On the Fence: The Stock Law Revolt in Buncombe County, North Carolina, 1885-1887

On the morning of June 8, 1885, one of the most unusual and contentious commission meetings in Buncombe County history was brought to order, one that would shape county politics for a decade and help bring the Republican Party to power in western North Carolina.  At issue was a fundamental disagreement over how Buncombe Countians should use the land, and it quickly became one of the biggest political issues in an era of big political issues.

In addition to more than a dozen commissioners and justices of the peace, the meeting room was packed full of citizens from across the county, from Black Mountain to Leicester to Reems Creek, carrying petitions in their arms with hundreds of signatures on them, the fruit of months’ worth of organizing efforts.  A few months earlier, the state General Assembly passed a law—the infamous “stock law”—that required livestock owners throughout the county to fence in their livestock, effectively closing the so-called “open range.”  Since the beginning of Euro-American settlement, farmers had allowed their stock to roam the unimproved forests, and they were expected to fence in their crops to protect them from damage from ranging stock.  This was a general practice throughout the South, where unimproved land greatly outnumbered improved land.  In enabled landless and land-poor farmers to maintain a degree of economic and political independence, or a “competency” as they called it.  They could feed their families without having to own much—or any—land.

Grazing cattle on a bald 1906 UNCA

Cattle Grazing on a Mountain Bald in Western North Carolina, ca. 1906, D.H. Ramsey Library Special Collections, University of North Carolina-Asheville

The open range was one of many facets of that social, cultural, and ecological institution called the commons, which my research centers around and of which I have written extensively on this blog.  People had the freedom to roam, to hunt, to fish, to forage, and to range stock on the unenclosed lands throughout the state, and the mountains contained some of the largest tracts of unenclosed lands in the state.  State courts generally upheld this practice.[1]  In 1860, when a livestock owner in the piedmont sued the North Carolina Railroad for damages when a train killed one of his cows and the case worked its way up the appellate chain, the N.C. Supreme Court ruled in the plaintiff’s favor, stating that unenclosed lands were sanctioned by law to be a “general common” where “horses, cattle, and hogs” were “lawfully permitted to range at large.”  It was the railroad’s responsibility to ensure that its trains did not injure or kill any free-ranging stock, even if they had wandered onto railroad property.[2]  Indeed, the commons was woven into the fabric of rural life in the antebellum South, and nowhere was commons culture as deeply rooted as the mountains.

But after the Civil War, southern states began passing laws to end these practices.  Beginning in the 1870s, states passed game and fish laws and new trespassing laws aimed at curtailing or prohibiting these practices on private property.  Historians disagree somewhat on the reasons for this shift.  Steven Hahn argues that they were a vehicle for labor control, a way for planters to coerce freed slaves and poor whites into working on cotton plantations.  K. Morgan Kausser and Shawn Kantor have contended that they were passed in the name of agricultural progress and that it finally became more financially feasible for landowners to fence in stock instead of crops.[3]

Cattle on the range Green Ridge 1930 UNCA

Cattle Grazing on Green Ridge, ca. 1930, D.H. Ramsey Library Special Collections, University of North Carolina-Asheville.

Although North Carolina had created stock laws in various localities since the mid-1870s, the 1885 law was the first to apply to a county west of the Blue Ridge, and it did not go over well.  Anticipated resistance to the stock law compelled the bill’s sponsor, a state Democratic representative from Buncombe County named Johnstone Jones, to include a provision that some communities could opt out of the law.  In order to do so, they had to present a petition with the signatures of a majority of the registered voters in a township wishing exemption from the law to the annual joint meeting between the county commissioners and the justices of the peace held in June 1885.

On that June day in 1885, citizens arrived at the board of commissioners meeting expecting their petitions to get a fair hearing.  When the meeting began in the morning, board chairman C.B. Way declared that stock law business would not be heard until the end of the meeting that afternoon, so petitioners waited all day as the board discussed budget issues. Then, according to several witnesses, the chairman filed a motion to adjourn, received a quiet second by another commissioner, and the meeting was over.  No stock law discussion.  No petitions received.  The room erupted into hollers and shouts.  A few stock law supporters cheered that they had gotten their stock law, and outbursts of anger erupted from the crowd of stock law opponents.

The events of that day rubbed many Buncombe Countians the wrong way.  It was an assault on democracy, they declared, and one them, James McNair from Black Mountain, began a legal suit that worked its way up to the state supreme court.  Claiming to speak for all voters in his township, he asserted that their right to be heard had been abridged and demanded that the commissioners hold another meeting to receive their petitions.[4]  After months of legal wrangling, it was finally decided that the petitioners would have their day at a joint meeting in February 1886.

Richmond Pearson 1880s

Richmond Pearson, ca. 1885. Pearson, who built the Victorian mansion on Richmond Hill, was a NC state representative and U.S. Congressman from Asheville. He helped resurrect the Republican Party in Asheville by opposing the stock law in the 1880s. Credit: Richmond Pearson Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

