Edmund Ruffin was a walking contradiction.
Ruffin was a wealthy Virginia plantation and slaveowner, and an outspoken and uncompromising proponent of states rights. When he learned of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse ending the Civil War, he committed suicide rather than live under the rule of the federal government.
He was also a brilliant student of agriculture, and an objective observer of the natural world, coming to scientific conclusions that were not confirmed in some cases until decades or even a century later. Insatiably curious about local cultures and customs, in keeping an open mind when recording his observations, he has given us perhaps the most accurate window in to everyday life in the South just before the Civil War.
In 1856 he visited the Outer Banks. Writing in his book Sketches of Lower North Carolina, Ruffin devotes considerable time to how the locals treated the horses that roamed the sand dunes. He first differentiates the treatment of horse from other domestic animals.
“There are cattle and sheep on this portion of the reef, obtaining a poor substance indeed, but without any cost or care from their owners.” He goes on to declare that “…any lawless depredator can, in security, shoot and carry off any number of these animals.”
Horses, however, were viewed very differently. “Horses cannot be used for food…and cannot be removed by thieves—and, therefore, the rearing of horses is a very profitable investment for the small amount of capital required.”
Ruffin describes in great detail how the horses were rounded up and then sold for stock on the mainland. He also gives an extraordinarily accurate description of what he saw.
“These horses are of small size, with rough and shaggy coats and long manes. They are generally ugly. Their hoofs, in many, grow to unusual lengths. They are capable of great endurance of labor and hardship and live so roughly, that any other, from abroad seldom live a year on such food and under such great exposure.”
Although his description of what he was seeing is consistent with our 21st century Banker Horses—“generally ugly” notwithstanding—his speculation about their origins is somewhat suspect.
“The race, of course, was originally derived from a superior kind of breed of stock; but long acclimation…has fixed on the breed the peculiar characteristics of form, size, and qualities which distinguish the ‘banks’ ponies.’”
The agronomist in him comes out as he describes the farming practices he found on the Outer Banks. Ruffin writes about a plantation owner, Mr. Gallop, not giving his full name, although it was probably Hodges Gallop. The land he describes is an accurate description of Martin’s Point, where the Gallop family owned land.
“Though his land is of the usual loose blown sand, it produces crops of 2000 to 2500 bushels of corn.” He describes how well “ordinary culinary vegetable grow” in the soil, then takes on what he sees as a scientific failure to use the best resources to increase yields.
“There are abundant resources of manure, in the old Indian banks of shells, and immense quantities of fish caught in the seines, and worthless for other purposes, to make a rich material for compost manure. There is, however, as yet no attention paid to these resources . . .”
That same objective view of what he was seeing led him to make a number of observations about the nature of the Outer Banks. He points out that inlets actually function as an outlet to the sea, and that they maintain the level of water in the sounds at a constant. Because of that, he notes, “And if more or deeper openings were made by the labors of man, they would be soon filled again by the opposing and more far powerful operations of nature.”
Ruffin’s curiosity and eye for the scientific processes that formed the Outer Banks seems unending. His writings leave no doubt that the Outer Banks are not islands and have no attachment to a permanent base, continually referring to them as “reefs,” which is factual. He describes in great and very accurate detail the process that is now called “retreat.” (Writer’s note: Erosion is the removal of sand, rock or stone to another location. The Outer Banks “retreat” because the sand is not removed, moving, rather, from the ocean side to the sound side.)
Before the WPA built the dunes in the 1930s that line the beach and stabilized the shoreline, the Outer Banks would regularly be overwashed during storms, with sand from the eastern beach carried to the western shoreline and deposited. “The ocean waves, when driven violently landward…must operate to propel the upper layers of sand in the direction towards the land,” he wrote.
From our modern perspective, Edmund Ruffin is a conundrum—his views on race and slavery are abhorrent. However, without his observation and his clear and objective writing our knowledge of 19th century life in the South would be incomplete.