THE FIRST AMERICAN FRONTIER:

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Sun Oct 29 22:46:16 MST 2000


http://csf.colorado.edu/jwsr/archive/vol2/v2_r5.htm

 Volume 2, Review 5, 1996

 http://csf.colorado.edu/wsystems/jwsr.html
 ISSN 1076-156X


Wilma Dunaway.  THE FIRST AMERICAN FRONTIER: TRANSITION TO CAPITALISM IN
SOUTHERN APPALACHIA, 1700- 1860.  Chapel Hill, North Carolina:
University of North Carolina Press, 1996.  xvii+448 pp. ISBN
0-8078-2236-1, $49.95 (hardcover); ISBN 0-8078-4540-x, $21.95 (paper).

Reviewed by
Michael Timberlake, Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social
Work, Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas, USA

v. 8/12/96

With ever-increasing speed and intensity, since the 16th century the
Western European-centered world-system has incorporated and
peripheralized the rest of the earth's land and people, transforming
relations among people and between humans and the natural and cultural
environments.  Commodification and proletarianization have been
fundamental to this transformation. Other key processes have been uneven
development and resistance. Dunaway concretizes these processes by
giving us an exceptionally careful account of Southern Appalachia's
historical transformation from an external arena to a periphery of the
world-system -- an internal periphery within the rising semiperiphery
that was the United States at the onset of the American Civil War.

THE FIRST AMERICAN FRONTIER works powerfully on at least two levels.
First, Dunaway's foremost explicit central thesis is that the character
of Southern Appalachia was molded by its intimate involvement in
world-systemic processes.  On this level she is
addressing primarily students of regional American history, countering
the widely expressed view that this region's underdevelopment, or
backwardness, is explicable in terms of its

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Journal of World-Systems Research

alleged isolation.  The reader is reminded of images of the self-
sufficient backwoods family, living off the land by farming, hunting,
and subsistence household production, minimally involved in exchanges
with the rest of the world, and unready and culturally unavailable for
modern industrial development.  Such
allusions are threaded throughout much of the literature on the region,
Dunaway points out.  But these claims are empirically unfounded and
theoretically naive.

Dunaway details the empirical weakness of the isolationist position on
the region's underdevelopment with a detailed examination of the
historical record.  Her data-dredging is guided by world-system theory.
Instead of isolation, she finds clear evidence that Southern
Appalachia's history from before 1700 was one of involvement in the
institutional and cultural structures of a dynamic world-economy.  She
argues, for example, that the region -- and the indigenous peoples who
occupied it (i.e., the Cherokees) -- became important early on as a
peripheral fringe of the British, used as a buffer shielding the
colonies from the New World manifestation of the hegemonic rivalry of
the era.  This role shaped the region, profoundly restructuring Cherokee
social organization and culture, integrating these people with the
world- economy.  For example, the British encouraged the trade of
primary commodities, such as Cherokee deer skins for British
manufactured goods.  The commodification of land soon followed, with
much of it passing into the hands of distant absentee speculators,
planter capitalists, and settler elites (who together owned three-fifths
of the region's agricultural land), with only a small proportion owned
by small investors and heirs.  (In an appendix, Dunaway describes her
complex and careful methods of analyzing courthouse and other records in
order to accurately describe such patterns of land ownership.) In the
region, land is increasingly important, first, in relation to the
removal of indigenous peoples and the successful European settlement of
the region, then ultimately as a mechanism of regulating labor.
Agricultural production was certainly important within the

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Journal of World-Systems Research

region, but it could hardly be characterized predominantly as
subsistence agriculture.  Several categories of landless agricultural
workers, including slaves, indentured laborers, and sharecroppers
provided the labor needed to render profitable the
investments in Appalachian land that had been made by distant
speculators and local elites.  Thus, ". . . land served as the critical
mechanism for anchoring labor relations between landholders and
propertyless families" (p. 119).  These structural arrangements
generated agricultural surpluses that Dunaway shows were exported from
the region, in many cases to European destinations, further integrating
the region within the global division of labor.  The nature of
development generated by this integration, however, was akin to that
which has typified much of the Third World.  As has historically been
the case in the peripheries of the modern world system, Southern
Appalachia never fully experienced the final step in
the transition to (core) capitalism, for the region's antebellum
agriculture and manufacturing were never fully separated.  Instead,
locally dominant agrarian-merchant  elites and absentee speculators sank
the region's limited investment capital into enterprises that were
complementary to those activities stimulated by integration into the
world market.  [pp. 154-155]

Thus, the region's underdevelopment was reproduced by its peripheral
integration into the world economy; with its social structure molded by
these linkages.  For example, class formation in the region mirrored
that of other of the world's peripheries: a highly coerced
semiproletariat, including slave labor, the emergence of a comprador
bourgeoisie as the region's political elite, and disproportionately
small representation of mid-size agriculturalists.

