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The Appalachian Mountains range southwestward from Quebec and Newfoundland in Canada to Alabama in the southeastern United States. The central and southern highlands of this ancient mountain range, consisting of the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountain ranges, the Allegheny and Cumberland plateaus, and the Great Valley in between, are frequently thought of as comprising a distinct sociocultural region known as “Appalachia.”
The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) defines Appalachia as 406 counties found in 13 states, including all of West Virginia plus portions of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. A more common geographical definition of Appalachia includes the ARC-designated counties in West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Maryland, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia.
A diverse population of Native Americans has lived in the mountain South for around three thousand years. The Iroquois, who were the dominant group in the region, came from the west around 1300 BCE and split into the northern Iroquois and the southern Cherokees. The Cherokees were farmers and hunters who lived in small independent villages.
Although Indians in the Appalachians had sporadic contacts with Europeans as early as 1540, it was not until the period 1700 to 1761 that contact between the two cultures accelerated. The Europeans looked to the backcountry for room to expand their settlements and for sources of skins for trading. The Indians opposed them in an ultimately futile attempt to save their homes and hunting grounds. The final defeat of the Cherokees by the British occurred in 1761, and after this date the number of whites in the Appalachian frontier grew rapidly. The conquest of the Indian lands encouraged settlement, and land speculation in the Appalachian frontier ran rampant.
The areas from which the earliest European settlers in Appalachia came and the routes they took into the backcountry helped form Appalachian culture. There were three major reservoirs of population from which people flowed into the Appalachian region in the eighteenth century: the central valley of Pennsylvania, the Piedmont of North Carolina, and western Pennsylvania. The earliest European immigrants into the Appalachian frontier came from eastern Pennsylvania. Around 1720 the German and Scotch-Irish populations around Philadelphia began to move first into central Pennsylvania, then southward into the Shenandoah Valley. Over time they and their descendants pushed south toward the New River, but instead of crossing the mountains into Indian country, they turned southeastward toward the Carolina Piedmont.
By the middle of the eighteenth century this area became a second population reservoir that fed migrants into the mountains. It was the source of early settlers into far southwestern Virginia, western North Carolina, and upper eastern Tennessee. By 1760 a significant number of Germans and Ulster Scots were also coming into Appalachia from western Pennsylvania. These people drifted down the Ohio River, then followed tributaries into the mountains.
By 1763, in clear violation of the English Proclamation of 1763, settlers began to migrate into the western reaches of North Carolina, the river valleys of the Tennessee-Virginia border country, and, just a few years later, even into central Kentucky. The most important of the communities they formed were the Watauga settlements in eastern Tennessee, the Holston settlements of far southwestern Virginia and western North Carolina, and the Boonesborough and Harrodsburg settlements laid out by Daniel Boone after he traversed the Cumberland Gap in 1775. Although many of these people did not own the land they lived on, and acted as agents for absentee owners, it is nonetheless significant that on the eve of the American Revolution there were scattered settlements deep in the American frontier. The population of the southern mountains grew steadily from the 1760s until the 1820s.
Civil War Era and Industrialization
The society that emerged in the mountains was not unlike other rural American farm regions that were not far removed from their frontier origins, and that were dominated by connections between land, family, and work. Until the era of industrialization Appalachia was a region of small, open-country communities, concentrated in valleys and up into mountain coves and hollows. The separate settlements were integrated by transportation and communication systems, but only loosely. Each community of farmsteads was relatively self-sufficient socially and economically, and people tended to avoid routinely crossing mountains to reach another community, if possible.
What held these scattered farms together and molded them into some semblance of community was a shared sense of identity, common values, and shared work. People exchanged food and shelter, worshipped in small, independent congregations, engaged in cooperative community service, had a sense of belonging to a larger group of friends and neighbors, and were united in their love of the land and the place they lived.
The mountain economy was also similar in many ways to other preindustrial economies in rural America. There was a preponderance of noncommercial, semi–selfsufficient farms, although in some areas of Appalachia farming for an external market was common. Some industries also emerged in the mountains before the Civil War, but were not significant regionally and had only a marginal effect on the total economy.
Although the issue of slavery did not emerge in Appalachia as the dominant controversy of the Civil War era, the war did have an impact in the mountain areas of the South. The relative absence of slavery in the mountains was the result of the geographic and economic conditions found there. Because of the mountain terrain, it was simply not profitable to develop commercial agriculture based upon a slave workforce, and what slavery did exist in Appalachia was concentrated in the larger valleys of Virginia and Tennessee. There was considerable industrial slavery in Appalachia in the tanning works, salt mines, and iron foundries of Virginia, and in the brick mills of Tennessee and Kentucky.
As the result of their Civil War experiences, a great many northerners came into contact with the southern mountains, and many were surprised by what they found. Great mineral and timber wealth was coupled with a romantic beauty, just at a time when untamed urban growth, foreign immigration, and technological developments were beginning to unalterably change northern urban society. Capitalists responded to the call of profits, but writers, missionary workers, and teachers accompanied the industrialists into the mountains, and their work there was in some ways as substantial and the effects as long lasting as those of their entrepreneurial counterparts. The dominant stereotype of Appalachia that was formed during this era of industrial development was ironically an image of a society that still held within it much of its late-eighteenth-century frontier heritage. Mountain people were described as noble and savage, independent, proud, rugged, and violent, but also as dirty and uneducated, yet crafty and practical. They drank too much and were lazy, but managed to produce excessively large families.
The people who were mostly responsible for this image of Appalachia were a group of writers in the Local Color Movement. They described in influential journals, short stories, novels, and travel literature a land of contemporary ancestors who were more Elizabethan than American. Violence, feuding, moonshining, and a traditional culture existed in an Appalachia that had been untouched by the forces of modernization. Appalachia began to be thought of as a region in stark contrast to the progressive, urban culture of the rest of the United States.
