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History & Social Geography Audio
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Cody Dickens, a visit from the land company
Dr. Jim Michael Wills of Rock Creek on absentee landownership
The Songcatchers
The Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia by The Songcatchers of Clear Fork.

History & Social Geography


Absentee Land Ownership

Understanding the quest for land illuminates the history of the Appalachian people. Geography influences the region's history in dramatic ways. Appalachian history must be studied from this perspective because its problems are posed and revealed by place. --Barbara Rasmussen


The process of outside land ownership in West Virginia has been a central part of timber and coal extraction. Timber and coal companies needed to gain access to the resources that lay on or under the land owned by Coal River residents. While outside land ownership had existed since the early explorations of the valley, when land companies formed at the end of the 19th Century as railroads expanded into the valley, the first large-scale exploitation of timber and coal was possible. As Barbara Rasmussen states in her work, Absentee Landowning & Exploration in West Virginia, 1760-1920, the exploitative power residents faced because of the disproportionate land ownership patterns when railroads entered the region, as "industrialists successfully exploited the region because they controlled the land and the political system. Their power allowed them to exploit callously the local culture, the natural resources, and thousands of immigrant workers."
        
Early land companies, such as the Rowland Land Company combined many existing timber and coal companies and leases together, and then shifted their attention to acquiring the land of Coal River residents. Rick Bradford, in his book Edwight, Near the Mouth of the Hazy, explains how land companies developed:
On Dec. 4, 1902, the Bowman Lumber Company and the West Virginia Syndicate, a timber concern, formed the Rowland Land company to take title to all of the property that the Bowman Lumber Company, the Big Coal Development Company (formed to extend the C&O Railroad), and these various agents had been acquiring. 
In this way, different corporate interests could combine their efforts in order to develop the coalfields of Coal River Valley. “Now the stage was set for industrial exploitation. The people had been separated from their land by the 'broad form' deeds, and the railroad had been built,” Bradford wrote. “Waiting in the wings were corporations willing to take the leases.” 
 
Rowland Land Company office
The old Rowland Land Company office on Coal River. Photo by Rick Bradford.
Land companies such as Rowland acquired thousands of acres of mineral and timber rights which they have since leased only  to coal and timber operators. In a 1996 interview with Mary Hufford, Quentin Barrett explained the process of purchasing mineral rights: “these larger corporations and companies…they would come in and give a man an acre of land or just his home—they owned it, but he’d live on it the rest of his life," Barrett continues, “but he had a right to cut firewood, gather ginseng, whatever, do what he wanted—treat it like it was his. They paid the taxes and paid him a little something."
 
 
The broad-form deed was a tool used to get large tracts of land into the hands of land agents. Rick Bradford wrote, “the 'broad-form' deed when signed gave the coal or land company the right to use the surface in any way 'convenient and necessary' to excavate the minerals” Rick continues, “it absolved the company from any liability for damages caused directly or indirectly by the mining operation on that land; and it passed on ownership of that particular tract of land 'to the parties of the second part, their heirs and assigns.” 
        
The  loss of mineral rights is deeply rooted within the collective memory of coalfield residents, most of whom point to the confusing and misleading language of the land company contracts as a tool used to swindle property owners who often did not know the full value of the resources.  Establishing contending claims to property, sometimes by paying delinquent taxes from before the Civil War, land companies would offer to compromise with people whose families had worked the land for generations. 
 
Cody Dickens, Peach Tree, interview with Mary Hufford.
 
Listen to Cody Dickens, of Peach Tree Creek, telling the story of his father-in-law's reaction to a visit from the land company agents.  Tending the Commons audio courtesy American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
 
 
managed to gain control of the valuable timber and coal deposits which they could then lease to timber or coal companies. Barrett highlights just how successful the land companies were in the past and continue to be in the present: “When you drive around and see these hills, they don’t belong to the people, they belong to these land companies."
 
Current land ownership patterns on Coal River reflect years of economic entrenchment and power at the hands of absentee land ownership companies. According to Raleigh County, West Virginia courthouse records, approximately over fifty percent is either owned or has mineral or surface rights owned by land companies. The top land owning companies in Raleigh County in order of greatest land or rights owned are:
  1. Rowland Land Company
  2. Southern Land Company
  3. Pocahontas Land Company
  4. Piney Land Company
  5. McCreery Land and Coal Company
Rowland Land Company, as the first large-holding land company in the region, owns by far the largest share of the five top companies, owning the land or rights to over 80,000 acres in Raleigh County. Much of the holdings of these companies are located on the Marsh and Clear Forks of Coal River, containing countless acres of mineral, surface and timbering rights leased to resource extraction corporations. 
 
The economics of absentee land ownership have a profound negative impact on the well being of residents in the coalfields of southern Appalachia. John Gaventa, in his work "The Political Economy of Land Tenure: Appalachia & the Southeast," states the negative affects of corporate land ownership, stating "absentee and concentrated ownership of the land and natural resources mean that wealth has been drained away from the region and its people." To Gaventa, the inherent problem lies in the political power of land owning companies to avoid paying large property taxes, relied upon for the development of small communities, despite their massive land holdings.
 
Gaventa states "the substantial coal and timber wealth of the region fails to produce local revenues for schools, health care and other services necessary for the development of human capital."[9] By restricting community social and economic development by way of property taxes, coal, timber and their associate land companies control virtually the only major source to income within a region, such as Coal River. In response, multiple livelihood strategies are preserved by community members to fulfill many of the community support roles. The decline of underground mining and mechanization of mining through strip mining and MTR thus creates a destructive pattern. By controlling the only major source of income, Gaventa states that the  "decline of land-based industries leaves rural people in the South in a double bind - with access neither to the land nor the jobs historically associated with it." Gaventa argues that community and social organizations, such as those who fight Mountaintop Removal and economic and social injustice become the primary mode of resistance and community survival in the face of corporate exploitation and power.
 
 
Jim Wills, Rock Creek, interview with Mary Hufford.
Listen to Dr. Jim Michael Wills, of Rock Creek discussing patterns of, and local resistance to, absentee ownership on his part of Coal River Mountain with Mary Hufford and Lyntha Eiler.  Tending the Commons audio courtesy American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
 
A study was conducted on a state-wide basis in 1974 to examine land ownership patterns: Who Owns WV, 1974 (PDF)
 
For more information on sources used in this theme, please see the Notes on Sources section.