The Problem of the Southern Yeomanry: Kinship in Nat Turner's Virginia

Saturday, January 8, 2011: 2:30 PM
Room 305 (Hynes Convention Center)
Anthony E. Kaye , Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA
Historians have long debated the political economy of the Southern yeomanry and contended over whether non-slaveholders and small slaveholders were primarily engaged in subsistence agriculture or enthusiastic participants in market relations. At issue in these debates were the foundations of the yeomanry’s independence, whether it rested on republican ideology, subsistence production, or the subordination of women and slaves to male household heads. Yet historians have only recently questioned that independence itself. This paper contributes to that project by shifting attention to relations between households in the accumulation of wealth, geographical patterns of residence, and institutions such as churches and militia companies.

In 1831, over 850 militia men from Southampton and Isle of Wight counties in Virginia suppressed Nat Turner’s Revolt. This paper traces the extensive ties of kinship among the 65th and 29th Virginia regiments, both regiments mustered in family groups. Two-thirds of the militiamen shared a common surname with at least one member of their company. Several families accounted for a large proportion of members at South Quay Baptist Church. Eight families account for over one-third of church members, and sent 74 men into the militia. Of landowning militiamen from Southampton, over three-quarters lived within five miles of households headed by relatives of direct descent. About two-thirds acquired land from kinfolk.

If landownership was the foundation of the yeomanry’s independence, it was dependent on family legacies. Yeomen’s influence in churches and militia units was similarly dependent on kinfolk ties. To be sure, militiamen in two counties in southeastern Virginia cannot stand in for the Southern yeomanry as a whole. Yet these findings do suggest that, if the two great themes of Southern history to date have been race and class, perhaps it is time to consider what can be learned from considering the Old South as a kinship society.

Previous Presentation | Next Presentation >>