Virginia Borderlands and Democracy

Frederick Jackson Turner suggested that the "frontier" experience shaped the political culture of America and fostered the emergence of democratic institutions. That led to a generation of historians who elaborated upon his thesis, followed by another generation of historians who described how that thesis was, at a mimimum, less than a complete explanation.

In a 1940 speech, Thomas Perkins Abernethy articulated some key points regarding land settlement patterns in Virginia during the colonial era. Though topography and the navigability of rivers helped shape the migration inland, as population spread westward to the Ohio River, three other factors should be considered:1

Abernethy concluded that "frontier conditions do not necessarily produce democratic instititions, even when the lands are easily accessible to independent small farmers." The ability of the Virginia gentry to obtain ownership of large tracts of Virginia land at extremely low cost enabled them (and owners of large tracts in Carolina) to compete successfully with William Penn for colonists and delayed settlement of the upper Ohio River Valley. The willingness of the gentry to sell that land varied - Lord Fairfax was slow to market his properties, for example, so that delayed permanent European settlement within the boundaries of his proprietary grant.

Migration south through the Shenandoah Valley did not lead directly to Tennessee, with overflow spilling through Cumberland Gap into Kentucky. Rather than floow the Roanoake River to its headwaters, early groups of Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, Moravians, and Quakers cut through the Blue Ridge and crossed to the Piedmont east of the mountains. The virgin soil there was still fertile, and access to markets along the Fall Line were easier. It took an additional 20-25 years after Thomas Walker explored the Cumberland Gap before the valley of the Yadlin River became "crowded" and the power of the Shawnee and Cherokee were diminished. Only then did Pennsylvanians float down the Ohio, and Virginians and Carolinians follow Daniel Boone and others into the bluegrass territory.

Abernethy summarized as follows:

The westward movement did not roll forward with an orderly and irresistable force like the waves of the sea. On the contrary, it was as fitful as a mountain stream, now swirling, now eddying, and its course was deflected by many crosscurrents.

Exploring Land, Settling Frontiers

Virginia and the Internet (the next frontier?)


Recommended Reading:
- Beeman, R. R., "Settling the Wilderness," The Evolution of the Southern Backcountry: A Case Study of Lunenburg County, Virginia, 1746-1832
- Fisher, David Hackett, "Virginia Building Ways: English Origins of Chesapeake Houses," Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in Virginia
- Horn, James, "Settling the Land," Adapting to a New Land: English Society in Seventeenth-Century Chesapeake
- Leyburn, James G., "The Valley of Virginia," The Scotch-Irish: A Social History
- Mitchell, Robert D., "The Shenandoah Valley Frontier," from Annals, Association of American Geographers, pp 461-86
- Peckham, Howard H., The Colonial Wars: 1689-1762, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1964
- Turner, Frederick Jackson, The Frontier In American History, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1935


1. Abernethy, Thomas Perkins, Three Virginia Frontiers, Peter Smith, Gloucester Massachusetts, 1962, p.60-65

Exploring Land, Settling Frontiers
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