Historical Society of Southwest Virginia


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By Cratis Williams

Southern Appalachia begins with the southern border of Pennsylvania and extends like a huge thumb into the heart of the South, terminating in northern Georgia and northeastern Alabama. It includes West Virginia and parts of Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. As Harry Caudill has pointed out, it is one of the richest regions in natural resources in the world and at the same time has more poverty in it than any other region in America.

Approximately thirteen million people now living were born in Appalachia. Nine million are living in the region now, and four million born there have migrated, mostly to northern industrial cities where they have tended to gather in ghettos of poverty but, according to observers who live along the highways leading out of Appalachia, try to get back "down home" every weekend. Of the thirteen million Appalachians, approximately 94% of them are descended from ancestors who were living along the border at the time of the American Revolution. It has been estimated that not more than 30 million of our country's total population of approximately 220 million are descended through all lines from pre-Revolutionary American ancestors. Of these, 43% are natives of Appalachia.

Appalachian people, while far from being homogeneous, are much like one another throughout the region. The Eastern Kentuckian is more like a North Georgian than he is like a native of the Bluegrass region of his own state. The North Carolina mountaineer is more like a West Virginian or an Eastern Kentuckian than he is like a North Carolinian from east of Greensboro. Not only do Appalachian people think, speak, and act like one another throughout the Southern Highlands, but they also look much like one another. The average mountain man is taller than the average American. Appalachian people more often are blond and fair of complexion, have blue or gray eyes, balanced facial features and body proportions, than natives of other sections of the states in which they live.

How may we account for the Appalachian person? What is his background? Why is he different? What has been his experience? Hardly anyone who has acquainted himself with the history of the region and its people doubts that the "character" of Appalachian people was determined by the presence of the Scotch-Irish among the early settlers in the mountain country. They were more numerous than the considerable number of Germans, Swiss, Huguenots, Welsh, and English. In the process of border acculturation, others surrendered their own language for the old-fashioned Northern English dialect spoken by the Scotch-Irish as they married into the large Scotch-Irish families and accepted their ways. Thus, the Appalachian experience has been a continued chapter in the story of the Scotch-Irish experience.

The label of "Scotch-Irish" was given to those migrants from Northern Ireland who began in ever increasing numbers for over 50 years to arrive in the colonies about 1720. Strictly speaking, they were neither Irish nor Scots. A more accurate label would have been Anglo-Celts. However, of those who came, most of them bore Lowland or Scottish Border family names, many beginning with "Mc" rather than "Mac". Others had English, Welsh, and Huguenot names. Only a few had Irish names. Regardless of the name, one who came from Northern Ireland was called Scotch-Irish, but he identified himself as "Arsh," as many mountain folk continue to do.

The story of the Scotch-Irish within historical times began in 55 B. C. with the invasion of Great Britain by Julius Caesar. The hereditary leaders of the Britons, who were Celts and of the same stock that had spread across Europe prior to the rise of the Greek and Roman civilizations, who escaped murder or capture by the Roman armies fled northward or westward toward Scotland and Wales. The Scots, struggling for survival in an inhospitable highland country beyond the mountain rim, had no room among them for migrants. The fleeing Celts, unable to get over the rim into the Highlands, hid and later settled as small farmers in the hilly country along the Scottish Border. Far removed by blood kinship from the Scots, also the Celts who had moved over from Ireland to the rugged hills and mountains centuries before, these newcomers to the Border were resented and often attacked by the fierce Highland clans. The Romans, finding Scotland of little value, considered it not worth conquering and built a wall across Great Britain to prevent the "Picts", or pointed-headed Scots, people with pin-heads, long noses, thin upper lips, and lantern jaws from raiding Northern England. The Romans occupied England for over 400 years. In the meantime the descendants of the former hereditary rulers struggled with the inhospitable climate and sterile land north of Hadrian's Wall and suffered depredation and outrage from the Picts who swept over the lands from time to time robbing, murdering, and destroying crops and homes.

