- “Of All the Hardy Sons of Toil”:Class and Race in Antebellum Southcentral and Southeastern Alabama
In 1860, william dick was one of the most prosperous farmers in Dale County, Alabama. He and his wife Mary, along with their eight children, lived in the Saw Mill community just a few miles northeast of Newton. With 1,100 acres of land, thirteen slaves, and a net worth of nearly $22,000, his family enjoyed a higher standard of living than most Dale Countians. Dick’s two next-door neighbors, William Andrews and Joseph Foxworth, were close in proximity but far-removed economically. Andrews’s 460–acre farm and personal estate was worth a modest $2,500. As an aging widower, he relied increasingly on his twenty-year-old son Elisha and three teenage daughters to work the farm. Foxworth, on the other hand, owned no land and reported to the census taker just twenty-five dollars of personal wealth. He and wife Eleanor had five boys, aged two through eleven. They more than likely worked the land of their wealthy next-door neighbors as tenant farmers. While none of these households shared the same socioeconomic status, all three benefitted from growing one of the South’s most profitable cash crops, cotton.1
Families such as the Dicks, their slaves, the Andrews, and the Foxworths represent a microcosm of a larger socioeconomic whole that included wealthy planter elites, yeoman farmers, poor whites, and enslaved African Americans living in an area of the state known today as the Wiregrass. For most of the antebellum period the Wiregrass occupied a small portion of a much larger frontier region in southcentral and southeastern Alabama that contemporaries [End Page 213] called the pine barrens or piney woods. The region encompassed an area roughly from the Chattahoochee River west to the Old Federal Road, and north from the Florida–Alabama line (Ellicott’s Line) to the Chunnenuggee Ridge. Alabama’s 1818 territorial legislature designated the entire sparsely populated country as Conecuh County. Subsequent legislative acts carved up the region so that by 1860 it included all or part of eight counties: Henry, Dale, Coffee, Conecuh, Covington, Butler, Pike, and Barbour. For much of the nineteenth century the region’s most conspicuous natural features included immense virgin forests of longleaf and slash pine trees towering above the landscape with abundant clusters of wiregrass flourishing beneath the evergreen canopy. Soil fertility varied, with the richest lands and largest plantations situated in the northernmost counties and along the Chattahoochee River, and the poorest soils generally found in the southern counties just north of the Florida line.
This article explores the socioeconomic conditions that existed in the piney woods just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. It considers both class and race as crucial elements in the pre-war development of a region too often overlooked by historians. With the exception of northern Barbour County—which contained more than one-third of the region’s slave population—much of the piney woods, and especially the southernmost counties, has been identified in the past as an area where poverty reigned, the slave population was inconsequential compared to the Black Belt, and most whites showed only slight interest in supporting an institution in which they purportedly had little economic stake. For decades scholars have compared or linked the area with the majority-white hill counties of northern Alabama. This tendency at once trivializes the region’s unique place in history and suggests that, like the hill counties, most whites in south-central and southeastern Alabama had little interest in the cotton economy or the institution of slavery.2 This study challenges the dominant interpretation, asserting instead that most piney woods [End Page 214] whites embraced the market economy and supported the expansion of both cotton production and slavery. Moreover, by examining both African Americans and whites, it asserts that the tentacles of slavery reached much deeper into the region’s socioeconomic fabric than heretofore understood, touching everything from domestic disputes and the legal system to labor practices and kinship networks. As such, the evidence presented in this study suggests that by the outbreak of the Civil War...