Titles Must Be Perfect”: The Broad Form Deed, Politics, and Landownership in Eastern Kentucky at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
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Titles Must Be Perfect”:
The Broad Form Deed, Politics, and Landownership in Eastern Kentucky at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

The dominance of the coal industry in eastern Kentucky began over a century ago when businessmen both inside and outside of the region discovered the immense stores of wealth locked within the mountains. This lucrative natural resources windfall coincided with and was spurred on by the tremendous growth of the nation’s industrial sector in the late nineteenth century, occurring at the same time as the literary “discovery” of Appalachia.1 The method of choice in obtaining the natural resources was the infamous broad form deed, a document crafted to sever mineral rights from the surface estate and which ultimately allowed investors and businessmen to not only extract resources but influence the economic, legal, and political landscape of the mountains. However, early political and legal challenges from holders of Virginia land grants, issued before Kentucky reached [End Page 27] statehood, nearly rendered broad form deeds useless and resulted in a direct attack on the interests of mineral owners in the mountains.

This article focuses on this lesser known part of the mineral rights story and examines how local businessmen, mineral speculators, and state representatives ended the land-grant issue through a constitutional convention and a series of legal challenges. The neutralization of Virginia land-grant claims both politically and legally paved the way for broad form deed mineral owners to secure and extract the region’s natural resources. These early landownership challenges also shed light on the changing perceptions of what constitutes modernization and progress held by both small farmers and the local elite as both groups sought to maintain ties to the land. Ultimately, the protection of mineral rights secured with the broad form deed allowed the coal industry to gain entrance into eastern Kentucky and put into motion a political, economic, and physical dominance that continues today.

From the 1880s until the 1920s, the broad form deed was used by mineral speculators to acquire rights to the profitable mineral wealth of Appalachia. The unfortunate cleverness of this document came from the creation of two separate estates on a single piece of land by horizontally severing the mineral estate from the surface estate. The broad form deed gave the mineral owner a wide range of rights which included the use of timber on the property for mining purposes; the right to construct company buildings necessary for operations, transportation lines, or diversion of watercourses; and access to the minerals in any manner “deemed necessary or convenient.”2 The surface owner, typically a small farmer, was granted use of timber not intended for mining purposes, coal for household use, and, most importantly, was supposed to be able to continue farming. As environmentally disruptive mining operations began, however, farming became impossible in many situations. [End Page 28]

The use of the broad form deed itself also revealed a variety of attitudes regarding the meaning and use of land in Appalachia and conflicting ideas of what constituted progress and modernization between small farmers and members of the local elite. Existing economic and kinship connections influenced local opinions on economic change and elicited a complex mixture of responses, both positive and negative, from small farmers and county-seat businessmen, large landowners, lawyers, and other members of the local elite.3 Although the land had been traded, sold, or mortgaged in business dealings for decades, the creation of two separate estates on a single piece of land caused residents to question their own views on land use and modernization. These issues, often lost in the debate over the motivating factors surrounding the actual buying and selling of mineral rights, played a substantial role in the political, economic, social, and legal changes the region underwent from the 1880s through the 1920s.

Spurred on by members of the local elite, the broad form deed forced small farmers in the region to view the land in a new way. Landowners gained an important sense of independence from the land, both economically and emotionally. It was the land that supplied their livelihood, allowing them to provide for their families, and played a major role...