 191
Bibliography 235
Index 251
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