Daddy’s money

“You should exercise a good degree of judgment in determining who are proper objects of charity, and who are not; there are impostors in the world, and on that account many worthy persons have been refused favors when they deserved them: But because there are such, we are not to withhold, with a parsimonious hand, from all who seek our assistance.”

— James Patton, 1756-1845

There’s a story making the rounds about street kids in Asheville: Sure, they look scruffy; sure, they’ve got totally matted dreads; sure, they’ve given up on straight society, capitalism, acquisitiveness, propriety and even bathing. But a lot of them actually have platinum-plus cards tucked in their backpacks. In other words, these faux freaks are really “trustafarians.”

Seeking to track down the facts behind the tale, Xpress talked to a dozen or so downtown store owners and clerks. But despite near universal agreement that there are trustafarians in Asheville, no one we spoke with could report having actually been handed a credit card by somebody who looked like home was a cardboard box or the Billy Graham Freeway overpass at North Lexington.

It could be a simple case of nearly irresistible urban legend, like the gators in the New York City sewers, or the noble soldier spat on by evil peaceniks. Wordspy.com offers this definition of trustafarian: “A jobless person who has access to money — especially a trust fund income — and who affects a laid back, bohemian lifestyle.” The Web site traces the term’s first use to The Washington Times back in 1992, and a Google search yields nearly 2,500 references to the word (many of which lend credence to the idea that it is merely a legend).

Then again, as a clerk at Malaprop’s suggested, some of the more alternative-looking living-off-the-land folks who shop in Asheville might be mistaken for street people — thereby feeding the rumor, since they must have some level of means (whether inherited or earned) in order to own land.

Or maybe the whole thing is merely the straight world’s way of gaining reassurance that those free spirits who aren’t punching a clock like the rest of us are really only faking it.

Of course, not everyone who inherits significant wealth is a scruffy sluggard; many of this city’s greatest benefactors and most acclaimed citizens came into this world well provided for. And whether or not they qualify as bona fide trustafarians, a cruise through the local history books turns up a steady stream of such folks who left their stamp on Asheville.

The trailblazer

Forget about “best places” lists, retirees and tourism: Well-heeled immigrants to Asheville are not a recent phenomenon. In fact, the trend traces back to the man who was perhaps the first European to encounter these mountains.

Born of nobility in Spain around 1500 and raised in comfort in Panama, Hernando de Soto had all the advantages that wealth and position can confer. He learned the ropes helping Francisco Pizarro destroy the Inca Empire. As Pizarro’s ambassador to Atahualpa, de Soto befriended the captive Inca ruler and was utterly disillusioned when his boss accepted a huge ransom from Atahualpa — and then had him killed anyway.

De Soto left in a huff, taking about 18,000 ounces of gold (about $7.2 million in today’s market) with him when he returned to Spain.

But he was jealous of men like Pizarro and Hernando Cortes, who’d achieved fame as well as fortune. So, like so many future restless rich kids, de Soto made his way to Asheville. One of the wealthiest men in Spain — having lately married Isabella de Bobadilla, scion of one of the most renowned Castilian families — de Soto stopped in at the court of Charles V and offered to conquer Florida at his own expense. Charles obligingly named de Soto governor of Cuba (from where he sailed to Florida) and captain-general of any provinces he might secure by conquest.

In the course of de Soto’s extensive adventures in the Southeast, historians believe he came through what’s now Buncombe County. He was thus the first European ruler of this municipality — and arguably the first gold-card-bearing, longhaired, pale-skinned, rebellious young man to hang out in the Land of the Sky.

Reaching for the sky

Fast-forward several centuries to when James McConnell Smith, heir to his daddy’s money (and 200-acre land grant), married Polly Patton and commanded his several slaves to build a bridge across the French Broad River — and Asheville’s first mansion. In his book Historic Asheville (Land of the Sky Books, 2001), local-history buff Bob Terrell writes that Smith built it for his son, John Patton Smith. John’s daughter, Sarah Smith-McDowell, and her husband bought the house after her parents died (women weren’t allowed to inherit their parents’ property in those days). Today, the Smith-McDowell House (now a museum) is said to be Asheville’s oldest surviving home and the oldest brick house in Buncombe County.

One of the next rich kids to make a really big splash in Asheville was Zebulon Baird Vance. The Vance clan couldn’t hope to rival the de Sotos when it came to cold, hard cash. But their extensive land holdings set them well apart from the typical mountaineer of the time — particularly the Bairds’ 9,000 acres, which included much of what is now the city of Asheville. Zeb doesn’t precisely fit the mold of the young drifter who floats into town from parts unknown, since he only drifted down from a cabin in Reems Creek. But there’s no doubt that family money and influence underwrote his career as a lawyer, congressman, Unionist, secessionist, slave owner, colonel, governor and finally a U.S. senator and first citizen of the region during and after the Civil War.

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About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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