Richard B. Drake’s A History of Appalachia is an excellent introduction to the history and culture of the people of the region. The book can best be described as a scholarly overview of the literature that exists on the subject. I believe it is used as a textbook in Appalachian Studies courses.
OD has spent years tracing the origins of the plantation civilization of the Deep South back to the Caribbean and the wider “Golden Circle” region. I’ve always said that the story of the Southern highlands, particularly the Scots-Irish migration to the Upper South, is just as important to understanding the evolution of Southern culture. Indeed, the former can’t be understood without the latter, as the plantation civilization that grew up in every Southern state (with the possible exception of Florida) existed in symbiosis with its own version of the backcountry.
In the months ahead, I plan to spend a lot of my time here exploring the cultural origins of the Upper South: Appalachia, Tidewater, the Mississippi Valley, the Bluegrass and the Ozarks. We’re going to start with the mountaineers of Southern Appalachia.
Explorers and Fur Traders, 1530 to 1730
What is “Appalachia”?
We owe the term to the Apalache Indians of North Florida who first told Hernando de Soto about the gold that existed in the distant mountains to the north. De Soto and other Spanish conquistadors were the first Europeans to explore southern Appalachia. French and Dutch fur traders operating out of Quebec and New Amsterdam began to explore northern Appalachia in the seventeenth century. After 1650, English fur traders operating out of Virginia and South Carolina moved into the region. By the 1690s, the Appalachian Mountains were “fairly well known by interested Englishmen.”
War and Frontier Settlement, 1730 to 1830
In 1730, the Appalachian Mountains were dominated by the powerful Iroquois Confederacy at its northern end in New York and Pennsylvania and by the Cherokee at its southern end in East Tennessee, western North Carolina, North Georgia, and northwestern South Carolina. Both the Iroquois and the Cherokee who dominated Appalachia were distantly related Iroquoian-speaking Indian nations while the wandering Shawnee, who eventually ended up claiming parts of Kentucky and West Virginia, were an Algonquin-speaking Indian nation.
By this time, the 13 American colonies had sprung up along the eastern seaboard, and between them five regional sub-cultures had evolved: Yankeedom in New England, Deep South in coastal Georgia and South Carolina, Tidewater in coastal Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and North Carolina, New Amsterdam around New York City, and Midlands in southeastern Pennsylvania and the adjacent parts of New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. The French had also established themselves as a North American power in Quebec and the Mississippi Valley from which they cultivated a network of Indian alliances.
Philadelphia is where the story of Appalachia as we know it begins. Between 1715 and the American Revolution in 1776, 250,000 Scots-Irish Presbyterians from Northern Ireland and the English/Scottish borderlands and nearly as many Rhineland Germans immigrated to the American colonies, where they initially settled in the Midlands in Quaker-dominated Pennsylvania. The Scots-Irish and the Rhineland Germans immigrated to the American colonies in search of religious and economic freedom and to escape the incessant warfare of their homelands.
The Germans were the first to move southwest from Philadelphia into the Great Valley of Appalachia. They “spread into Maryland, founding Frederick, and then crossed the Potomac River to found Shepherdstown, (West) Virginia in 1727.” They established some of the earliest settlements in the Shenandoah Valley. The Moravians settled the Wachovia Tract in the Yadkin Valley. Eventually, the Germans settled in the South Carolina Upcountry around modern Greenville. In fact, South Carolina’s mustard based barbeque sauce has its origin in its early German settlers. Most of the German population moved west though from Philadelphia into the northern Appalachian Mountains.
The Scots-Irish poured southwest down through the Great Valley in much greater numbers and spread over a vastly greater area. Unlike the Germans who were “generally politically apathetic” farmers, the Scots-Irish were “fierce Indian fighters” and were “very political active.” Demographically, they overwhelmed the Germans, and the Appalachian backcountry soon became synonymous with Scots-Irish culture and political leadership – only “sectarian tendency in religion, certain characteristic ways of building, and farming practices” remained as lasting German cultural contributions to Appalachia.
