Appalachia: A Historyby John Alexander Williams
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Interweaving social, political, environmental, economic, and popular history, John Alexander Williams chronicles four and a half centuries of the Appalachian past. Along the way, he explores Appalachia's long-contested boundaries and the numerous, often contradictory images that have shaped perceptions of the region as both the essence of America and a place apart.
Williams begins his story in the colonial era and describes the half-century of bloody warfare as migrants from Europe and their American-born offspring fought and eventually displaced Appalachia's Native American inhabitants. He depicts the evolution of a backwoods farm-and-forest society, its divided and unhappy fate during the Civil War, and the emergence of a new industrial order as railroads, towns, and extractive industries penetrated deeper and deeper into the mountains. Finally, he considers Appalachia's fate in the twentieth century, when it became the first American region to suffer widespread deindustrialization, and examines the partial renewal created by federal intervention and a small but significant wave of in-migration.
Throughout the book, a wide range of Appalachian voices enlivens the analysis and reminds us of the importance of storytelling in the ways the people of Appalachia define themselves and their region.
An outstanding interpretation of Appalachian history. Williams's explanations on many topics are the best presently available from any publication. (Gordon B. McKinney, Berea College)
By analyzing carefully the complex dialectic of myths surrounding Appalachia, Williams does an especially fine job in evoking a sense of place. (Durwood Dunn, Tennessee Wesleyan College)
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By John Alexander Williams
University of North Carolina Press
Copyright © 2002 The University of North Carolina Press.
All rights reserved.
Ghosts, Boundaries, and Names
What a place to conjure.
Robert Morgan, Blowing Rock
There's no better place to begin a history of Appalachia than the bus station outside Wytheville, Virginia. Here travelers stand at one of the crossroads of American history, its arms stretching out like a lazy X laid across the eastern third of the country. The crossroad briefly unites Interstates 77 and 81, one road extending north and south, the other from northeast to southwest. I-81 gives modern form to a famous and historic highway that threads the great central valley of the Appalachian mountain system. This path funneled much of the westward movement of Euro-American settlers to the South and Southwest, following a natural corridor that comes within a few dozen miles of the Atlantic in the hinterlands of Philadelphia and New York and that reaches far into the interior at its southern end. This corridor distributed much of the immigrant population of the middle and later eighteenth century to the Carolina Piedmont, the Ohio country, Tennessee and Kentucky, and, after independence, to the interior plains that lay beyond the mountains along the Mississippi and the Gulf. Heading north on I-81 today, the traveler can reach all of the important colonial gateways to Anglo-America within a day. South and west of Wytheville, the options are even grander: Florida, New Orleans, Texas, the Grand Canyon, L.A.
The other arm of the crossroads is neither famous nor historic, for before the building of the interstate this pathway was much less distinct. There have always been paths between the Ohio valley and the South Atlantic seaboard, but nature did not gather them into a single route, as in the Great Valley. One of several routes known as the Carolina Road (or, at its southern terminus, the Philadelphia Road) branched off from the Great Valley through a gap in the Blue Ridge near modern Roanoke, some seventy-five miles northeast of Wytheville. Southbound I-77 converges with this old route today near the city of Charlotte, after a precipitous and scenic crossing of the Blue Ridge, and more or less follows it to Columbia, South Carolina, where the highway merges into routes carrying travelers to Charleston (South Carolina), Savannah, and Florida's east coast. To the north and west of Wytheville, however, colonial travelers confronted the long, steep-sided Allegheny ridges that border the Great Valley and, beyond them, the broken tablelands and ravines of the Appalachian Plateau. The New River, flowing north from the Blue Ridge toward the Ohio, looks like a natural corridor on the mapan especially inviting one, since the Ohio, like the Great Valley, served as a pathway of empire during the eighteenth century, and this section of Virginia is where the two corridors are closest together. But this proximity of the river and valley paths, so enticing on a two-dimensional map, is illusory. On the ground, the traveler who wanted to bridge this distance faced a choice of numerous paths, all of them difficult. The New River cuts rocky canyons across the ridges bordering the Great Valley and then crosses the inner Appalachian Plateau through the thousand-foot deep trench of New River Gorge, creating a paradise for adventurous recreation, but confronting practical travelers with an "awful and discouraging" journey, as an official party that traversed the gorge reported in 1812.
