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  • The Industrialist and the Mountaineer: The Eastham-Thompson Feud and the Struggle for West Virginia's Timber Frontier by Ronald L. Lewis
  • T. R. C. Hutton

In 1897, Virginia native Robert Woodford Eastham mortally wounded Frank Thompson, a timber entrepreneur from New England, in a harrowing gun-fight aboard a train car in Tucker County, West Virginia. Eastham was the obvious aggressor, but local jurisprudence was reluctant to convict him of premeditated murder for reasons that Ronald L. Lewis believe encapsulate a larger story of the Mountain State's incorporation into a national industrial economy. The two men had previously engaged in heated court battles that served as referenda for the competition between northeastern West Virginia's agrarian and extractive economies. The "feud" was a synecdoche for the state's postbellum situation: a section of what had once been part of the Old Dominion looking intermittently back and forth, north and south, for the keys to its political and economic future.

Lewis frames this story using the theme of national "incorporation," popularized by (among others) historians Richard Maxwell Brown, David Thelen, and Alan Trachtenburg. The heuristic is usually associated with the trans-Mississippian West, although it can just as succinctly apply to Appalachia since its primary lesson is the harnessing of local hinterland economies into a capitalistic network controlled by the cities of the northeast and the Midwest. In West Virginia's case, the end result has been well-described in Lewis's previous books: a state laid to waste by environmental degradation and bereft of self-determination. More specifically to Tucker County, a state government once subject to the interests of local farmers and county-seat lawyers gave way to a corporate frontier. Eastham gained the sympathies of locals who were crowded out by acquisitive northern capitalists like Thompson.

The "Eastham-Thompson feud" entered into local folklore, although it did not achieve the same sort of national renown as the earlier "Hatfield-McCoy feud," or the West Virginia "mine wars" that were yet to come. Because of his influence from Brown and Thelen, Lewis is eager to compare Eastham-Thompson instead to the "gunfighters in the Old West," and subtly [End Page 190] invites the reader to pick a side, concluding his introduction "deciding which man in the Eastham-Thompson drama filled the role of hero and which the villain is contingent on the sympathies of the reader" (10). The incident need not have a hero per se since both men were armed and probably equally game in a fight. For that matter, both men were in the timber business, and contributed duly to the despoiling of West Virginia's wealth of hardwoods.

Although Lewis's own sympathies seem to be with the "agrarian" interests Eastham supposedly represented, the "backwoodsman" who fought the Yankee industrialist in the courts before resorting to violence was just as dedicated to timber extraction (and therefore industrialization) as was Thompson. Lewis's framing of the incident as an example of Brown's "Civil War of Incorporation" comes across refreshing and strange considering how long it has been since this historiographical turn was in flower (primarily the 1980s). Since then, historians like Edward Baptist, Walter Johnson, Sven Beckert, and many others have demonstrated that the agrarian society that produced East-ham was just as invasive and accumulative as Thompson's industrial capitalism. The conflict between these two men that began in the woods, continued in the courts, and ended on a train was a duel between capitalists. The primary difference between them was that the southerner was the one willing to use violence to settle a dispute that had otherwise been deliberated within the bounds of civil society—albeit an environment that worked more and more in favor of the northerner as the last decade of the nineteenth century progressed. Lewis seems to take Eastham's violent propensity for granted as a product of his backwoods lifestyle, but could it not also be framed as a vestige of the slave society that gave birth to him? (Eastham was the son of a slaveowner who had killed a defenseless black Union soldier during the early days of Reconstruction.) Northern capital resorted to violence countless...


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pp. 190-191
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