"...the whole river is a bustle some about their children, brothers and husbands and the rest of us about our salt." : the antebellum industrialization of the Kanawha Valley in the Virginia backcountry

WCU Author/Contributor (non-WCU co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Carter Bruns (Creator)
Western Carolina University (WCU )
Web Site: http://library.wcu.edu/
Alexander Macaulay

Abstract: The Kanawha River of West Virginia begins at the confluence of the New and Gauley Rivers. It runs northwest for 97 miles through south central West Virginia until it reaches the Ohio River at the town of Point Pleasant. The Great Kanawha Valley is an area long recognized for its rich resources. Although not always fully appreciated, the history of the valley is one of relentless and innovative exploitation of its bounty. The development of the Kanawha salt industry in particular, with its late eighteenth- early nineteenth century beginnings, presents itself as a valuable lens through which to examine the historical assumption of post-bellum Appalachian industrialization. An examination of the early Kanawha Valley salt industry exposes a valley near the nation’s frontier which relentlessly pursued the industrial development of salt and monopolized the mineral’s supply across swaths of the Great West. In doing so, valley salt-makers created innovations which are still the basis of oil and gas drilling today, severely degraded their environment, created a unique slave-labor community, and began a pattern of relentless industrialization of the Kanawha Valley which continues to this day. This thesis intends to illuminate this early industry in the Kanawha Valley as a way of chipping away at myths of Appalachia and place Appalachian industrialization’s beginnings far earlier than is commonly considered. The introductory chapter focuses on the historiography of the Kanawha Valley, West Virginia and more importantly, Appalachia. It is important to establish why the proposed paper is important in the context of other writings, but more importantly, to help explore how the Kanawha Valley fits with past and present ideas of the Appalachian region. Chapter one explores the Kanawha Valley as a focal point in Virginians’ dreams of a commercial thoroughfare stretching from the Chesapeake Bay to the Mississippi River through Virginia. This includes discussions the formation of salt domes beneath the Kanawha River, the necessity of salt as a food preservative, and the mineral’s role in early American society. The chapter then discusses Native American uses of the salt marshes in the Kanawha, European exploration of the Kanawha Valley, valley settlement, land speculation in the region, and the inception of the salt industry on the banks of the Kanawha River. Chapter two begins with the early development of the commercial salt industry and follows that development until approximately 1815. The purpose of this is to root the Kanawha Valley salt industry in the larger context of the rise of the Ohio Valley’s meat packing industry and the region’s role in the international salted meat trade. Chapter three explores the innovation which was integral to the industry, making the Kanawha Valley the site of a number of developments, techniques and inventions which remain fundamental to the oil and gas well drilling industry to this day. This exploration of innovation marks the progress of the salt industry as well as serve as a contradiction to stereotypes of Appalachia. Chapter four explores the nature of slavery that the Kanawha Valley salt industry relied upon. The Kanawha Valley salt-makers relied heavily on agricultural slaves leased from owners in eastern Virginia. This extremely heavy reliance on hired slaves for industrial work a mere forty miles from the freedom of Ohio suggests unique innovations may have existed in the nature of slavery. The industrial slavery of the Kanawha Valley not only suggests possible unique facets to bondage there, it also provides a new light in which to examine Appalachia, a region where slavery remains less studied than agricultural regions. The thesis conclusion, points out the uniqueness of the Kanawha Valley. This thesis does not intend to suggest the post Civil War industrialization if Appalachia is incorrect, but that it cannot be assumed. This thesis serves to chip away at the assumption that the industrialization of the region was a post-Civil War event.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2013
Salt industry and trade -- West Virginia -- Kanawha River Valley -- History -- 18th century
Salt industry and trade -- West Virginia -- Kanawha River Valley -- History -- 19th century
Kanawha River Valley (W. Va.) -- Economic conditions -- 18th century
Kanawha River Valley (W. Va.) -- Economic conditions -- 19th century
Slavery -- West Virginia -- 19th century

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