It is less well known that “as many as a third” of the White settlers who colonized Appalachia were English settlers from the Tidewater and Deep South colonies of the eastern seaboard. Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia each sliced an east/west section of the “backcountry” out of the Appalachian Mountains. The eastern seaboard colonies would later be joined by Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alabama. In such a way, the slavery that prevailed in the lowlands colonized the highlands, where 10 percent of the population has always been black.
The British and French were continuously at war through most of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The “most decisive” war though for control of North America was the French and Indian War (1754-1763) which resulted in the fall of Quebec and the expulsion of the French from the continent. The British fought the Cherokee from 1759-1761 and the Shawnee in Lord Dunmore’s War in 1774. The Cherokee and the Iroquois, who are ironically labeled “Native Americans,” fought on the British side in the American Revolution, and their defeat in that conflict spelled the end of their long domination of the Appalachian Mountains, which quickly became a “White Man’s Country.”
Appalachia played no part in the “constitutional revolution of 1787-1789” which was “largely a product of the eastern seaboard. No western leader was prominent in the constitutional debates in Philadelphia.” Although the Scots-Irish Presbyterians had generally been strong supporters of the American Revolution, particularly in Pennsylvania and Virginia, most mountaineers were skeptical or opposed the ratification of the new US Constitution. North Carolina refused to ratify the Constitution until the Bill of Rights was added to it.
In 1794, Alexander Hamilton marched at the head of a Federalist army to put down the Whiskey Rebellion in Appalachian Pennsylvania. The Whiskey Rebellion had the effect of making “the West,” as it was known in that time, firm opponents of the Federalist Party and supporters of Thomas Jefferson’s new “Democratic-Republican Party.” The US federal government that emerged after Jefferson, which was dominated by the South until Lincoln’s election, was popular in Appalachia. Jefferson bought the west in the Louisiana Purchase. Andrew Jackson, the first Appalachian president, seized Florida, slayed the Second Bank of the United States, and deported the Shawnee and Cherokee to Oklahoma. James K. Polk secured Texas, defeated Mexico in the Mexican War, took the Oregon Country from Britain, and won California and the Southwest in the Treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo.
The “Tennessee Volunteers” comes from the Mexican War and refers to the popularity of that conflict in East Tennessee – the same war was extremely unpopular in the Northeast.
Appalachia’s Golden Age, 1830 to 1860
The abolitionist myth that Appalachia’s poverty underdevelopment was due to the plantation civilization of the Deep South couldn’t be more absurd.
Like the Deep South, the antebellum era was actually Appalachia’s apogee in American history – the time when it was the most politically influential under “Old Hickory,” Andrew Jackson, and his successor, “Young Hickory,” James K. Polk. Jackson’s greatest rival, Henry Clay, was Kentucky’s greatest statesman. This was the time when the Scots-Irish settled Texas and won the Texas Revolution and the pioneers followed the Oregon Trail in Conestoga wagons to the Northwest.
At this time, Appalachia had a vast farm-and-forest economy that was economically on par with the rest of the South. It was the granary of the Old South in much the same way that the Great Plains later became the granary of America. Southern Appalachia was a vast sea of yeoman farmers largely devoid of industrial development. It was characterized by open range cattle grazing and patch farming in cleared areas of the Appalachian forest. The wild game in the hills and hollows of West Virginia and eastern Kentucky attracted thousands of subsistence farmers who preferred that quiet, independent, and self-sufficient yeoman lifestyle to the bustling market economy of the East.
Unlike the residents of the Deep South, the typical Appalachian mountaineer was satisfied with life as the United States spiraled toward the War Between the States.
War Between the States and Reconstruction, 1860-1880
The event known as the “Civil War” was really a total war between Yankeedom and the Deep South that forced the rest of the country to choose sides.
