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Collection of Land Speculation Records Dating to 1775 Donated to Appalachian State University Library

BOONE–A vast collection of deeds, letters, survey plats and other materials dating to 1775 has the potential for rewriting the history of the southern Appalachian mountains, say southern historians.

The 10,000-item collection of materials from the Speculation Land Company (SLC) has been donated to the W. L. Eury Appalachian Collection in Appalachian State University’s Belk Library.

The records, dating from 1775 to 1930, form the largest collection of original documents tracking the development of more than 500,000 acres in western North Carolina. They will help historians answer questions about land ownership, distribution, and the impact of absentee ownership in the development of an 11-county region spanning Buncombe, Burke, Cabarrus, Cleveland, Henderson, Lincoln, McDowell, Mecklenburg, Polk, Rutherford and Union counties.

According to appraisers of the documents, the collection contains the sole remaining records of three counties known as the “burnt counties,” which lost some or all of their public documents to fire or mysterious disappearance.

Smaller collections of SLC records are housed at UNC Chapel Hill, UNC Asheville and Duke University libraries.

“It will be of great interest to historians studying the South and Appalachian region,” said Fred J. Hay, Appalachian Collection librarian.

“The popular conception of the history of the region has, too often, assumed that Daniel Boone types came as squatters, settled on the land and developed farms,” Hay explained. In reality, the New York City-based Speculation Land Company developed, sold and leased the land for a variety of purposes.

After more than six months of cleaning, cataloging and filing, the materials are now available to researchers and others interested in the history of the region.

John Alexander Williams said, “No topics are more important in the early history of Appalachia than land speculation and land allocation. The collection’s focus on western North Carolina makes it especially valuable…The Speculation Land Company records will yield information on both mineral and agricultural lands and make possible comparisons that apply to the society, economy and politics of the entire Appalachian region.”

Williams is a history professor at Appalachian and the author of Appalachia: A History, published by UNC Press, and West Virginia: A History, published by West Virginia University Press.

At least four generations of Rev. Thomas Butler Justice’s descendents worked as agents for the Speculation Land Company. George Justice was the last to work for the company before it was dissolved in 1930. His heirs, Agnes and Alice Justice, Carolina Dessouky and Janette Griffin, donated the collection to Appalachian.

Among the materials catalogued by archivist Kathryn Staley is a variety of business and personal correspondence, which sheds light on everyday life in the region.

One letter, written in 1907 by former slave Hanna Thompson to the Rev. Baylis Justice, sought help locating her grown children who had as children remained in Rutherfordton when she was sold out of state. In addition to being a land agent for SLC, Justice was a Baptist minister.

An 1891 letter from Missouri resident A.H. Bach inquired about the possibility of finding work as a music teacher in Rutherfordton. He asked that an estimate of the “number of pianos within the town limits” be provided.

Historian and University of Georgia professor John Inscoe said the collection provides a “vast new window into the social, economic and environmental history of North Carolina. The sheer range and richness of these materials should make them a vital, even essential, resource for all future work by historians of the North Carolina mountains.”