As the Roman legions were withdrawn from still Celtic Britain in the fifth century, struggles for power within the country kept it weak. Soon it was invaded again, this time by the Germanic Angles and Saxons. Again, those who occupied positions of hereditary leadership fled northward and joined their kinsmen along the Scottish Border. Few of the peasants, who belonged to the land as did the sticks and the stones, fled.

The Anglo-Saxons reached the height of their civilization in the reign of King Alfred at the end of the ninth century and knew relative peace and contentment for over two hundred and fifty years before a political entrepreneur, William of Orange, known as the Conqueror, the illegitimate son of a prince by a shoemaker's daughter, gathered an army of adventurers and cutthroats, sailed across the English Channel and defeated the Saxon armies at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Again, those people of importance who feared for their lives, fled toward Scotland, this time people with Germanic blood in their veins, and joined their predecessors on the Border. Many Welsh princes and dukes, dispossessed by the Conqueror, also fled to the Border.

Also joining those along the Scottish Border were Scandinavians from the northeast coast of England who fled ahead of other Scandinavian raiders and conquerors. These "fragments of forgotten people," predominately Celtic, mixed and melded into a common type in the struggle to survive in a land sandwiched between the bloody- lusty Scots lairds to the treacherous English lords to the south. Following an open-country mode of settlement, they were independent and fiercely proud freemen possessing small holdings. They learned that neither the Scots nor the English could be trusted in the sometimes bitter contentions for power that finally led to the union of England and Scotland under one monarch. Often caught in the cross-fire of Border feuds, they came in time to distrust constituted authority. Their distrust was so deeply a part of their view of the manner in which men are governed that their descendants in Appalachia today are likely not to place much faith in state government and those who represent it nor in "that courthouse crowd" in the county seat.

When introduced to John Calvin's Institutes of Religion in the sixteenth century, the Scottish Border people found in Calvin's harsh doctrines an interpretation of man's relationship to man and God congenial to their experience. That man is in the image of God and deserving of respect for that image caressed their personal independence and pride. That man is depraved and unworthy of God's grace they did not find it necessary to look far to see. The fatalism that had become a part of them was easily translated into the doctrines of predestination and election. God's sovereignty they could respect and the supreme authority of the Scriptures they could accept as inquiring persons in their own individual rights but not from a prince as the arbiter of sacred matters. The promise that God elected in his grace and predestined at the creation a few unworthy mortals to share eternal bliss with Him offered more felicity than had been the lot of the Borderers on earth. Small wonder that they should have become the most ardent supporters of the Protestant Reformation in the British Isles.

Their enthusiasm for reform soon marked them as trouble-makers. They met in defiance of authority. They set up secret printing presses and assailed their literate countrymen with pamphlets supporting extreme measures that threatened the Established Church of England and enraged the Highland Scots, who remained sympathetic with Rome. Queen Elizabeth I and Archbishop Whitgift organized a far-flung secret service to flush out the rabid dissenters, destroy their printing presses, arrest their leaders, and burn their seditious publications.

Following the defection of the Earl of Tyrone to Catholicism and his flight to France, it was decided about the time that Jamestown was being settled in Virginia that Northern Ireland would be cleared of its Catholic population and resettled by the Borderers and those of similar religious stance, who could be depended upon not to compromise with the Catholic Irish. The Border Scots were promised land and titles. Thousands moved to Ireland, along with disaffected Welsh and people from the northern counties of England. Highland Scots, still sympathetic with Catholicism and their Irish cousins, and English from the southern counties, passive in religious disputes and comfortable in the Anglican Church, were not to be trusted in Northern Ireland.

The Scots who removed to Ireland prospered. They carried with them to a colony-like situation, their Border culture, which included a great body of popular ballads, folk music, dance, proverbial lore, superstitions that might have been rooted in ancient Druidism, a manner of speaking, and an old-fashioned Northern English dialect about a hundred years in development, or about half way between Chaucer and Shakespeare, behind that of centers of polite society in Southern England. Clever in making do with what lay at hand, they were frugal and industrious. They carried with them to their new home, skills in agriculture, animal husbandry, and woodwork, leather making, metal work, textiles and making excellent whiskey in pot stills. In their new land, the earth responded to their husbandry and they developed the finest textile industries in Europe. Permitted also to have their own Presbyterian churches, they established schools attended by both sexes and taught by the university-trained ministry, for they believed that it is incumbent upon one, male or female, to learn to read the Scriptures in search of truth, to write, and, since man lives in a practical world, to cipher. Their schools became the model for American public schools after they arrived in the colonies.