In Appalachia, secession was unpopular – why would extremists want to break up such a great country that was so satisfying to most mountaineers? The region voted for the Constitutional Union party in the 1860 election and secession was defeated in Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and North Carolina, but triumphed in South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama over the opposition of the mountain population there. The heartland of the Confederacy was always the rivers and the lowlands and Lincoln’s call for troops to suppress the Confederacy pushed West and Middle Tennessee, the Jackson Purchase in Kentucky, and the North Carolina and Virginia Piedmont over the edge into secession. Zebulon Vance, the governor of Confederate North Carolina, was giving a speech against secession when the news broke that Lincoln had called for troops, and his hand famously came down for secession before the speech was over.
Mountaineers in northwestern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and two-thirds of East Tennessee, along with several counties in North Alabama and North Georgia, remained loyal to the Union, while northwestern South Carolina, western North Carolina, southwest Virginia, Middle Tennessee the Shenandoah Valley, and southern West Virginia tended to support and fight for the Confederacy. Appalachia degenerated into a true “civil war” quite unlike the war that was waged in the east.
It was secession, not slavery, that divided Appalachia – even the most notorious anti-Confederates like “Parson” Brownlow of East Tennessee had loudly styled themselves as champions of slavery, albeit as loyalists who considered secession the greatest threat to slavery. Abolitionists like John G. Fee and John Rankin had been hounded out of Appalachia. When the war came, slavery was thriving and expanding in Appalachia, and every mountain county had a slaveowning elite that had intermarried with slaveowners in the plantation belt in the lowlands.
In Appalachia, the Confederates tended to be the more prosperous townfolk of cities that had grown up along the railroads, and who had stronger economic ties to the lowlands – this explains why southwest Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley were pro-Confederate. The Unionists tended to be the poorest mountaineers from the most isolated hills and hollows who had not shared in the commercial prosperity of the towns in the antebellum era.
During Reconstruction, the bulk of the scalawags who supported the Republican Party were mountaineers who had fought for the Union. This embittered the lowlands toward the highlands and had lasting political significance until well into the twentieth century. The interpersonal violence unleashed by the war also carried over into family feuds that lasted for generations. The Hatfields and McCoys though had both been pro-Confederate.
Oligarchy and Colonialism, 1880-1930
Much of Appalachia fought for the Union in the War Between the States. These mountaineers were repaid for their loyalty to the United States by the onset of a predatory Northern corporate colonialism more extreme than anything else found in the ex-Confederacy.
First came the Northern timber lords – “such companies as the Kentucky Coal and Timber Company of New York; the Chicago Lumber Company; the American Associates Ltd of London, England; Burt and Babb Lumber Company of Michigan; the Yellow Popular Lumber Company of Ohio; and W.M. Ritter of Pennsylvania – who made large fortunes denuding large swathes of the Appalachian Forest, one of the most biologically diverse regions in the world, between 1880 and 1920.
Next came the Northern railroads during Reconstruction – railroad interests, for example, carved West Virginia out of Virginia – which rebuilt the wrecked Southern lines and strangled the commerce of the region with exorbitant rates.
Most famously, these railroads serviced the Northern coal companies which came into “western Maryland, western Pennsylvania, northern West Virginia and northern Alabama during the 1860s. During the 1870s, the buyers went into central Tennessee, then into southern West Virginia in the 1880s, and finally into eastern Kentucky in the 1910s.” These buyers used the Broadform Deed to swindle the minerals rights to vast fortunes of coal away from yeoman farmers. In 1901, Tennessee Coal and Iron Company was folded into the U.S. Steel Corporation, and Birmingham became an industrial colony of Pittsburgh. By the 1890s, most of Appalachia had been transformed into an industrial colony of Northern coal and railroad interests.
The coal companies built “company towns” in Central Appalachia – largely synonymous with the coal fields of eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, East Tennessee – and reduced the people who lived there to serfdom. The coal companies paid their employees in script redeemable only at company stores. They controlled the churches, the hospitals, the county government, the sheriff’s department and the police, which were used to coerce miners into low wages and extreme working conditions.
In the Smoky Mountains, rich Northerners like George Washington Vanderbilt bought up scenic areas like Asheville, and urban middle class Northerners used the federal government to buy up millions of acres of land to create what would later become “The Great Smoky Mountain National Park.” Unlike in the Western states, yeoman farmers had lived there as private landowners for generations, and countless thousands of them were evicted from their land to accommodate tourists.
