Take Back the Land

Knott Countians celebrate their land seizure with a picnic and music

Cathy Stanley

Appalachia mountains

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 10 No. 1, "Who Owns Appalachia?" Find more from that issue here.

Most members of the Land Ownership Task Force agree that fairer taxes or more favorable leases will not solve the deepest problems caused by concentrated and absentee ownership of land and minerals. Their report calls for fundamental land reform “by which people of the region can gain more access to, control over and bene fit from the land and its resources.”

Meanwhile, some people have taken matters into their own hands. Jackie Van Anda, who has been covering one such story for Mountain Life and Work, tells what a Kentucky family has done.


Stories of Appalachian families losing their land to speculators or coal companies without their consent, or even their knowledge, are told wherever one turns in the mountains. Now, though, one family in Knott County is fighting to get its land back. Descendants of David Kelts (D.K.) Shepherd have laid claim to 700 acres and are prepared to prove that their land was never legally sold to anyone.

In April, 1980, the heirs, led by Mart Shepherd, set up a tent on the property and began informing the timber and gas crews working there that the land was theirs and that the work crews did not have the owners’ consent to be on it. Gas, coal and timber companies have claimed the mineral rights on the land for years, but the Shepherd family didn’t occupy their land until they were convinced it was rightfully theirs. They spent more than two years poring over county land records and doing title searches to get their evidence.

Mart Shepherd explains, “When the power company first came in about three years ago, they went around asking about the land and who owned it so they could buy a right-of-way. So they looked up the deed and it had belonged to D.K. Shepherd, my grandfather.

“We hired an attorney to research the deeds in the county courthouse and found out that D.K. Shepherd had settled there in 1862. He owned 11 different tracts under 11 different patents. He had eight children. D.K. died in 1890.” Shortly thereafter, the family moved away, with most members going toward Hazard, close to the coal camps. One son, Joseph, settled in Lotts Creek. He was Mart’s father, and he died in 1930.

“All kinds of discrepancies were found in the old records and deeds,” says Shepherd. “Some deeds were completely handwritten with the heirs’ names all listed at the end in the same handwriting. The names have Xs by them, but there were no witnesses and it never identifies even who wrote the deed. The further we went, we began to get interested in doing more, and as we finished researching one tract of land we would go on to another. We found that speculators from the land companies back then were taking deeds, signatures or whatever from anybody they could get it from. We are disputing mineral, timber and surface rights to at least three tracts of land up on Buckhorn Mountain.

“Star Fire Coal Company claims coal rights to 2,100 acres of land surrounding, and sometimes including, the Shepherd land. The timber company says they got timber rights from Star Fire. The Kentucky-West Virginia Gas Company, who just finished laying pipe for a well they recently dug on the property [just before the heirs moved on], says they leased the gas rights from the Goodloe Brothers, outside speculators who claimed the land.”

When the Shepherds first moved onto the land, they notified the companies that they were claiming their rights. The timber company immediately pulled its equipment out, but the gas and coal companies continue to fight the family’s stake.

Soon after a September, 1981, picnic the heirs held to celebrate their land challenge, Star Fire built a guard station in the middle of a road leading to the Shepherd land, and armed guards refused entrance to anyone whose name was not on their approved list.

It wasn’t the first time the companies had tried to keep the Shepherds off their land. In June, 1980, the Kentucky-West Virginia Gas Company put a gate on another entrance to the property, but a judge soon ruled that no gates should be blocking that road.

Then, early in 1981, Star Fire’s parent company, Harbert Construction (now owned by Amoco Minerals, Inc., the coal subsidiary of Standard Oil of Indiana), reportedly hired 20-plus security guards to keep out “rough folks” at a third entrance to the prop erty. They were there, supposedly, to protect electric lines being installed for Star Fire’s strip-mining equipment, but a Knott County judge ordered them to remove the guards in May.

And family members must go to court again to have yet another gate removed. This one, locked with a gas company lock, has blocked access to the property since the fall of 1981.

“Star Fire was up there again today,” reported one of the heirs in mid-November, “trying to put a gate on our back entrance. One of the heirs up there asked him to leave, but they came back, pretending to be gas company employees. We made it clear they weren’t to come back again.”


The Shepherd case is not an isolated one. Since the Shepherds got started and got some publicity, other families have been researching their land titles. At least five families, including 2,000 heirs, are claiming some 3,000 coal-rich acres in Knott County that they say belong not to the coal companies but to them.

“It’s all over — half of Knott County’s that way. The coal companies never did have a clear deed to it,” says Mart Shepherd.

All these families have had help in learning their way around the county’s land records from the Knott County Citizens for Social and Economic Justice (CSEJ), a group organized in 1973 by several low-income families concerned about a variety of economic and political issues. Mart Shepherd has been active since the beginning and was its chairman for several years. It’s been a local fight, waged by local people. But the importance of what they are doing is not lost on people throughout Appalachia. The Knott County CSEJ has gotten support for its work from the Council of the Southern Mountains, a regional group to which it belongs. And their efforts have inspired many other organizations. As Mike Maloney of the Urban Appalachian Council put it in a letter to the Shepherds, “It is because of your courage that many of us in the cities can even dream of returning to the land of our mothers and fathers, now claimed in the massive land holdings of the big energy and development companies.”

What seems to lie ahead are still more disputes over land access and titles, disputes that have grown more intense recently as the Shepherd family has begun leasing out the mineral rights to their land. It’s estimated that their property may include millions of tons of coal reserves.

“This all reminds me of those shows you see about the California Gold Rush,” says Mart Shepherd. “This land thing is one of the biggest things that I have ever run across in Appalachia.”