A Mountain Plantation

In the 1790s, Revolutionary War veteran David Vance Sr. and his wife Priscilla Brank Vance moved to the Reems Creek Valley, bringing three enslaved people with them.  Richard and Aggy, a married couple, and a third person provided the labor to establish the Vances’ plantation.  Over time, the enslaved community grew to include at least 18 people.  Enslaved people performed many jobs on the plantation.  They grew crops and tended livestock; cooked all the meals; carded, spun, and wove wool and flax into fabric; made bricks, shingles, and furniture; hauled water from the spring for cooking, drinking, and washing; cared for the Vance children; and more.  Even with all this work, enslaved people found time to create their own families, communities, and culture. 

image of the siteThe Vances settled on land vacated by the Cherokee, whose forced removal during the Revolution created a new “frontier" in Western North Carolina.  The new American government offered parcels of this cleared land as payment for military service during the war.  Veterans like David Sr. took advantage of these land grants, often relocating their families from more settled areas.  Already wealthy and well-connected, David Vance Sr. worked as a surveyor, lawyer, and teacher in newly established Buncombe County.  He and Priscilla had eight children, five girls and three boys.  Their son, David Vance Jr. inherited the land in the Reems Creek Valley upon David Sr.'s death in 1813.

The Buncombe Turnpike

The 1827 completion of the Buncombe Turnpike, at 75-mile mountain route from Tennessee to South Carolina, created a safer route for drovers to herd their livestock to market.  Wealthy families like the Vances took advantage of the economic opportunities provided by the new route.  In the 1830s, David Vance Jr. and his wife Mira moved their family to present-day Marshall to open a drovers stand, catering to the increasing number of drovers in the area.  Essentially inns, these stands provided food and rest for the drovers and their animals--usually pigs, cows, or turkeys.  

The Vance family brought the enslaved people from the farm to work at the drovers stand.  Leah, the cook, prepared all the meals for the family and visiting drovers.  She became known as the best cook in the region, but she also had one of the most difficult jobs at the drovers stand.  Her day began before the sun rose, prepping the food for everyone at the stand, and concluded after sunset--every single day.  Working over a large cook fire, Leah lifted heavy iron pots and pans, chopped vegetables from the garden, baked bread, and prepared the winter store of sauerkraut.  Working over an entirely different fire, Jim, the blacksmith, provided necessary metal work for the drovers passing through.  Venus, the children’s nanny, continued to care for Zebulon Vance and his siblings after the move to Marshall.  Other enslaved people penned and fed the animals, cleaned the rooms, and grew food for use at the stand.  According to David Jr., the stand fed over 90,000 hogs in one month.

A Lasting Legacy

The establishment of the Buncombe Turnpike, which ran through Asheville on its way to South Carolina, jump-started the tourist economy in this area.  Enslaved people provided the necessary labor to run drovers stands, inns, and restaurants in the new economy.   The urban areas of the county relied heavily upon enslaved labor—50% of Asheville’s population was enslaved by 1860.  The enslaved population of Buncombe county rose from 5% to 20% in less than 20 years.  Wealthy families like the Vances benefited from the institution of slavery, and this economic dependence would drive people like Zebulon Vance, David and Mira's son, to fight to maintain their way of life.

A Sudden Change

David Vance Jr. died suddenly in 1844.  As a woman, Mira could not legally take up her husband’s loans, so his debts were called in.  To cover these debts, David Jr.'s estate auctioned off the family's property.  The estate sale included the land in Marshall and the Reems Creek Valley, as well as twelve enslaved people.  While Mira repurchased Venus for $1, many of the enslaved people, including Jim, were sold.

Like Venus, Leah and her four children remained Mira’s property.  They moved with the Vances to Asheville, where Mira established her new household.  Leah continued as cook and housekeeper for Mira until the end of the Civil War.  Venus died sometime before 1850.

While the Vances were still well-off, the family’s wealth had diminished.  Unable to afford a year of school in Chapel Hill, Zebulon Vance begged a loan from a family friend, University of North Carolina President David Swain, to cover his tuition.  These family connections would serve Zebulon well throughout his career as a politician.  His role as a slaveholder would also shape the decisions he made during his lifetime.

Civil War Governor

With a reputation for rousing speeches, Zebulon Vance quickly established himself as a political figure in Western North Carolina.  Serving as a congressman for North Carolina at the start of the Civil War, Vance initially remained committed to the Union.  He argued that secession was unwise and that the institution of slavery could be maintained within the existing slave-holding states, even if its expansion was halted.  However, once Lincoln called for North Carolina troops to help put down the rebellion begun by the attack on Fort Sumter, Vance became a firm supporter of secession.

Gov VanceVance returned home and volunteered as a soldier in the Confederate army, eventually becoming colonel of the 26th North Carolina Troops.  Vance's unit fought in Eastern North Carolina and Virginia before he was elected governor in 1862.  After taking office, Vance took steps to lessen the hardships of soldiers and their families at home.  This often proved difficult when Vance had to balance the needs of the state with those of the Confederacy.

Tar Heel Politician

Until his official pardon in 1876, Vance could not hold political office after the war.  He spent his time practicing law, but relished the chance to return to the political spotlight. Elected to a third term as governor in 1876, Vance became known as the "redeemer" for promoting the interests of white North Carolinians.  His policies opposed Reconstruction and favored white supremacy, limiting much of the power and freedoms African Americans had gained since 1865.  Interrupting his term as governor to join the United States Senate in 1878, Vance moved to Washington D.C., earning a reputation as a leader of the Democratic Party.  He served as senator for North Carolina until his death in 1894, using his skills as an orator to promote his beliefs and maintain the status quo.  A controversial figure today, Vance is both beloved and vilified for his role in 19th century politics.