The builders of I-77 have handled the obstacles in their path with engineering aplomb, tunneling under the mountains north of Wytheville, climbing the Allegheny Front along the eastern edge of the plateau, and then drawing the highway northwest through breadknife cuts and over three-story bridges across the plateau's hills and ravines to the Kanawha River some thirty miles east of the other Charleston, West Virginia's capital city. The interstate bypasses the New River Gorge, except for a spur that crosses the canyon on a spectacular high-level bridge. North of Charleston the highway traverses the gentler hills and wider valleys of the western Appalachian Plateau, crosses the Ohio River, and descends by imperceptible stages to the lake plains in the suburbs of Cleveland. In contrast to the numerous historic sites that beckon to travelers through the Great Valley, there are few monuments today that testify to the significance of I-77's ancestor routes, but while this corridor was indistinct, it too played an important role in the history of the territory now known as Appalachia.
The sign at the highway exit that leads to the bus station says "Max Meadows" and "Fort Chiswell." Max Meadows can be found less than a mile north of the highway. As a name on the map, it is one of the oldest landmarks in this part of Virginia. William (Wilhelm?) Mack was a German-born settler from Pennsylvania whose cabin was found at a location along Reed Creek by John Buchanan, a land company surveyor, in October 1745. Mack had recently died and the surveyor's notes record his effort to recruit appraisers of his estate and someone to get in his crops from among other German-speaking settlers nearby. Despite his brief occupancy, Mack's namein a corrupted formclung to the place, and one can still see meadows occupying a spacious bottomland next to the creek. The surrounding landforms, broad fertile fields and a meandering stream, both framed by forested parallel ridges, are typical of the ridge-and-valley province of the central Appalachians. So was the land transaction that followed Mack's death. Buchanan, a native of Northern Ireland and the son-in-law of the largest land speculator then operating in southwest Virginia, ended up owning Mack's land, making it part of a 1,200-acre estate to which Buchanan gave a name that has also survived locally in the name of a church: "the Anchor and Hope." However, his notes also refer to the surrounding neighborhood as "ye Valley of Contention and Strife," a label that probably reflects the tension between settlers like Mack and speculators like Buchanan and perhaps also tensions between Germans and Ulstermen. A parcel of land adjoining the mouth of Reed Creek on New River was entered under the label "Bigottrey."
The railroad came chugging into this bucolic setting in October 1854. It was completed to Wytheville in December and to Bristol on the Tennessee border in 1856. On it rode antebellum Virginia's hope of channeling the Great Valley corridor's southwestern trade toward its tidewater ports at Petersburg and Norfolk. The railroad was called the Virginia and Tennessee at that time, then after the Civil Warwhen Yankee raiders tried but mostly failed to destroy itit became the Atlantic, Mississippi and Ohio and then the Norfolk and Western. Today it is part of the Norfolk Southern system. A major flurry of activity occurred around 1890, when developers projected several factories and a resort hotel at Max Meadows. But little came of these plans and, judging by the disused loading docks that border the tracks today, Max Meadows has attracted little other business of importance. But much like the frontier-era names that survive in the area, the rusty sidings at Max Meadows serve as a reminder of the extravagant hopes and frequent disappointments that accompanied Appalachia's development in the industrial era.
