The First American Frontier

Transition to Capitalism in Southern Appalachia, 1700-1860

By Wilma A. Dunaway

468 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 12 halftones, 5 figs., 19 maps, 40 tables, appends., bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-4540-0
    Published: February 1996
  • eBook ISBN: 978-0-8078-6117-2
    Published: November 2000

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Awards & distinctions

1996 W. D. Weatherford Award, Appalachian Center, Berea College

In The First American Frontier, Wilma Dunaway challenges many assumptions about the development of preindustrial Southern Appalachia's society and economy. Drawing on data from 215 counties in nine states from 1700 to 1860, she argues that capitalist exchange and production came to the region much earlier than has been previously thought. Her innovative book is the first regional history of antebellum Southern Appalachia and the first study to apply world-systems theory to the development of the American frontier. Dunaway demonstrates that Europeans established significant trade relations with Native Americans in the southern mountains and thereby incorporated the region into the world economy as early as the seventeenth century. In addition to the much-studied fur trade, she explores various other forces of change, including government policy, absentee speculation in the region's natural resources, the emergence of towns, and the influence of local elites. Contrary to the myth of a homogeneous society composed mainly of subsistence homesteaders, Dunaway finds that many Appalachian landowners generated market surpluses by exploiting a large landless labor force, including slaves. In delineating these complexities of economy and labor in the region, Dunaway provides a perceptive critique of Appalachian exceptionalism and development.

About the Author

Wilma A. Dunaway is assistant professor of sociology at Colorado State University.
For more information about Wilma A. Dunaway, visit the Author Page.


"No Appalachian stereotype seems immune from Dunaway's research agenda. . . . This book will serve as a treasury of sources and research questions for many, many years."--West Virginia History

"Excepting the West, no United States region is currently undergoing a more heated reinterpretation than southern Appalachia. This book will add fuel to the fire. Wilma A. Dunaway's revisionism is the brashest so far, but her documentation is the best."--Journal of American History

“The most provocative and ambitious examination of the region prior to the Civil War yet published. The author challenges virtually every stereotype produced on early Appalachia through the prism of world-systems theory, sophisticated methodological techniques, and prodigious data gathering. One has to admire the sweep of her scholarship and the power of her arguments.”--Georgia Historical Quarterly

"Essential reading for anyone in the field and offers to others an instructive account of regional economic development."--American Historical Review

"[Dunaway] has provided us with an interpretive framework that challenges many of the old assumptions about the mountain region before 1860. . . . This is a remarkable accomplishment that will only be truly appreciated in the years to come by scholars who wrestle with the questions she raises."--Gordon McKinney, Appalachian Journal

"This work will undoubtedly set the standard for the future studies of the region and should be consulted by any serious student of antebellum Southern Appalachian affairs."--Tennessee Historical Quarterly