Dunaway includes a similarly detailed and compelling
discussion of the region's extractive and manufacturing

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Journal of World-Systems Research


industries, also revealing their peculiarly peripheral character, and
making a strong argument linking this to the way in which the region was
interlinked with the world-economy.  Again, Dunaway backs up these
claims with painstaking attention to detail, using census records and
other primary sources as well as reinterpreting some secondary sources.
Timber, ginseng, coal, copper, salt, and iron in addition to wheat,
corn, cotton, hogs, cattle, and even turkeys were produced in the region
and exported in significantly large quantities.  There are fascinating
chapters on spatial integration and commodity chains.  She documents
(and maps) a "highly rationalized" network of water transport, for
example. The region's rivers comprised the most important transportation
avenues, connecting a large proportion of its counties "ultimately to
the Atlantic or Gulf seacoasts" (p. 209), but overland transport was
important as well.  Although the region's counties were linked to the
"outside" through an elaborate system of river, canal, and turnpike
transport through which exports left the region, most of these exports
left in unfinished form.  Southern Appalachia was clearly at the bottom
end of the global division of labor, with (relatively) capital-intensive
processing (e.g., shoe manufacturing) of locally-produced inputs (e.g.,
leather) taking
place in distant places rather than within the region.  Once again, its
peripheral status in the national and world-economy was reinforced by
these patterns of production and exchange.

As a carefully crafted argument for reconsidering Southern Appalachia's
underdevelopment the book seems to me to be overwhelmingly successful,
although historians of the region will be the final judges.  The book is
clearly successful at the
theoretical level as well.  Dunaway shows that using world-system theory
serves as an important sensitizing framework in guiding the collection,
interpretation, and reinterpretation of historical facts.  The result is
a far more persuasive explanation of the region's underdevelopment than
has apparently heretofore been available -- one that makes sense of the
numerous ways in which Southern Appalachia was integrated with an
encompassing political

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Journal of World-Systems Research

economy and which flies in the face of the pervasive view that the
region's underdevelopment was rooted in its isolation from the "modern"
world.  At the same time, her methods of analysis compel her to reveal
weaknesses she finds with the world-system paradigm,
at least in the manner in which it has usually been used.  She does this
by paying a great deal of attention to the ways in which the cultures
and environments of the region were changed by its incorporation and
peripheralization.  For example, she includes an
interesting analysis of the ways in which the indigenous Cherokee
culture reacted to and was changed by incorporation, followed by a
discussion of the ways in which capitalist values came to permeate
social relations among these and subsequent inhabitants of the region.
Thus, world-system theory is seen as an invaluable interpretive tool for
reformulating the historiography of this region, but it is used
critically.  The history of the region was, in some ways, too rich and
too big for the theory -- at least as it is usually articulated.  Rather
than ignore these aspects of the history, Dunaway contributes, at least
implicitly, to theory by suggesting that it be reformulated to address
these important aspects of social change.

Even though Dunaway's effort is about a very specific region during a
very specific period of time, there are other general lessons it
provides.  The book demonstrates the relevance of using world-system
theory to interpret other historical examples of
uneven development within countries, even those of the core and
semiperiphery.  For example, social change in the region known as the
Mississippi Delta is also subject to a world-system analysis. It was
populated by European and coerced African immigrants as it was being
integrated into the world-economy in a similar position as exporter of
agricultural products and raw materials.  The historical examples of
both Southern Appalachia and the Delta also suggest a more nuanced
interpretation of the role of "the state." Usually world-system analysis
focuses nearly exclusively on the role of the national state.  But in
these two cases, we are forced to acknowledge the importance of local
states.  For example,

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Journal of World-Systems Research


county governments, politically controlled by what historian James Cobb
calls the "county seat governing elite," are crucially important in
reinforcing the very conditions associated with peripheralization.
Dunaway finds that the local state regulated debt, promoted external
trade, granted incentives for certain industries, and redistributed
lands "upward" through tax sales. Her observations along these lines
have important implications for how the world-system paradigm could
better theorizes the state.  I would have liked to have seen Dunaway
more explicitly deal with some of these theoretical implications in the
book.

THE FIRST AMERICAN FRONTIER is an exemplary work of scholarship.  It
combines serious attention to the theoretical insights of world-system
theory with meticulous attention to the historical record.  The result
is a compelling analysis of one of the most fascinating and
misunderstood regions of the United
States.  No doubt historians of the American South will also recognize
this to be a significant, possibly controversial, contribution to
knowledge of this region's history.  The book should also be read by
scholars and students interested in comparative historical sociology,
world-system theory, regional studies, and rural social change.  It
would also be useful in graduate and advanced undergraduate classes in
these areas.



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Journal of World-Systems Research




--

Xxxx Xxxxx Xxxxxx
PhD Student
Department of Political Science
SUNY at Albany
Nelson A. Rockefeller College
135 Western Ave.; Milne 102
Albany, NY 12222



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