Accustomed to hilly country and lovers of animals, they followed the open settlement pattern of the Scottish Border and built homes within clusters of out-buildings settled comfortably in dales and valleys, as they had done in Great Britain. The architecture of homes was essentially the same as that along the Border, including oblong rooms with fireplaces at the end.

Although the English did not keep their promise to give them hereditary titles and tried from time to time to bring them into the Established Church, they nevertheless flourished for a century. Then the London merchants, jealous of their textile industries, exerted pressures to have such high taxes imposed upon them that the industries were killed and the people were reduced to poverty. Families were large and the population had grown beyond the capacity of the land to support it. To compound their problems, potato famines came and left them hungry. Although their educational system had made them literate, and many of them were theologians, teachers and classical scholars, they found it necessary in the early years of the eighteenth century to leave for America, most of them as "redemptioners" for they did not have money needed to pay for passage.

In the colonies they found good land along the coast already taken up, so as they met the terms of their indentures, sometimes by tutoring in the homes of the well to do, for they appear to have been the best educated large mass of migrants ever to come to America, they moved in search of land to the western border, sometimes carrying with them into the wilderness copies of Greek and Roman classics in the original language and the English poets in leather bindings. Most of them entered through ports in the Middle Atlantic States, and large numbers of them moved to the western Pennsylvania border. Because treaties with the Indians restricted white settlement to lands east of the Appalachian Mountains and the French were continuing to hold the Ohio Valley, the so-called "Scotch-Irish" began in the 1730's to move southward in a steady stream into Virginia, the Carolina's , and Georgia. Finding the good lands in the Valley of Virginia already occupied by German religious dissenters who had also moved out of Pennsylvania, the Scotch-Irish either settled in mountain coves and high meadows along the valley or pushed on through the Dark Hollow (near Mt. Airy, North Carolina) toward Salisbury, from whence they moved into the hilly country east of the Blue Ridge to claim land and build homes. 

It has been estimated that as many as 200,000 Scotch-Irish came to America prior to 1775 and that they increased their numbers to 600,000 by the time the American Revolution began. The total population of the original thirteen colonies did not exceed three and a half million by 1775. Thus, one of every five or six colonials was Scotch-Irish, a high percentage for easy assimilation into the older population groups. 

Well suited by disposition, native shrewdness, and hardihood for pioneering, the Scotch-Irish were welcome buffers between the older English settlements along the coast and the Indians in the mountains. In effect, they became a second line of colonies between the coastal settlements and the mountains. They learned much from the Indians, including their methods of warfare. They resented the high taxes imposed by the colonial governments, for they lived largely in a subsistence economy and bartered skins and pelts and products of the forest for those things they could not produce for themselves. When Governor Tryon's tax-gatherers in the colony of North Carolina went among them they were rejected and abused. The Regulators were defeated in 1771 in a battle with Tryon's forces at Alamance. Following the battle, many of the Regulators moved as far west as they were permitted to move.

Hungry from lands and freedom from the tax-gatherers, the Scotch-Irish backwoodsmen of Virginia and North Carolina, in defiance of treaties with the Indians, bought land themselves from the Cherokees and established in 1772 the Watauga Association, the first English-speaking governmental entity independent of Great Britain. They set up in the wilderness "over the mountains" and with the first wave of settlers a democratic form of government based on the Articles of the Watauga Association, in effect actually the first "declaration of independence," for neither colonial Virginia nor colonial North Carolina would accept their Settlements. Later the Watauga Settlements became the State of Franklin, which with John Sevier as President, behaved much like a sovereign state.

