Historic Documents Find a New Home at UNC Asheville;
Papers, Maps Trace Early History of Land Speculation in Western North
Historic documents that were locked in a Hendersonville safe
for decades have found a new home at UNC Asheville. Thanks
to a discovery by Hendersonville resident Gene Robbins
and a donation from father and son history buffs, some
800 documents related to land ownership in Western North
Carolina in the early 1800s are now part of Ramsey Library's
Special Collections. The $125,000 donation from Joe Kimmel,
of Asheville, and his son Steven, a UNCA senior physics
major, is allowing UNCA to purchase the collection and
digitize it for public access on Ramsey Library's Web site.
The documents help shed light on the acquisition and sale of
the "Speculation Lands," some 400,000 acres in Western North
Carolina that were bought for resale by native Philadelphian
Tench Coxe in 1795-96. Tench Coxe, whose grandson
Franklin Coxe built the original Battery Park Hotel in Asheville,
was one of many wealthy and politically powerful land
speculators operating after the Revolutionary War. The Speculation
Lands make up most of today's Rutherford County, as
well as portions of Buncombe, Henderson and Polk counties,
said Helen Wykle, who directs Ramsey Library's Special Collections.
"This is a rich collection," Wykle said. "It fills a gap
in our knowledge of land distribution in the early
years of the 19th century."
The discovery of the documents came as a great delight to Gene
Robbins, a retired college administrator who has a special
interest in U.S. history. When Robbins bought his 1920s
home in Hendersonville three years ago, he could see the
house had been built around a 1,000-pound,
steel-and-concrete safe. But the safe, locked tight,
had no combination and the previous owner had no idea what
it contained. So a year after moving in, Robbins got four men
to move the safe and he hacked his way through its back.
Inside were stacks of documents dating to the early 1800s that
represent more than 60 years of work by the Justice family of
Hendersonville, who were land surveyors and agents for the
Speculation Lands. The cache of papers includes maps, land
surveys and survey notes, deeds, ledgers, and letters of correspondence
with foreign investors. Among the signatures in the
collection are those of Tench Coxe; Samuel Ashe, who was
governor of North Carolina in 1795-98; Pierre Estienne DuPonceau,
who fought with Washington at Valley Forge; and
Smith Thompson, the U.S. Supreme Court judge who presided
in the Amistad Case.
"Because this is such a comprehensive set of records it will
give us good insight into who owned the land, how it was acquired
and how it was distributed. These are important questions,"
said Dan Pierce, a Southern history expert and UNCA
professor. "Among historians of early America there is an
important and hotly debated set of questions about how people
got land, who controlled the land and what that means. And
among Appalachian historians there's been a recent debate
about land ownership. There's a notion, which helped to
build beliefs about Appalachian heritage, that everybody owned
their own land, but in recent years that notion has been challenged.
These records will help us take a closer look."
UNCA students will be able to use these documents for their
undergraduate research projects and will be joined by historians
studying land acquisition, gold mining, and international
banking practices, Wykle said. UNCA students majoring
in Multimedia Arts and Sciences are helping to digitize
the collection and build the Web site, which will be designed
as a research and educational tool.
For more information about the Speculation Land Company
collection, call Ramsey Library
Special Collections at 828/251-6645.
Note to Media: The Speculation Lands Collection at UNCA
will be unveiled at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 25, in Ramsey
Library's Blowers Gallery, located on the library's main
floor. Those attending will include historians,
student researchers, Helen Wykle, Gene Robbins, and
others. You are welcome to attend and bring a
- Merianne Epstein, UNCA Public Information Director, 828/251-6676 or