Backcountry Society of The Antebellum South


Edward Isham was a backcountry ruffian who had no respect for the social mores of typical antebellum society in the South. He was a menace and a drifter. He broke apart families and challenged the established hierarchies. Edward Isham’s autobiography is a narrative of constant abrasion against the Southern planter class’s accepted culture. The Confessions of Edward Isham, with his autobiography and accompanying essays, display his disdain for the boundaries set for him by the Southern gentry and provide an outline of his encumbrances to the society which he resisted. He disrupted this social order with his dishonorable and violent defiance, his complete disregard for the stability of others’ households, and his interracial associations.

Fanatical Violence

Constant and extreme violence marked Edward Isham’s life. Violence in itself is unsettling to the community, but antebellum Southern communities were accustomed to bloodshed. The type of fighting and hostility that Edward Isham was immersed in, however, was outside the realm of acceptable violence. He would fight anyone for any reason and use any means necessary, ignoring the codes of ‘honor’ and ‘fairness’ many times during his scuffles. The frontier way of life was seen as a threat to the gentile notions of reputation, and Isham even seemed to pride himself on his inversion of the gentry’s honor. As Scott P. Culclasure’s essay points out, Isham’s quick temper and defiance was seen as a threat to stability in the community and made him an evident outsider. The fact that Isham was unable, or unwilling, to ‘subdue the violent passions that other southerners had overcome’ quickly made him a target.

After Isham murdered James Cornelius, a respected slaveholder, the North Carolina community acted quickly to charge, convict, and execute Edward Isham. In an attempt to restore the social order between landowners and poor whites they ‘purged their society of a man they viewed as menacing and uncivilized’. As Joseph P. Reidy explains, even after his death the newspapers attempted to restore culturally accepted customs and protect the general public from the immoral life and escapades of Isham. Edward Isham’s inclination towards violence ultimately led to his death, but before then, it served as the basis for his other disrupting behavior of undermining families and community relations.

Lackadaisical Relations

Although many backcountry Southerners moved quite a bit, Edward Isham moved about much more often and over a much larger space; for different reasons too. Isham’s scrapes with the law required him to flee county after county to avoid prosecution. His constant flight prevented him from establishing any sort of family life or significant relationships. Although he relied on his family to help him when he was in trouble, as soon as he was able he would go on to his next location. Not only was Isham’s family life extremely fragmented, but he caused fragmentation to other families as well. He was fond of encouraging married women to leave their husbands and run off with him, only to abandon them when whenever he deemed suitable. Victoria E. Bynum notes how Isham ‘easily recounted seducing, impregnating, and abandoning women’. These women usually had to be fought for and won by Isham leaving the woman’s family as the losers in Isham’s disruptive games.

Isham undoubtedly caused strife and disruption in other families due to his unrestrained ways, but even his own family was unsettled by him. David H. Kleit’s essay describes an incident in which Edward had an affair with his brother John’s sister-in-law. John Isham did not take kindly to Edward’s disconcerting relationship and ended their discussion by breaking a chair over Edward’s head. Many of the women that he became intimate with knew each other and some were even related, causing even more division between families. Even Isham’s own children suffered from his inability to stay out of trouble and lack of real familial relationships. They never knew their father and he showed no signs of concern for them or their mothers. Edward Isham caused many problems in Southern communities with his inability to settle down and form a family, as well as his great ability to sever other families, but it was some of Isham’s relationships he did make that caused the most apprehension in an antebellum Southern society.

Disregard for Social Stigmas

Edward Isham made friends with just about anyone who would fight or gamble with him, including free blacks and a half-blood Indian. He even worked for a free black man at one point. White Southerners feared these relationships because they believed they would foster an economic solidarity that could possible trump a racial one. Scott P. Culclasure gives examples of court cases in North Carolina where the communitys sympathy, or lack thereof, was based on the accused individual’s relationships to blacks. A person’s worst offence could very well be their associations with free blacks. One of Isham’s most audacious crossings of the racial line is told in Victoria E. Bynum’s essay. Bynum portrays an event in which Isham ‘got too intimate with a [free] black girl’. Isham was with the black girl in public and brought her into a tavern where the owner’s woman was so upset that she pulled a shotgun on him. Edward Isham’s relationships with blacks challenged the social order and hierarchy and were seditious to the society’s recognized racial inequalities.

Not only did Isham expose signs of racial equality, he also challenged set social statuses. The fact that Edward Isham was hanged for the murder of a wealthy land owner for whom he worked shows that Isham’s violence, like his social relationships, was not confined within socially acceptable boundaries. Culclasure even makes the connection that ‘Isham’s shameless behavior [in regards to interracial relationships] may represent his expression of the contempt he felt for a society that had rejected him’. These evident relationships, coupled with his defiant violence towards authority and those above him in social status, made Edward Isham a primary target and a real threat to the culture that was predominant in the antebellum South.

Antithesis of Plantation Society

Edward Isham was the embodiment of all ideas adverse to the Southern society created by the planter class, and because of this, the elite class viewed him with great contempt. His proclivity for violence threatened the order and stability, his fragmented family life and tendency to break up marriages threatened the importance of community and dependency, and his relationships with free blacks and defiance toward authority threatened the hierarchy of the culture he so disrupted.


Isham, Edward, Charles C. Bolton, and Scott P. Culclasure. The Confessions of Edward Isham: a Poor White Life of the Old South. Athens: University of Georgia, 1998. Print.