The Broad River Community
Excerpted From: A Confluence of Transatlantic Networks Pages 34-37
By: Laura Jarnagin
In the aftermath of the American revolution many prominent Virginia and North Carolina merchant planter families found themselves penniless in person and restless in spirit. According to a hagiographic work by one of their descendants, George Rockingham Gilmer.
Mostly they had been tobacco planters whose capital had been exhausted by the war. Gilmer expresses their predicament, "The people immediately after the acquisition of national freedom had fewer of the good things of life that when they paid the stamp tax. How to improve their condition was the question that they more anxiously sought to solve. The restless and dissatisfied spirit of the old States found relief by immigration to the new."
In the hopes of changing their dismal situation for the better, these intermarried families set about identifying new lands in which some of their number could relocate. "It was the rule of the Broad River people that their children should begin to improve their condition at the earliest possible time" and seek opportunity elsewhere. Although the livelihoods of the Broad River community and its offshoots would continue to revolve around commercial agriculture, their individual occupations comprised of a broad spectrum of professions and skills complementary to agrarian capitalism. This suite of interconnected bourgeoisie occupations included large and small merchants, lawyers, bankers, engineers, physicians, education, clergy, diplomat, military officers, and statesmen. even the gentry who focused on planting were likely to have expertise in law, medicine, science, engineering, or business.
Like their descendants who later migrated to Brazil, these post-revolution Virginia and North Carolina families had there own advance agents who identified locations for resettlement. The Broad River region of the South Carolina- Georgia border area became the realm of choice, with the town of Petersburg (Elbert County),Georgia, serving as its nucleus. Members of the Dabney, Gilmer, Herndon, Lewis, Meriwether (perhaps the most prominent of the lot), and Taliaferro families were part of the Broad River communities.
George Rockingham Gilmer describes the Broad River families as having "formed the most intimate friendly social union ever known among the same number of persons." Although some degree of intermarriage had occurred in Virginia, the endogamy reached such a level in Georgia that every member of a group was closely related to every other member. In fairly short order, this professionally diversified kinship network was able to dominate state politics.
From the 1780s, Broad River settlements came later pods of new out-migrant who moved into Alabama territory. Just as their forbears had done and as their progeny would do in the aftermath of the Civil War, the migrants used advance agents to reconnoiter and report on the possibilities and opportunities in other locales. Of course, the Broad River families were not the only ones to move into the Alabama territory anymore than they had been the only wants to move into the Broad River region, nor were they first comers in either case. But when segments of this kinship community did migrate, they proved to be a powerful catalyst for development in their new locations because they moved in concert along with pooled capital, connections to active social, economic, and political networks of kinsman in the communities they left behind, and a host of diverse professions. With succeeding out- migration came new levels of wealth: the means at the disposal of the families that moved into Georgia was "moderate," but the next generation enjoyed considerable wealth as they migrated into Alabama. According to one historian, "Broad River capital came chiefly from agriculture, of course....... but their investments were a great deal more diversified than those of most Alabama planters." not surprisingly, they were successful on balance and verse were often held in contempt by outsiders.
Broad River families moved to Alabama in two groups: The first, in 1809, to northern Alabama, founding the city of Huntsville, the second, in 1818 to Alabama's black belt and the site that became Montgomery. These families expected to become politically hegemonic in Alabama as they had been in Georgia, and although they were so initially, that was not the case in the long run. Despite an underlying political philosophy that supposedly eschewed elitism, Broad River families were nevertheless perceived as practicing just that by those outside their circle.
Suffice it to say that some of the heirs of the Broad River migrants wanted to disassociate themselves from the popularity perceived elitism of their ilk. In doing so, they floundered politically and their power was diffuse until a coalescing issue could be found. South Carolinian John C Calhoun and his nullification movement of the 1830s, which held that a state should have the ability to nullify a federal law, offered such an issue. Their rallying point was a newly established federal tariffs that negatively impacted cotton exports. The nullification movement eventually grew into the broader states’ rights ideology, a call taken up by the Alabama fire-eaters of the 1850s an early 1860s, especially William Lowndes Yancey. “Many people who had not otherwise obtained influence were included in the number of fire-eaters. They were not all persons without character. Some of the scions of the Broad River group, who were excluded from office for the sins of their ancestors, became fire-eaters.
At least one notable subset of southern immigrants to Brazil had Broad River these and were also Calhounites and fire-eaters. Calhounites constituted a secondary element within the fire-eaters, however, and the Broad River element was a distinct minority of the fire-eater adherents. Like their planter-merchant forefathers, succeeding Broad River generations continued to be integrated into capitalism's international commodity trade, either directly or indirectly. A protective tariff, therefore, represented an affront to a lifestyle built on profit seeking, externally oriented agrarian capitalism, and the freedom to accumulate one’s wealth in that fashion.
Some 13,000 people lived in Alabama and 1813, by 1820, the population has swollen to 127,000. Thirty years later, in the decade or so preceding the Civil War, a pronounced outmigration trend was observable. "There was considerable emigration in the 50s and much more longing to emigrate. Of all persons born in Alabama, 20% resided elsewhere in 1850. By 1860, the figure reached to 30%." This amounts to more than 54,000 additional Alabama immigrants or an increase of 65% over 1850. Of these, an estimated 43 3% were residing in either Alabama or Texas by 1860. This underlying trend of a fluid population over succeeding generations, especially in the immediate antebellum years, is important. In many respects, a postbellum move to Brazil--while certainly farther away than another US state or territory, was very much in keeping with a long tradition of continually seeking better material opportunities elsewhere, especially among Broad River descendants.