The Dispossessions of Appalachia: A Review of Ramp Hollow

Virginia Tech
Published August 2, 2018

Barbara Ellen Smith reviews Steven Stoll's Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia (New York: Hill and Wang, 2017).

Barbara Ellen Smith
Virginia Tech


The yeoman farmer is a central figure in debates over the historical dispossessions that created the place we now call Appalachia. For historians like Ron Eller, these self-sufficient small landholders dominated the agrarian past, and first became exploited as residents of company towns when coal, timber, and other corporate interests began in the late nineteenth century to appropriate the land and wealth of the mountains for their own profit.1 During the 1960s and 1970s, activists promoted a related golden-age vision of egalitarian pastoralism in pre-industrial Appalachia, which they contrasted with the ugliness of strip mining, black lung disease, and other contemporary depredations to amplify their calls to "save the land and people." Then, in 1996, Wilma Dunaway swept aside romantic visions of the Appalachian past with prodigious quantitative research, an earlier historical timeline (back to 1700), and the perspective of world systems theory. "On the eve of the Civil War," she concluded, "Appalachians were much more likely than other Americans to be impoverished, illiterate, and landless."2

Steven Stoll's Ramp Hollow intervenes in these and related debates by recasting the nature of agriculture and the meaning of land ownership among the European colonialists and their descendants who settled the Appalachian frontier. Stoll likens Appalachia's early settlers to peasants all over the world, who depend on access to a common "ecological base." In the Appalachian instance, this "base" is the forest: "This is a vast renewable fund of resources that provides spaces for fields, food for gathering, fodder for cattle, and habitat for wild game. The base gives everything but costs nothing" (33). Through the practice of swidden, sometimes pejoratively called slash-and-burn agriculture, settlers cleared portions of the forest and cultivated crops, but their clearings were limited; more importantly, they utilized the forest as a source of wild plants, game, and mast for their free-ranging livestock. Although their economy was "makeshift," without extensive surplus or accumulation, these early settlers rarely starved, Stoll asserts, and they should not be considered poor.

Man digging coal by machinery low ceiling, Brown, West Virginia, 1908. Photographic print by Lewis Wickes Hine. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,

As the western edge of European settlement, the mountainous backcountry of eighteenth-century Appalachia briefly represented a space of relative freedom from state enforcement of property rights. Although elites gained formal title to millions of mountainous acres through grant or purchase, they tended to view the land as "wilderness" and unworthy of investment or even much attention, according to Stoll. A chaos of competing land claims emerged, as well as, in effect, the practice of "land to the tiller." Use-rights prevailed. Squatters and small landholders utilized the vast forest without regard to absentee elites and their abstract legal instruments, which went unenforced, thereby irrelevant, and they engaged in a vigorous barter economy with one another.

Although historians and activists have focused largely on the land-grabbing actions of coal companies in the late nineteenth century as the definitive dispossession of Appalachia, Stoll takes us back to the federalism of Alexander Hamilton in the early republic. Taxation—an obligation that could only be fulfilled in legal currency—was the means to force subsistence agrarians toward a cash economy and extend the administrative reach of centralized government into the recesses of the mountains. "Taxation does not merely fund the state," Stoll observes, echoing the arguments of James C. Scott and other anti-statist anarchist scholars. "It creates its territorial and financial power" (122).3 Armed resistance to Hamilton's tax on distilled spirits, which did not distinguish between commercial and household production, arose from the high value of whiskey in barter exchanges and the onerous compulsion to send money from a cash-poor economy to a distant central government—all on the heels of a war for "independence." Although the Whiskey Rebellion succeeded in discontinuing the excise tax, the coercive extension of a sovereign state—with a unified system of land ownership, property rights, law, currency, taxation, and administrative regularity—would eventually facilitate destruction of the ecological base and subsistence practices of Appalachian agrarians.

