Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 2011


Located on the Ohio River in western Virginia, adjacent to southeastern Ohio and eastern Kentucky, antebellum Cabell County lay at the fulcrum of east and west, north and south, freedom and slavery. Possessed of a bountiful countryside—replete with wildlife, timber, pristine streams and creeks, and rich river-bottom soil along the navigable Ohio and Guyandotte rivers—it held great potential for settlers who sought to put down roots. Drawn by its promising location and cheap, arable land, migrants settled in the county in increasing numbers in the early 1800s, and many settlers took their slaves with them. Yet like most counties on Virginia’s western border, antebellum Cabell County was, in historian Ira Berlin’s words, a “society with slaves” rather than a “slave society.” In contrast to the rice and cotton-growing regions of the Deep South where the institution of slavery shaped the political economy and “the master-slave relationship provided the model for all social relations,” slavery never became central to the economy or social structure of Cabell County. Unlike Kanawha County, Virginia, to the northeast (and from which it was formed in 1809), Cabell County lacked industrial slavery. Unlike Jefferson County in the lower Shenandoah Valley, it lacked the numbers to support plantation slavery. Distant from plantation society and the rigid social and cultural norms imposed by the planter elite of eastern Virginia, Cabell County reveals the significance of slavery even within a “society with slaves” like central Appalachia, the impact of western expansion on slavery, and the hardening of racial attitudes in the Ohio Valley. Equally important, the county’s antebellum history helps illuminate the ways in which African Americans living in this border region exercised agency in order to better their condition.


The copy of record is at

Copyright © 2011. Ohio Valley History. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.