Even more interesting is what you don't see at Max Meadows. Looking south from the mostly empty parking lot that is now the dominant feature of the village center, all that comes immediately to the eye is a single-wide house trailer. If you had visited before 1990, you would have seen an earlier structure: a log house with an interesting historyso interesting, in fact, that in 1989 a team of foreign experts came over to inspect the house and then came back a year later to disassemble it piece by piece and to carry the pieces across the Atlantic, in order to erect it anew in an outdoor museum in the county of Omagh in the province of Northern Ireland. The Ulster American Museum was founded initially to preserve the birthplace of the American financial dynast Thomas Mellon, but it is now promoted by the British government as a monument to the considerable contributions of Ulster and its emigrants to American history. Called the McGavock House, after the Ulsterman who erected it in Max Meadows in 1779 or 1780, the house will serve to teach British, Irish, and continental visitors about American log architecture and the roles played by the people of Northern Ireland in the settlement of the colonial backcountry 250 years ago.
When it stood in Max Meadows during its last years as a residence, the McGavock House was not called that but was known by the name of its occupants, who did not own the house but had rented it for at least two generations. Some of the immigrant James McGavock's descendants had moved west, while he himself failed to develop the lands he acquired from John Buchanan into a commercially successful site. Still he prospered sufficiently to leave a patrimony and family that were long prominent in Wythe County's annals. The people who owned and rented out McGavock's log house had acquired it from McGavock's heirs.
These owners traded the log house to the Ulster museum for the trailer, which they continued to rent to the same occupants. The tenants do not seem to have had much say in the transaction but are reported to have been pleased even though their rent went up; the log house had been leaky and drafty and ineligible for rent subsidies from the county welfare department, whereas the single-wide is modern, warm, and eligible. If you were to inquire further about these particular tenants, you might encounter stories of the sort that are frequently told about poor families in Appalachia and which some Appalachian writers (such as the South Carolina novelist Dorothy Allison) will tell you are used to keep such people poor and in their place. Whatever an outsider chooses to believe, what matters is that the exchange of log house for trailer was madein effect an exchange of one era of Appalachian history for another. The log house is the most enduring symbol of Appalachia. It speaks to the resourcefulness and hard work of pioneer inhabitants and the role that the great Appalachian forest played in the region's development. Along with mountain music, handmade quilts, and other craft objects, log architecture also represents metropolitan America's embrace of mountain people during the twentieth century and the depiction of their culture and lifeways as emblems of what was noble and quaint in the national past and worthy and needful (or degraded and fearful) in the present.
Fort Chiswell, another lost landmark of the Wytheville crossroad, is equally symbolic, a reminder that while the eastern half of Appalachia was settled without notable Native American resistance, the western halfthose parts of the Virginias, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama that drain through tributaries to the Ohio Riverwas drenched in blood during the frontier era. Like the log cabin, backcountry warfare endowed Appalachia and its people with much of the region's mystique.
Despite its prominence on maps and highway signs, the name Fort Chiswell now attaches only to three major structures: a handsome brick mansion built by Stephen and Joseph Cloyd McGavock (or, more likely, by slaves working under their direction) in 1839, a high school whose continued existence is threatened by a movement for school consolidation, and an outlet mall tucked into one arm of the interchange where I-77 peels off from its temporary union with I-81. Highway construction obliterated the site of the frontier fort, along with much of the village that clustered about a previous crossroads, the intersections of U.S. Highways 11 and 52. On the north side of the interchange, opposite the outlet mall, a small stone pyramid with a plaque testifies to the fort's former site and frontier importance. What is left of the village of Fort Chiswell, which James McGavock tried and failed to develop into Wythe County's courthouse town, is overshadowed by the usual detritus of a modern American crossroads: motels, truck stops, fast food joints, billboards, and oversized signs, each signaling for the attention of motorists who speed by at 70 mph.