Between June 1885 and February 1886, a champion for the stock law opposition emerged in the person of Richmond Pearson.  Pearson, son of a NC Supreme Court justice from Surry County and a relatively new resident of Asheville (he built his Victorian mansion on his estate, named Richmond Hill, in 1889), had been elected state representative from Buncombe in 1884 as an Independent Democrat.  Although he had pledged during his campaign to oppose the stock law, he did not offer any opposition to the bill proposed by his colleague Johnstone Jones.  However, he attended the infamous June board meeting and must have sensed a political opportunity.  In the summer of 1885, he penned an open letter to the “voters of the ‘outside townships’” in which he criticized Jones’s law and vehemently declared that “The people in the interior of the county are in no sense benefitted by forcing this law upon Fairview and Big Ivy…[T]o ram the law down the throats of those people against their overwhelming protest, strikes me as an act of wanton and unpardonable cruelty.”  He continued: “There are parts of this county, such as the great ranges on Black Mountain, on Craggy, and on Pisgah, where there are fifty acres of wild land to one acre in cultivation, where a man can take his stand on a commanding point and look for miles around without seeing a single field, or the smoke of a human habitation, where the wild mast and herbage are abundant and rich, where the lands are too rugged for cultivation, where tillage is unprofitable, where cattle raising is the only remunerative employment of the people, and where fencing is entirely unnecessary for cattle raising—for sections as these, a cast iron law prohibiting stock from running at large is not a benefit, but an intolerable hardship.”[5]

Meanwhile, the stock law issue split the local Democratic party into pro- and anti-stock law factions, creating an opportunity for the Republicans to gain a foothold in the county.  The Republican Party, never a very stable force in the state, had been on the wane since Reconstruction.  It was unable to deflect accusations of “radicalism” and “negro rule,” but the stock law gave the party a popular cause for whites around which it could rally.  Pearson’s campaign for reelection in the fall of 1886 became a referendum on the stock law.  This time running as a Republican, Pearson promised to repeal the tyrannical stock law and capitalized on the anti-Democratic sentiment stirring in the mountains over what many perceived as an assault on local governance.  He earned enough votes from anti-stock-law Democrats to win reelection.  One state representative called the campaign “the bitterest contest ever held in this State” and claimed that “a democratic majority of 900 was turned into a republican majority of 1200 because the republicans took ground against the existing [stock] law.”[6]  Thus, riding the wave of opposition to the stock law, Buncombe County turned red.

The controversy continued to stir up resentment, anger, and animosity through the next four years.  At the February commissioners’ meeting, James McNair and other anti-stock-law men finally got their chance to present their petitions, and Richmond Pearson himself showed up to assist, but they were once again sorely disappointed.  Despite the fact that the petitions contained the signatures of a majority of the registered voters in several townships, the county commissioners voted to exempt only Black Mountain and South Hominy from the countywide law, claiming that only freeholders could vote in this election.[7]  Things got so heated that in April 1886, after a series of harsh personal attacks, Pearson challenged Johnstone Jones to a duel, and then a few days later, but Jones, evidently believing discretion the better part of valor, declined to fight.  A bitter feud also erupted between the Asheville Citizen-Times and the Asheville Advance, the former taking a pro-stock-law stance, the latter an anti-stock law stance.  The editors of each paper were drawn deep into the political fight.  “This eternal, ceaseless agitation, stirring up of strife, and keeping the county in a ferment of excitement; this putting neighbors at variance over the Fence of No-Fence controversy, is working great harm to the welfare and material interests of the county,” declared Asheville Citizen-Times editor R.M. Furman. “It is unsettling everything.  People are deterred from the pursuit of their ordinary farming operations; a feeling of uncertainty and insecurity is everywhere.”[8]

Newspaper clippingDefenders of the open range were angry and politically mobilized, but the stock law had powerful proponents, and it proved only a matter of time before the mountains would go the way of the piedmont in closing the range.  Pearson did introduce a replacement bill into the state House in 1887, but it was amended to such an extent that it changed very little in Buncombe County.  Then, county-by-county, the rest of western North Carolina soon followed suit.  Haywood, Jackson, Clay, Watauga, Ashe, Macon, Cherokee, Transylvania, and Graham had all adopted the stock law by 1910, and the open range was closed.

Pearson’s fortunes, however, followed a different path.  His popularity soared in western North Carolina in the wake of the stock law controversy.  After serving two terms in the state House of Representatives, he defeated the Waynesville incumbent Democrat William T. Crawford for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1892 and served in Congress for three terms as a Republican, aligning with the Populist Party in 1896.  But, as Gordon McKinney has argued, the Republican Party proved unable to survive much past the 1890s, due to the racial upheaval of that decade.  Republicans were no longer able to push the race issue aside.[9]

For more on the Buncombe County stock law revolt, see my upcoming essay in a new edited collection, Southern Communities, which is expected in the spring of 2018.

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[1] There are a few good books on this topic. See, for example, Eric T. Freyfogle, On Private Property: Finding Common Ground on the Ownership of Land (Boston: Beacon Press, 2007).

[2] Laws v. N.C. R.R. Co., 52 NC 468.

[3] For more on this debate, see Steven Hahn, “Hunting, Fishing, and Foraging: Common Rights and Class Relations in the Postbellum South,” Radical History Review 26 (1982): 37–64; Steven Hahn, The Roots of Southern Populism: Yeoman Farmers and the Transformation of the Georgia Upcountry, 1850-1890 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983); Shawn Everett Kantor, Politics and Property Rights: The Closing of the Open Range in the Postbellum South, Studies in Law and Economics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

[4] McNair v. Board of Commissioners, 93 NC 365.

[5] “The Buncombe County Stock Law: History of its Passage; Review of the Big Meeting: An Open Letter to the Voters of the ‘Outside Townships,’” in Richmond Pearson Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

[6] “The Discussion in the State Senate on the Buncombe Fence Law,” The Asheville Citizen, 12 February 1887.

[7] “The Stock Law Case: Meeting of the Justices and Commissioners,” Asheville Citizen-Times, 16 February 1886.

[8] Asheville Citizen, 18 February 1887.

[9] Gordon McKinney, Southern Mountain Republicans, 1865-1900: Politics and the Appalachian Community (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1978).

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