While the Appalachian yeoman farmer had successfully fended off the threat of plantation capitalism, he succumbed to industrial capitalism. It was during this period that “Appalachia” sunk into extreme poverty and was “discovered” by the literate Northern middle class. Because of President Andrew Johnson and “Parson” Brownlow, Northerners had become vaguely aware of the “loyal mountaineer” during the War Between the States and the after the war wanted to learn more about the various regions of the country. In a scene reminiscent of East Asia or sub-Saharan Africa, thousands of Northern missionaries, educators, and businessmen poured into Appalachia determined to bring their own idea of American progress to the region.
The “Local Color School” of writers – namely Mary N. Murfree and John Fox. Jr – drew upon earlier prejudices of the region’s townfolk and “firmly established the stereotypes of the violent, ignorant, malnourished, moonshining, and feuding mountaineer.” Contrary to what some might think, the term “hillbilly” didn’t appear until 1900 “when a New York Journal reporter defined such people as “ free and untrammeled white citizens living in the hills with no means to speak of, who dresses as he can, who drinks whiskey, and fires off his revolver as his fancy takes him.”
The Branchwater Mountaineer became the laughingstock comic book character to Northern audiences: examples of this negative stereotype include Lil’ Abner, Snuffy Smith, Yosemite Sam, Hee-Haw, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Dukes of Hazard, and worst of all, Deliverance. Amazingly, the people of Appalachia became some of the country’s most stalwart Republicans, and continued to vote Republican even through the worst parts of the Great Depression!
The Rise and Decline of the Welfare State, 1930 to 2000
The Crash of 1929 heralded a new era in Appalachia.
During the Great Depression and World War 2, the TVA was created, which tamed the Tennessee River and brought cheap electricity to countless thousands of households in Appalachia. The federal government took over agriculture and set a parity price for commodities like tobacco that helped yeoman farmers. The Wagner Act provided the labor movement the legal protection to organize in coal mines. Also, Oak Ridge, Tennessee became the center of America’s nuclear industry.
After the war, parts of Appalachia like Huntsville, the Rocket City, took advantage of federal funds to prosper during the Space Race. The University of Alabama in Birmingham (UAB) became a world class medical research facility. Federal land grant colleges like Virginia Tech and the University of Tennessee in Knoxville emerged as high tech growth centers in the region. The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) helped build thousands of miles of roads and interstates that brought mainstream commercial prosperity to the Ridge and Valley cities and towns in the Great Valley. Along with tourism in the Smoky Mountains, these are the bright spots in the firmament of federal intervention in Appalachia.
Much of the rest of Appalachia – above all Central Appalachia, the Allegheny and Cumberland Mountains and Plateau in eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, and East Tennessee, which is the domain of the extractive coal industry – has followed the trajectory of a Third World country. The coal industry was swallowed up by huge absentee energy conglomerates in the 1970s and 1980s. Since the 1950s, the use of more sophisticated technology in coal mining and the competition from Western coal mines has brought mass unemployment to the region.
The welfare state that emerged in the New Deal and which was expanded in the Great Society has produced terrible distortions in the social and economic fabric of this area. In some counties, there are political machines organized around the distribution of the welfare. Some of the poorest counties in America are in Central Appalachia whose history has been a shift from yeoman subsistence agriculture to proletarian exploitation in the coal mines to life on the dole. From the 1950s to the 1980s, three million people in Appalachia, mostly from this hopeless sub-region, immigrated to the industrial cities of the Midwest and the Sunbelt.
If there is any conclusion to be drawn from the arc of Appalachian history, it is that the existence of the Union has molded Appalachia into what it is today. In the post-bellum era, agrarian Appalachia was thrown into competition with subsidized Midwestern cattle and corn, and it lost that battle. For a hundred years, it was ravished by Northern-driven industrialization and de-industrialization. Today, Appalachian coal is losing out to coal from the Western states.
What would Appalachia be like today if it had thrown all its resources behind secession in 1861? That’s something to think about as we move forward in this series.