Erected in 1760-61 under the direction of Col. William Byrd III of Westover in tidewater Virginia and named for the discoverer of lead mines in which Byrd had invested, Fort Chiswell was a landmark of colonial Virginia's complex interactions with native peoples who inhabited its western interior and who claimed sovereignty over the New River and Tennessee valleys. Built on a "high barren hill" overlooking Reed Creek near its junction with the river, the fort gave protection to the settlers who had surged into the southwest since the 1740s and also guarded the mines, which were located along the river near the border with North Carolina. Virginia's right to occupy this territory derivedat least to the satisfaction of colonial leadersfrom the Treaty of Lancaster (1744). Then the colony had purchased from the Iroquois Confederacy the right to settle on west-flowing waters among its "back mountains." Settlers such as Wilhelm Mack and his fellow Germans from Pennsylvania built their cabins here in advance of this treaty, which is why land speculators officially sanctioned by the colony were able to take the earlier settlers' land or collect rents or purchase money. In 1745 the Virginia assembly awarded a grant of 100,000 acres to James Patton, John Buchanan's father-in-law, to be selected from land in the New River and Tennessee valleys. It is worth noting that Patton had been at Lancaster in an unofficial capacity and seems to have had his eye on southwest Virginia since his first trip there in 1742.
Virginia also chartered another land companythe Loyal Land Company headed by Dr. Thomas Walker, who with Buchanan and Patton and other land prospectors found and named the Cumberland Gap leading toward Kentucky in 1750to take up and sell land in the upper Tennessee watershed. At the same time, the colony chartered the Ohio Company to acquire and sell land around the Forks of the Ohio (the site of modern Pittsburgh) and the Greenbrier Company, whose territory was the valley of the New River's largest tributary, draining the district adjacent to West Virginia's present border with Virginia. Thus the movement of people into southwest Virginia represented not only a race between settlers and speculators, but also contests among the rival speculators to identify and secure the best land.
The Iroquois later disputed Virginia's interpretation of the Lancaster treaty, while other Indians protested that the Confederacy had no right to dispose of this land on any terms. These views were particularly strong in the Shawnee villages of southern Ohio, which also harbored Delaware and other refugees from their original homelands in the east. The Shawnee claimed as hunting grounds all of Virginia on western waters (including most of present West Virginia and all of Kentucky) and strongly disputed the right of any Europeans to settle there. When several preliminary warnings were ignored, Shawnee war parties struck the New River valley in July 1755, killing James Patton among other victims and capturing Mary Draper Ingles. Her subsequent escape and desperate journey homeward through New River Gorge in the company of an otherwise unidentified "old Dutch [German] woman" helped Virginia authorities to locate the Shawnee towns in Ohio and also confirmed the impassability of the gorge as a route of attack. And so the Sandy Creek expedition, which attempted to reach the Ohio via another stream that flows north from southwest Virginia, marched out in February 1756, with several hundred frontiersmen and Cherokee allies. This effort failed miserably. Steep hills, icy and swift-flowing rivers, and the inability of a Euro-American army to take advantage of the ridgetop paths that Indians used to traverse this area slowed and eventually halted the march far short of its objectives. When starving soldiers began plotting against the officers, the leaders gave up and the army fled in disorder back to the settlements. The Cherokees who accompanied the march watched this outcome with interest and disgust.
The Cherokees also claimed the land in question but, like the Iroquois, did not live there or even hunt there very often. They were interested mainly in trade with Virginia, in order to ease their dependence on South Carolina traders who, the Cherokees believed, overcharged them for the European goods they now depended upon. At the same time, they worried about the Virginian advance into the Tennessee valley. When war broke out between the Cherokees and South Carolina in 1760, Virginia authorities hastened to placate the tribesmen while strengthening their southwestern defenses. Fort Chiswell was completed and occupied by February 1761.
The fort was located near the point where the territorial claims of the Shawnees and Cherokees and Virginia's horde of high-placed land speculators all converged. The various forest paths leading north from the vicinity toward the Ohio could not accommodate the wagons that moved European settlers or armies, but they were adequate to the purpose of Shawnee and other raiders. The Virginians were fortunate that the Shawnees and Cherokees, who spoke unrelated languages and were traditional enemies, never managed to effect an alliance. Even so, the second half of the eighteenth century was an almost uninterrupted period of border warfare in this area, as bloody and unrestrained as any that has been fought in North America. The name Fort Chiswell, prominent on the map although the actual site has been destroyed, offers a reminder of this history, which shaped the collective memory of central Appalachia's early settlers and, through its impact on the land allocation process, the experience of their descendants as they sought to occupy and enjoy the land that warfare and diplomacy eventually won.
