Germans on the Western Waters: Artisans, Material Culture, and Hybridity in Virginia's Backcountry, 1780-1830

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Virginia Tech


This study examines the socioeconomic lives of artisans of German descent who worked within Wythe County, Virginia from 1780 to 1830. It is particularly concerned with how a distinct German-American culture manifests over time as seen through these artisans' produced materials and structures. This thesis traces this manifestation through a careful examination of Wythe material culture, wills, probates, inventories, court records, account books, receipts, invoices, census records, personal correspondence, and personal property tax assessments. Scholars of early America and the southern backcountry have often narrated German cultural identity transformations along the lines of language and marriages. This work diverts from those tendencies, thereby complicating prior understanding of German-Americans settlement and development patterns in early America. Beginning in the 1780s entire German families, neighborhoods, and communities left their prior American homes and settled within a relatively unsettled area of southwest Virginia. These predominately second-generation German descendants brought with them to the backcountry a culturally-constructed material culture lexicon passed onto them by their ancestors. This thesis argues that artisans of Wythe County operated as major agents of economic and social development while also providing a hybridized cultural resource for their neighbors and surrounding Great Road communities. These German families and congregations, composed of farmers, hausfrauen (housekeepers), and craftsmen by trade, sought to maintain a familiar and distinct cultural landscape and ethos through the many wares and structures they produced. These German neighborhoods accommodated and diversified their trades to fit within a burgeoning early-American society while still aware of their predominately German community's cultural character and needs.



Craftsmen, Early America, Southwest Virginia