Campbells of Southwest Virginia

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The Westward Movement

by Phil Norfleet

The migrational behavior of the Campbell families discussed at this web site display, in microcosm, many of the characteristics associated with the westward movement of the American Frontier prior to the Civil War. In 1893, the leading historian of the American Frontier, Frederick Jackson Turner, said:

"In a recent bulletin of the superintendent of the census for 1890 appear these significant words: ‘Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. In the discussion of its extent, its westward movement, etc., it can not, therefore, any longer have a place in the census reports.’ This brief official statement marks the closing of a great historic movement. Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development." [1]

In my opinion, this almost never-ending pursuit of free or at least cheap land constitutes the primary motivation for our ancestors to migrate in the direction of the frontier as it existed in their time. My own research concerning the history of the Black David Campbell family reveals a similar and consistent pattern of westward movement.

For example, Alexander Campbell (c. 1685-1758) and his sons and daughters, moved from their ancestral home in Ulster Province, Ireland to Beverley Manor, in Augusta County, Virginia Colony, in about the year 1744. Captain William Campbell (1748-1800) and his uncles Robert (d. 1797) and Alexander (d. 1787), belonging to the third and second generation, respectively, of Alexander Campbell’s descendants, moved from Augusta County, Virginia southwestward into Fincastle and later Montgomery County, Virginia in the 1770’s. During the early 1780’s they migrated to Washington County in Northeastern Tennessee. Later, in 1784, they moved to Fayette County, Kentucky. In the early 1800’s, Captain Campbell’s Widow, his eldest son David (1772-1838) and most of his other sons and daughters moved to Muhlenberg County in Western Kentucky. David Campbell’s eldest son, William (1793-1885), migrated first to Missouri (Saline County) in 1839 and later crossed the Great Plains to California (Santa Clara County) in 1846.

Three Waves of Migration

This westward advance may be described as having occurred in a series of three waves. Peck’s New Guide to the West, published in Boston in 1837, tells us the following:

"Generally, in all the western settlements, three classes, like the waves of the ocean, have rolled one after the other. First comes the pioneer, who depends for the subsistence of his family chiefly upon the natural growth of vegetation, called the ‘range,’ and the proceeds of hunting. His implements of agriculture are rude, chiefly of his own make, and his efforts directed mainly to a crop of corn and a ‘truck patch.’ The last is a rude garden for growing cabbage, beans, corn for roasting ears, cucumbers and potatoes. A log cabin, and, occasionally, a stable and corn-crib, and a field of a dozen acres, the timber girdled or ‘deadened,’ and fenced, are enough for his occupancy. It is quite immaterial whether he ever becomes the owner of the soil. He is the occupant for the time being, pays no rent, and feels as independent as the ‘lord of the manor.’ With a horse, cow, and one or two breeders of swine, he strikes into the woods with his family, and becomes the founder of a new county, or perhaps state. He builds his cabin, gathers around him a few other families of similar tastes and habits, and occupies till the range is somewhat subdued, and hunting a little precarious, or, which is more frequently the case, till the neighbors crowd around, roads, bridges, and fields annoy him, and he lacks elbow room. The preemption law enables him to dispose of his cabin, and cornfield to the next class of emigrants; and, to employ his own figures, he ‘breaks for the high timber,’ ‘clears out for the New Purchase,’ or migrates to Arkansas or Texas, to work the same process over.

"The next class of emigrants purchase the lands, add field to field, clear out the roads, throw rough bridges over the streams, put up hewn log houses with glass windows and brick or stone chimneys, occasionally plant orchards, build mills, schoolhouses, courthouses, etc., and exhibit the picture and forms of plain, frugal, civilized life.

"Another wave rolls on. The men of capital and enterprise come. The settler is ready to sell out and take advantage of the rise in property, push farther into the interior and become himself, a man of capital and enterprise in turn. The small village rises to a spacious town or city; substantial edifices of brick, extensive fields, orchards, gardens, colleges, and churches are seen. Broadcloths, silks, leghorns, crapes, and all the refinements, luxuries, elegancies, frivolities, and fashions are in vogue. Thus wave after wave is rolling westward; the real Eldorado is still farther on." [2]

I believe Peck’s description presents an excessively glorified image of the first wave of emigrants, whom he calls the "pioneers." Instead of "pioneers," a more accurate but less favorable term "squatters" could also have been used. Squatters were people who settled on land located beyond the official frontier, in areas still designated as Indian Territory. The squatters had no title or right to such land, which, though vacant with respect to white settlement, was used by the Indians for their hunting grounds. As soon as the land became exhausted from poor farming techniques and the game had been hunted out of existence, these people would pack up and move westward to squat on new land which was still fertile and had plenty of game animals. As their migrations were almost always in violation of the prevailing Indian treaties, these squatter "pioneers" were the whites who most angered the Indians. Consequently, their settlements/stations were frequently the target of Indian raids and many squatters were killed and/or scalped! Their Indian fighting prowess notwithstanding, far from being heroes, many of these people were shiftless, scoundrels who were unwilling or unable to make their way in more civilized society!

Southwest Virginia Campbells Belong to the Second Wave

I believe I can state that, based on Peck’s definitions cited above, the Campbells described at this web site definitely seem to belong to the second wave or class of emigrants. In spite of their Scotch-Irish ancestry, I know of not a single instance where these Campbells squatted on land. They frequently patented land in areas where no white man had previously settled. However, these lands were always in areas that had been legally set aside by the established government (colonial, state or federal) for land grant purposes. I know of no instance where a Campbell attempted to settle on land that was still part of recognized Indian Territory.


1.  From the preamble of a paper presented at a meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago on 12 July 1893. The paper was published in the Proceedings of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, dated 14 December 1893.

2.  Ibid., pages19-21.