It seems particularly fitting that the historic landmarks of this crossroads are ghosts, while its modern structuresthe interstate, the shopping mall, the gas stations and other roadside servicesare indistinguishable from those we might find in any other part of the country. Fort Chiswell, the McGavock House, and Wilhelm Mack's cabin in the Valley of Contention and Strife can be seen in their original forms only in the mind's eye. This is appropriate, for Appalachia, more than most of the regions into which the United States is customarily divided, is a territory of imagesa screen upon which writers, artists, and savants for several generations have projected their fears, hopes, regrets, and enthusiasms about America present and past. The region has been seen as both the essence of America and a place apart, "a strange land and a peculiar people," as one of the early "discoverers" of Appalachia put it back in 1873.
Interpreters who have immersed themselves in the observation of a specific Appalachian place have rarely challenged this notion of "otherness." Like the museum experts who took apart the McGavock House, scholars who have created ethnographies, community studies, or studies of the folk arts or folk artists have concluded that Appalachia is home to a distinctive and important regional variant of American culture. This assessment has shaped the popular perception of the region and has assumed official form in the interpretation of regional culture put forward by the custodians of popular tourist attractions such as the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks. Yet historians who have attempted to see the region as a whole and to isolate whatever it is that sets the region apart from the rest of the country have often ended by doubting that the place even exists as a definable entity. They have concluded instead that it is a territory only of the mind, an idée des savants, a place that has been invented, not discovered, an "alternative America" projected onto the mountains and mountain people by reformers whose real purpose is to critique or change things in the nation at large.
One problem with attempting to view the region whole is that Appalachia has no agreed-upon boundariesnothing comparable to the Mason-Dixon Line or the 100th meridian or the Hudson River, boundaries that are widely accepted as demarcating clear separations between one American region and another. Appalachia is one of the oldest names on North American maps, dating from the early Spanish explorations of the southeastern United States. The name conveys the notion of a regional core somewhere in the highlands, but when we look closely at the natural region, the Appalachian mountain system, we find that its central feature is a troughthe Great Valleynot a line of watershed peaks like those that mark the center of other famous mountain systems such as the Alps or the Rockies. Geologists have marked off five or six distinct physiographic provinces within the Appalachian system: the Piedmont, the Blue Ridge, the Great Valley (and sometimes a separate "ridge-and-valley" province consisting of the Allegheny ridges and valleys that parallel the Great Valley on its northwest side), the Allegheny (or Cumberland) Mountains, and finally the Appalachian Plateau. These provinces comprise all of eastern North America's uplands south of the Adirondacks and extend from the coastal to the interior plains.
Where in this huge territory is Appalachia? Political boundaries do not provide the answer. Geometric lines drawn in London in the seventeenth century to set off Carolina and Pennsylvania from the Chesapeake colonies were abstractions fixed on the Atlantic shore to demarcate the hinterlands of what were then widely separated thresholds of colonization. These lines were subsequently extended inland with little heed paid to the interior's natural features. Thus the New River valley in Virginia is divided politically from the river's headwaters in North Carolina and its outlet in West Virginia, just as the Cumberland watershed was split between Tennessee and Kentucky and the Tennessee River severed from its Virginia headwaters and its tributaries in six other states. These jurisdictional lines drawn in distant capitals slice across the mountains, valleys, and plateaus of Appalachia as if those features had no geometries of their own. The official boundary drawn when the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) was established in 1965 both simplified and complicated the problem. The ARC provided for the first time a central data-collecting agency whose purview encompasses the entire region, yet political calculations pushed and tugged the official boundary northward to the southern tier of New York and southwest to a corner of Mississippi while excluding parts of Appalachian Virginia, whose congressman objected to the commission on philosophical grounds.