When the American Revolution came, the Scotch-Irish, with their many grievances against the British government, joined the colonial armies in great numbers. Residents of the State of Franklin, referred to as Overmountain Men, and those of like mind in the upper Piedmont and hills of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia, rose nobly to the patriot cause when the British brought the War to the South in 1780. The disastrous defeat of Patrick Ferguson's army at King's Mountain on October 7, 1780 was the knockout blow that led ultimately to Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown a year later. Thus, the mountaineers, dressed in their coonskin caps, fringed shirts and buckskin pants, did for the patriot cause near the end of the Revolutionary War what the Minute Men had done at Lexington and Concord at its beginning.

Following the Revolution, the Scotch-Irish soldiers from the Piedmont and the hills east of the Blue Ridge claimed their land bounties in the mountains as the land was made available for settlement and in time spread throughout Appalachia. Although they were joined by others, it was the Scotch-Irish who determined the character of mountain folk and shaped their culture, a culture that stems from origins different from those of the Plantation South surrounding Appalachia. One of the tragedies of Appalachia, parceled out as it is among southern states, is that the South has not been willing to admit that culturally, socially and politically Appalachia is not a part of the South. At first overwhelmingly Presbyterian in religion, the rural mountain folk abandoned the Presbyterian churches for old line Baptist and Methodist persuasions following the evangelistic revivals along the mountain border in the early 1800's, but their descendants have retained the Calvinistic doctrines of their ancestors even into the present generation.

The Scotch-Irish did not believe in slavery, a position that had characterized their remote Celtic ancestors, but isolated mountain communities far from markets and centers of commerce were not suited for plantation life in any case. The grandsons of many of the sons of Virginia planters who had established plantations in wide river valley in Appalachia had either freed or sold their slaves before the Civil War began, for slavery had not been profitable in the mountains. But mountain folk in the mass had done well. They had established schools, retained their literacy, and related themselves in comfortable ways to the land on which they lived in the open settlement pattern of their ancestors. Basically "country people", Appalachian folk, had few towns and cities of any size. Travelers through the mountains, however, reported that there was more evidence of culture, industry, and even gracious living among mountain folk than there was among the average of plantation owners in Alabama and Mississippi.

Generally, the mountaineers shared neither the culture not the concerns of the plantation South. They had helped to forge a new nation in which they had enjoyed for three generations, more freedom and independence that their ancestors had known for a thousand years, and they had rushed to the support of that nation in the War of 1812 and the War with Mexico. It is not surprising that when the Civil War came, large numbers of mountain men refused to join the armies of the Confederacy and either hid in cliffs and caves in the mountains or slipped through the forests at night and joined Union armies in East Tennessee or Kentucky. That mountain folk were supporting the Union was not generally understood during the War by either the North or the South.

By the time political power in the South had been restored to antebellum leadership following the Period of Reconstruction, however, the position the mountain men had taken was known. Although they had not supported Abraham Lincoln for president in 1860, they joined the ranks of the Republican Party and supported him in 1864, thereby becoming political minorities in states controlled by the Democratic Party. From the point of view of Southerners, the mountaineers had been traitors to the "noble cause."

Prostrated in anguish and poverty, the South was unwilling to share any of its meager benefits with the traitorous mountain folk. Such road funds and "literary" funds as the states sharing Appalachia had were spent to reward the faithful. Mountain folk, unable to pay taxes on land of little value and with no other tax base, could no longer support schools. Roads became worse than they had ever been. In many mountain counties, schools that closed in 1861 did not open again for twenty-five years. As population continued to grow in the hills, poverty and illiteracy increased. By 1890 up to 90% of Appalachian people could not read or write. Animosities generated by the confrontation of two sets of "home guards" and by their depredations and raids inflamed the feud spirit. Upwards of 200 feuds had developed in the region by 1900.

Echos of the bloody feuds reverberated across the nation. Writers and newspaper reporters came gathering information about them. Mountain folk, unacquainted with the word feud, referred to the vendettas as "troubles" or "wars", but seldom revealed any knowledge of them to outsiders. Unable to learn much about the feuds, writers turned to the old-fashioned mountain folk themselves as subjects for their quaint journalism. They reported the crude pioneer conditions in the mountains; the social habits, manners and behavior patterns of the archaic people who lived there; the religious beliefs and practices of the hardline church congregations, the curious dialect spoken in the region, and the poverty, health problems, and illiteracy of the over-crowded population struggling for survival in a subsistence economy.

