The Economic History Review

Did it pay to be a pioneer? Wealth accumulation in a newly settled frontier society

Volume 76 Issue 1
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Pages: 257-282Authors: Jeanne Cilliers, Erik Green, Robert Ross
Published online: August 13, 2022DOI: 10.1111/ehr.13188

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European settler colonies are often thought to have been characterised by a continued expansion of the landed frontier, which impacted the distribution of wealth across their settler populations. Hampered by a lack of data, few studies have been able to study this in depth. How does settlement timing affect wealth and wealth accumulation when frontier expansion is not a smooth, continuous process? Was it the case that pioneers reaped greater economic benefits from locating their farms on superior land, or would they be disadvantaged compared with later arrivals owing to limited infrastructure or greater risk of conflict with indigenous populations? In this paper, we use a unique dataset that allows us to analyse the link between time of arrival and wealth accumulation in a colonial agrarian frontier society: the Graaff-Reinet district in South Africa’s Cape Colony between 1786 and 1850. We find that those who arrived early located their farms in the more climatologically suitable areas of the district and utilised their superior lands to accumulate wealth more quickly than latecomers. However, owing to institutional changes that favoured later British arrivals, we also show that the existence of an early-arrival premium did not mean persistence in land ownership.