Title map of the coal field of the great Kanawha Valley, West Virginia, 1867. Map by John S. Swann and G.W. & C.B. Colton & Co. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division,

Stoll's tale of rural industrialization in the second half of the nineteenth century focuses on what became West Virginia, and is familiar to scholars and many residents of central Appalachia: extension of the railroads into southern West Virginia, corporate acquisition of mineral rights and vast landholdings, opening of the "billion dollar coalfields," growth of company towns and the exploitative trap of scrip (non-legal tender in which miners received wages), company stores, occupational death, the mine guard system of private security thugs. True to his emphasis on subsistence agrarians, however, Stoll builds on work by Ron Lewis to emphasize the wholesale timbering of the mountains, which accompanied coal mining and devoured the ecological base of the forest.4 Combined with the contradiction of a growing population seeking sustenance from a shrinking base of land (analyzed in detail by Dwight B. Billings and Kathleen M. Blee), these multiple dispossessions spelled an end to the makeshift agrarian economy.5

Group of striking union miners & the familys [sic] living in tents, Lick Creek, West Virginia, April 12, 1922. Glass negative by unknown creator. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,

Stoll directs special attention—and some of his most blistering critique—to the ideologues of capitalist modernity, those self-interested promoters of the benefits of wage labor, efficiency, discipline, and "productive" (i.e., profitable for them and their kind) use of the land. Declaring makeshift agricultural practices a miserable, impoverished throwback that impeded the self-evidently desirable processes of modernization, "Atlantic elites" gradually appropriated the means of subsistence of mountain farmers, then pronounced them miserable and poor. This critique of dominant ideology forms an important bridge toward Stoll's larger purpose in Ramp Hollow, which is to defend the integrity of peasants and the viability of their agricultural practices—when not disrupted by various "development" schemes—all over the world. Indeed, the book begins in West Virginia and ends in West Africa, where Stoll decries the contemporary enclosure movement whereby governments are dispossessing entire peasant villages by transferring "idle" common lands to corporations that produce agricultural commodities for global markets.

Reviewers typically feel an obligation to register a complaint or two about a book, and I am no exception. I was disappointed by Stoll's lack of attention to gender relations and the gendered division of labor, especially in view of his definition of the makeshift agricultural economy as a household mode of production. Although he acknowledges that the agrarian household was a "coercive institution" (216), what he means by that is the authority of patriarchs over their children, who "owed their families a certain term of labor before gaining the right to strike out for themselves" (216). Neither patriarchal authority over wives nor the fact that daughters never gained "the right to strike out for themselves" seems to occur to him. Consistent with his Marxist analytic (and neglect of Marxist-feminism), Stoll focuses exclusively on class relations; in the context of coal camps, this includes analyzing the contradictory role of the household garden as a means to lower the cost of miners' and their families' social reproduction (and thus wages) as well as potentially sustain them during strikes. The labor in those gardens, as in social reproduction more generally, remains unexplored.

Rear of coal miner's home, Chaplin, West Virginia, September 1938. Nitrate negative by Marion Post Wolcott. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,

To its great credit as a work of history, Ramp Hollow is unusual in its direct relevance to contemporary politics. This is true for not only areas of the world where land grabs and enclosures proceed apace, but also central Appalachia, where the struggle to envision and create post-coal—and potentially "post-capitalist"—futures is ongoing. In his final chapter, Stoll offers a "thought experiment" in the form of "The Commons Communities Act" (272–274), which proposes publicly-owned commons, complete with a variety of incentives and protections for those who live there, each with an ecological base sufficient to sustain residents through "hunting and gathering, cattle grazing, timber harvesting, vegetable gardening, and farming" (272). Although his proposal is understandably crafted for rural contexts, given Stoll's concerns throughout the book, the commons is not necessarily so. Indeed, the argument that different forms of public commons may be key to the reinvigoration of civic life and the prospects for democratic, place-based economies seems to be spreading.6 Regardless of the specifics of such proposals, they reinforce Stoll's overarching argument: capitalist hegemony is not inevitable, and collective access to land is key to the future of Appalachia.

About the Author

Barbara Ellen Smith is professor emerita at Virginia Tech and a member of the editorial board of Southern Spaces. She has long studied and participated in economic justice movements in Appalachia.

  • 1. See Ronald D. Eller, Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers: Industrialization of the Appalachian South, 1880–1930 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1982).
  • 2. Wilma A. Dunaway, The First American Frontier: Transition to Capitalism in Southern Appalachia, 1700–1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 21.
  • 3. See James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009).
  • 4. See Ronald L. Lewis, Transforming the Appalachian Countryside: Railroads, Deforestation, and Social Change in West Virginia, 1880–1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998).
  • 5. See Dwight B. Billings and Kathleen M. Blee, The Road to Poverty: The Making of Wealth and Hardship in Appalachia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
  • 6. See Herbert Reid and Betsy Taylor, Recovering the Commons: Democracy, Place, and Global Justice (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2010); Kathryn Newfont, Blue Ridge Commons: Environmental Activism and Forest History in Western North Carolina (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012); and George Monbiot, Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis (New York: Verso, 2017).
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