Moved by compassion and pity for the mountain folk who had fated their doom by supporting the Union during the Civil War, church leaders in the North declared the "Appalachian South" a missionary region, thereby identifying it as a geographical entity apart from the "South" and relegating it to a colonial status, the first of many ruinous efforts in Appalachia. Up to 200 church-related "collegiate institutes" had been established throughout the region by the time the mountain counties were able to maintain their own public high schools in the 1920's. Literature used in the appeals for the financial support of the "institutes" often magnified and emphasized poverty, ignorance, immorality, disease, and degeneracy in the over-populated and deeply isolated coves and hollows. Over selectiveness of material for public relations of the institutes, together with quaint journalism and the overblown fiction of sentimental "realists," effectively established stereotypes, more caricature than real, or mountain folk that have survived even into our own generation.

The missionaries, dedicated and capable, brought enlightenment and aid to people no longer able to help themselves. Many thousands of Appalachian young people received education that proceeded from a base of rejection of their Appalachian identity to preparation for life as successful middle class people outside the region, for the education they received qualified them for jobs that did not exist in the mountains. Methods of instruction began with rejection of hard-shell religion, mountain music, country dance, oral traditions. Appalachian speech and manners, and the Appalachian identity. The teachers, mostly from the North, proceeding from the assumption that only they spoke correct English, excoriated mountain boys and girls who spoke the Appalachian dialect. Thus, in time, mountain people came to feel ashamed of their traditions and to resist the incursion of outsiders who might laugh at their old-fashioned ways and write unpleasant things about them. 

By the time institutes were fairly well established, other invasions had begun. Industrialists from the outside, including ruined plantation owners from the South and Northern and British capitalists, began to buy timber rights and broad deeds for mineral deposits for an infinitesimal fraction of their worth from illiterate landowners to whom every fifty cents an acre seemed like wealth. By working in collusion with political leaders from outside the mountainous regions of the states that share Appalachia and by corrupting county governments, the outsiders were successful in preventing the imposition of local taxes on minerals extracted or timber removed that might have supported educational and social programs in the counties being exploited. The industrialists invaded Appalachia and exploited it as if it were a colony imbedded within the nation itself and left its people demoralized and in poverty.

Until the 1930's most of those who spoke for and wrote about Appalachia were outsiders. Tending to present in stereotypes the visible aspects of mountain folk, their homes and institutions, they represented spittle- bearded mountain folk, as dressing in homespun, carrying long-barrel rifles and toting jugs of moonshine whiskey, living in log cabins, engaging in feuds, and speaking the prototypical dialect long after such things were representative. Beginning with such native writers as Jesse Stuart, James Still, and Harriette Arnow, Appalachian folk began to be presented as real persons with cultural identities, traditions, problems, and concerns that are peculiarly their own. Individuals rather than pasteboard cutouts, characters rather than caricatures, occupy the stage, no longer hung with those strings of shucky-beans and festoons of pepperpods that were the perennial props of the outsiders who wrote about us.

In recent years we have as a nation become concerned about our subculture. Our media threatened to destroy our dialects and reduce our national speech to that strident nasal inflection, sometimes touted as the Great American Dialect, spoken by people of the Midwest. Our American grammar provided few options for the rich, colorful idiom of some of our sub-cultures. Rhetorical styles of Appalachian oral traditions became an endangered species. Cultural traditions of our mountain folk were becoming subsumed by television culture. Our school curricula, established by and dictated from central offices in our states, were providing no room for cultural pluralism.

Now, that cultural pluralism has been recognized and accepted, we are in position to save our culture, to learn and write our history, to define our identity, to write our own books, compose our own music, develop our own art, solve our own social problems, manage our own institutions, and build our own economy. We can achieve these things best, not as the Appalachian South but as Appalachia, and not as a people subservient to the outside exploiter or the greed-impelled Judas within our own ranks but as Appalachians who have risen from out long fast int he mountains, the agony of our neglect and abuse, and the sharp thorns of perfidy that have been our anguish, and are now shaking our hides and flexing our muscles as we reach for the control box that determines our destiny.

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