One of the results of this new image of Appalachia was the urge felt mostly by middle-class women who came into Appalachia from the Northeast to improve conditions in the mountains and uplift Appalachian culture. They typically perceived the regional culture as deficient in many ways, and they worked diligently to bring schools and modern middle-class values to mountain people.
A second feature of the response to this new image of Appalachia was cultural preservation. What certain cultural workers thought represented the best of mountain culture was preserved and protected from contamination by the evils of modernization. This work to preserve mountain ballads, folk crafts, and dances was carried out by traveling folklorists such as Cecil Sharp and at folk schools such as the one founded by John C. Campbell. What they chose to preserve and value did not always reflect the reality and variety of Appalachian culture, but rather the image that was created and perpetuated by the cultural workers themselves.
A third response to the backward image of Appalachia was to use economic development and industrialization to promote progress, because the local population was believed to be incapable of developing Appalachian resources on its own. Promoters of this idea asserted that economic development would provide needed discipline and order in the mountains, and that through industrialization the Appalachian people could become effective contributors to the progress of the nation. Both technological innovations and rapid urban growth created demands for labor, minerals, and timber, all of which were in abundant supply in Appalachia. Industrialization depended first upon the building of an adequate transportation system into, out of, and within the mountain regions of the South.
The great era of railroad building in Appalachia lasted from 1870 to 1910. By the end of this period the rail network reached into nearly every county by either a main or branch line. The impact of the railroads on every facet of life in Appalachia is hard to overestimate, but the most immediate effect was to open the doors to full exploitation of the region’s natural resources.
Coal was the primary resource that drove the Industrial Revolution in Appalachia. The ambitious men who opened and operated the mines were outsiders from middle- or upper-middle-class backgrounds who established the company town system in Appalachia and wielded enormous political and economic power in the coal fields and beyond. They manipulated the local and state political system to their industry’s benefit, sometimes to the long-term detriment of the local economy. The laborers who worked in the mines and moved their families into company towns to live were a varied lot. They were primarily native Appalachians, southern blacks, and immigrants from southern and eastern Europe.
Although coal mining was certainly the most important industrial development in Appalachia, it was not the only one. From 1880 to 1930 industrialization also showed up in forestry and timber exploitation, textile mills, railroading, non-coal mineral mining, and chemicals production.
The impact of industrialization in Appalachia was tinged with good and bad features. At the end of this era, fully two-thirds of Appalachian people made their living from nonfarm work. The economy had moved, by World War I, from a local or regional orientation to a national and international one. Although most mountain people no longer gained their primary incomes from the land, an attachment to the land remained an important regional value. People still farmed on a part-time basis, growing large gardens and raising some livestock. Older values such as strong family ties and conservative religious beliefs remained central to regional culture despite the wrenching economic and social changes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
One of the most important results of industrialization in Appalachia has been the negative impact it has had on the long-term economic health of the region. None of the industries in Appalachia, and especially not the coal industry, encouraged rival or spin-off economic development during their boom years. The effect has been sporadic economic growth without real economic development.
Postwar to the Present
World War II and the years immediately following it were turning points in the history of Appalachia, just as they were for the rest of the United States. Once they returned home from their wartime experiences, many young men and women focused on the lack of economic opportunities in Appalachia, and began to move out of the region again in search of better jobs. This resulted in a great outmigration from Appalachia to the North and Midwest. Between 1945 and 1965 nearly 3.5 million people left Appalachia in search of a brighter economic future in major cities in the Midwest. Sizable subcultures of Appalachian migrants built up in these cities.
Despite the general prosperity in the United States, the 1950s was a time of extreme poverty in Appalachia. A renewed national attention to Appalachia was accelerated by the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960 when the major candidates visited West Virginia. After he became president in 1963, Lyndon Johnson pushed the Appalachian Regional Development Act through Congress. The bill called for federal funding for secondary and vocational education programs, highway construction, timber management programs, and widespread promotion of tourism.
Most historians think that though the War on Poverty had some successes, it generally failed in Appalachia. The heritage of the billions of dollars spent on highways and industries in the mountains has been continued poverty amidst pockets of prosperity. Economic development in the 1970s consisted of the coal boom of 1974 to 1978, the tourism-generated land boom in eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina, a growth in textile production, some small-scale component-part manufacturing, and the growth of large-scale chain stores and fast-food establishments located within the more prosperous areas. Outside the few growing towns and cities, there are rural areas where poverty is still the norm.
One important result of the War on Poverty in Appalachia was the emergence by the late 1970s of a strong sense of regional identity and the need to express a positive image of Appalachia when writing or talking about its people, history, and culture. Even the word Appalachia became more accepted than it had ever been. To many within the region, the culmination of the organizing and turbulence of the 1960s was an Appalachian Renaissance filled with a strong dose of regional pride that was associated for this first time in American history with being from the mountains.
- Abramson, Rudy, and Jean Haskell. 2006. Encyclopedia of Appalachia. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
- Eller, Ronald D. 1982. Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers: Industrialization of the Appalachian South, 1880–1930. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
- Still, James.  1978. River of Earth. New York: Viking Press.
- Straw, Richard A., and H. Tyler Blethen. 2004. High Mountains Rising: Appalachia in Time and Place. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
- Whisnant, David E. 1983. All That Is Native and Fine: The Politics of Culture in an American Region. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
- Williams, John A. 2002. Appalachia: A History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
- Woolley, Bryan. 1975. We Be Here When the Morning Comes. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.
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