The history of Ashe County as it existed before the Civil War has always been a bit murky. Almost no buildings from the period exist. The low literacy rate of the period led to few written records, many of which have since been lost. The diaries, newspapers and letters that help give a window into much of the antebellum South are not available to a historian interested in Ashe County. Consequently, much of what is known about the period is based on hearsay or orally transmitted tales of family emigration and slave ownership that may or may not have a basis in reality.
However, credible information does exist to help paint a portrait of Ashe County during this formative period. Probably the most interesting is the 1840 Federal Agricultural Census. This census, which is performed every five years, is still used to collect information about America’s agricultural output. Unlike the population census, which occurs every 10 years, this census does not collect information about families or individuals, rather it evaluates the agricultural production of each county in the United States. The first of these censuses, which occurred in 1840, provides an opportunity to see exactly what kinds of lives were being led by early residents of Ashe. The portrait that emerges is in some ways predictable, but is also quite surprising.
Like many counties in North Carolina, Ashe’s primary agricultural product during this period was corn. Its use both as a food for people and animals gave it great utility. In 1840, Ashe County grew 150,279 bushels of corn; however, this was quite a bit less than the average for a North Carolina county. By contrast, buckwheat was a unique Ashe County phenomenon. In 1840, the county produced 10,000 bushels of buckwheat. Compared to the corn output, this seems insignificant; however, the entire state of North Carolina produced only 15,391 bushels. Ashe County’s buckwheat output was almost 5,000% more that the average county in North Carolina. Buckwheat’s short growing season and ability to persist in acidic soils would have made it ideally suited to Ashe County’s climate. By contrast, wheat and barley, which were common in the Piedmont of North Carolina, were fairly non-existent in Ashe.
Another pair of crops that seemed unusually suited to Ashe were hemp and flax. The production of these fibrous plants in Ashe County was five times more than the state average. Given the new push to reintroduce hemp farming, this should be welcome news to farmers looking for a historical precedent for the crop’s success.
The livestock of Ashe County was also unique. When Bishop Augustus Spangenberg first visited the area that would someday become Ashe County in 1754, he remarked that “It is also admirably suited for cattle-raising, with an abundance of meadow land.” Based on this assessment, as well as the county’s well known history of cattle production, you would expect cattle to be the primary livestock animal in the county in 1840, and, indeed, the cattle population of Ashe was 50% greater than the state average. However, the most unique aspect of Ashe’s livestock population was sheep. In 1840, Ashe was home to 16,523 sheep, more than twice the county average for North Carolina. These sheep proved to be quite useful to settlers living in a cold climate. Ashe used their sheep to produce 22,202 pounds of wool, 141% of the state average. Similarly, mutton would have been commonly seen on tables in Ashe. A Fayetteville newspaper article from 1855 recalls how a traveller staying in Ashe was treated to “a capital supper, venison and mutton, that would make the mouth of an epicure water.”
The after dinner refreshments would have been equally notable. It has long been noted the mountain region’s proclivity for whiskey production. This desire to create homemade liquor, free from outside regulation, led to the whiskey tax rebellion of 1794. In Ashe, this homemade liquor was prolific. The 1840 census reports 97 legal distilleries operating in the county, more than twice the state average. In 1840 these distilleries produced 23,573 gallons of liquor. This would have been a little of 3 gallons for every man, woman, and child living in Ashe County that year.
The picture of Ashe that has emerged thus far is one of prolific agricultural production. Considering the fact that North Carolina as a whole was an agriculturally based economy, Ashe’s production is even more notable. Ashe’s production of oats, rye, buckwheat, horses, cattle, sheep, wool, potatoes, hemp, flax, sugar, and ginseng were all well about the state average. However, Ashe was lacking in several key regards. These points of weakness are equally useful to understanding Ashe County’s antebellum economy.
One would expect Ashe’s economy to be lacking industry, and the census data reflects that. Although Ashe did produce some commercial products, most notably hats and wagons, the level of production for these items was well below the state average. Ashe was clearly reliant more on subsistence agriculture rather than industry for its income. The lack of retail stores also demonstrates this reality. The county contained only 8 retail stores, 50% less than the state average. When considering the fact that Ashe at that time included modern day Watauga and Alleghany County, the isolation of these stores becomes apparent. Each store would have served an average of 120 square miles. Since most were undoubtedly located in clusters near towns, these stores would have been very distant from the homes of most residents.
The dependence of Ashe residents on their own agricultural products is further underscored by the number of grist mills operating in the county. In 1840, there were 97 of these mills operating, more than twice the state average per county. Each of these mills would have served a local community, allowing farmers in those areas to mill the corn and buckwheat being grown into a usable food staple. Along with the grist mill, the saw mill would have been a surprisingly common sight in 1840 Ashe County. Twenty were being operated, turning the abundant timber of the county into dimensioned lumber. Although we tend to picture Ashe’s earliest residents living in log cabins, the use of dimensioned lumber was above average. In 1840, 75 homes had been built using dimensioned lumber rather than log. That was 180% more wooden homes than were built in the typical North Carolina county during the same period.
Even though many records of individual lives are not available from the period before the Civil War, a historian of Ashe County can form a fairly robust view of life in the county during these antebellum years. The portrait that emerges is one of isolation and deprivation, but also one of industry, adaptability, and independence.