Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Liberal Studies


Karen Miller

Subject Categories

American Studies | United States History


Trans-Appalachian South, Farmers, Banks, Debt, Early American Republic, Settler Colonialism


This thesis examines how indebted small farmers contributed to the territorial expansion of the United States into Native lands of the trans-Appalachian South during the formative decades of the US republic. Taking on debt to purchase land and pay for the operating costs of farming, small farmers, the vast majority of whom were white, faced insolvency, land forfeiture, imprisonment, precarity, and poverty. In their struggles to manage debt, they operated under a creditor-friendly regime rooted in monetary and credit innovations of the colonial period. Indebtedness repeatedly compelled many small farmers to reenter the cycle of migration and settlement, serving as a demographic force for expansion. At the other end of the settler hierarchy, bankers, planters, land speculators, and merchants, backed by the power of a legal-military infrastructure, constructed financial networks characterized by unevenly distributed access to credit. Bank directors issued loans to themselves, bank shareholders, merchants, and other planters, leaving small farmers with few options for alleviating their debt burdens. At the center of migration, occupation, and settlement were struggles over land, labor, and liquidity. Intertwined with the indebtedness of small farmers were the dispossession of First Nations and the subjugation of enslaved Black communities that together created a crucible for settler expansion in the trans-Appalachian South.