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The Rip Van Winkle State

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Sometimes immigrants move toward. Sometimes they move away from.

Daniel Boone crossing the mountains
Daniel Boone Crossing the Mountains

Starting long before the American Revolution, adventurous North Carolinians migrated west over the mountains in search of a better life. Many followed the Wilderness Road cut by Daniel Boone. The “road” – really just a narrow trail – led from North Carolina into eastern Tennessee, then north through the Cumberland Gap into bountiful Kentucky. Following the war, migration increased as veterans were rewarded with free land in the over-mountain territory that would become Tennessee.

But after the War of 1812, a new type of immigration began to dominate. Earlier settlers had been lured over the mountains by the promise of land that was plentiful, available, fertile, and cheap . The new immigrants from North Carolina – more in the mold of refugees – crossed the mountains westward in flight from brutally hard times and from unresponsive government. In the Panic (economic recession) of 1819, the price of cotton fell by 50% and land values fell 20%. Land long farmed was exhausted, less and less able to sustain those who worked it. And government seemed unwilling to promote or countenance remedies.

Compared with neighboring states, North Carolina was economically and culturally stagnant.

North Carolina leaders of the period believed that there was no role for government when it came to spending on schools, agriculture, or  transportation. For the general population, this translated into chronic illiteracy, outmoded forms of agriculture, and no access to markets in order to sell goods.  In 1840, one third of the North Carolina population was illiterate, a poor record even by American standards of the day. Farmers remained ignorant of new techniques, such as crop rotation, that would help boost production and preserve fertile soils. And impassible roads consigned farm families to a life of social isolation and economic self-sufficiency.

The state’s economic stagnation and cultural impoverishment were not unrecognized. Newspapers and reformers of the day called attention to the problems. An 1830 Legislative Report put North Carolina’s economic malaise in stark terms, describing…

…a state without foreign commerce, for want of seaports or a staple; without internal communications by rivers, roads or canals; without a cash market for any article of agricultural product; without manufactures…

Neighboring Virginia and South Carolina, with bustling economies, heaped scorn on our situation. But there seemed to be no political will for measures that might bring progress. As a result, North Carolina earned the derisive title “The Rip Van Winkle State.” Like Washington Irving’s memorable character, North Carolina’s economy seemed to be sleeping the years away as others around it prospered.

In 1790, North Carolina was the third most populous state. In 1860 it ranked twelfth.

Frustrated by lack of opportunity in North Carolina, hundreds of thousands of residents fled the state in search of a better life in Tennessee, Georgia, Indiana, Alabama, Missouri, Mississippi and other over-mountain regions. Between 1815 and 1850, one third of the state’s population left. (These immigrants were almost exclusively white. Black North Carolinians rarely had the luxury of seeking better circumstances or fleeing bad ones.)

In 1815, state Senator Archibald Debow Murphey lamented…

…it is mortifying to witness the fact that thousands of our wealthy and respectable citizens are annually moving to the west in quest of that wealth which a rich soil and a commodious navigation never fail to create in a free state; and that thousands of our poorer citizens follow them, being literally driven away by the prospect of poverty.

As far away as Ohio, migrating North Carolinians drew notice. Frederick Marryat, an Englishman traveling through the Ohio Valley in 1838, noted in his journal that he was:

…surprised at the stream of emigration which appears to flow from North Carolina to Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri. Every hour you meet with a caravan of emigrants from that sterile but healthy state. Every night the banks of the Ohio are lighted up with their fires…these caravans consist of two or three covered wagons, full of women and children, furniture, and other necessaries, each drawn by a team of horses; brood mares, with foals by their sides, following; half a dozen or more cows, flanked on each side by the men, with their long rifles on their shoulders; sometimes a boy or two, or a half-grown girl on horseback.

Even when more progressive policies became ascendent, the arc of change was long.

In 1835, progressive leaders in North Carolina began to take political control away from the entrenched conservatives. Governments at all levels began to be more representative of and responsive to the people. But it would be decades before significant improvement came to the life of an average citizen. And meanwhile, the west still beckoned.

As late as 1845, the Greensborough Patriot newspaper observed:

Never have we seen such a rush of our population for the great West. All manner of vehicles, and pack-horses, and foot travelers pass through town every day literally in crowds and caravans. It would not be too much to say that on yesterday, before noon, fifty vehicles passed, each with a family, amounting in aggregate numbers to 150 or 175 souls.

By 1860, thirty percent of North Carolina’s native-born population – over 400,000 people – lived outside the state. The journey west was hard and dangerous, so those who undertook it tended to be young, healthy and ambitious. They were the kind of people who might become leaders. And indeed, among those who decamped for the west in the early 1800s were Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, and Andrew Johnson.

Daniel Boone image courtesy of North Carolina Archives & History Digital Collections, [N_53_16_4494]

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