To appreciate the problem, consider the experience of a traveler flying from Charleston, South Carolina, to Cleveland on a clear day. The boundary between the Piedmont and the coastal plain is marked by a series of waterfallsthe famous "fall line"now mostly submerged by dams and lakes built to harness the rivers' hydroelectric energy. Farther north, the boundary between the Piedmont and the Blue Ridge is nearly as impressive from the air as it is on the ground, even though there are outliers, such as the South Mountains and Brushy Mountains of North Carolina and the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland and Virginia, that extend east of the Blue Ridge. The continuity and the consistent northeast-southwest trend of the Great Valley is unmistakable as the plane passes over Wytheville; so is the boundary of the Allegheny front separating the parallel ridges and valleys of the eastern Alleghenies from the high tablelands, steep hills, and deeply incised valleys of the Appalachian Plateau. The plane's gradual descent from Charleston, West Virginia, toward Cleveland mimics the declining altitude and wider valleys of the uplands below. Even though the differences in altitude steadily diminish, the uplands are clearly distinguishable from the plains of central and northern Ohio.
This air journey provides a textbook illustration of Appalachia's varied landforms, yet it also reveals a geography shaped by humans. For example, the sharp-eyed traveler will notice a new geometry as the plane crosses the Ohio River from West Virginia into Ohio, one that has to do with the way that land is divided. Notwithstanding the low, rolling regularity of the Piedmont terrain or the symmetrical progression of ridges and valleys paralleling the Great Valley, the human boundaries visible in those places from the airthe fence lines separating fields and pastures and the pathways of local roadsare highly irregular, reflecting a land-surveying and distribution system that placed a premium on on-the-ground knowledge. Colonial surveyors in the Virginias and Carolinas (and subsequently in Kentucky and Tennessee) followed the lay of the land, excluding rough, steep, or waterlogged places from their surveys, leaving the less desirable tracts for those who came later and creating a crazy quilt of land claims, many of which overlapped. Among other effects, this system placed a premium on land buyers and sellers prospecting the land before settlement, and it stimulated the swift advances into Native American territory that in turn led to decades of border warfare.
In Ohio the boundaries on the ground become more regular; fields are squared off and the byways follow the cardinal directions. The contrast is clearly visible from the air, even in eastern and southeastern Ohio, where these lines cut across the natural trends of upland valleys and hills. The difference testifies to the impact of the federal land survey system first introduced in Ohio in 1788 and carried from there on across the United States until surveyors encountered the Ibero-American land allocation system of Texas and the Far West. Such differences explain why most scholars turn to cultural markers when they try to determine just where Appalachia begins and ends.
The first attempt to define Appalachia systematically was made in 1861 by a Minnesota newspaper. A series of articles published during the early months of the Civil War identified a region that the editor called "Alleghenia": 161 counties in the mountains of Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas. In this "land of Corn and Cattle, not Cotton," slavery was weak and Union sentiment strong. If Union armies pressed south through Cumberland Gap into the Great Valley, he reasoned, then the "Counter-Revolution" already underway in the future West Virginia would spread throughout the highlands and deal the Confederacy a fatal blow. Differences in highland and lowland economies and in Civil War loyalties were also justifications that Berea College president William G. Frost offered as he reoriented his college's mission to the mountains. In defining "Appalachian America" in 1895, Frost was assisted by a former student who had become a professional geologist, C. Willard Hayes. The 194 counties that Frost and Hayes included in their version of Appalachia did not follow geological features precisely, but neither did their definition fall back upon state lines.
Most of Appalachia's twentieth-century architects have based boundaries on cultural artifactschiefly political borders and especially the Mason-Dixon Line. The literature of Appalachian studies is full of examples, which I have reviewed extensively in another place. What all definitions of Appalachia have in common, though, is that each of them in its way tries to link people and homeland, to find some principle of regional demarcation that identifies both the place and its inhabitants. This book is no different, except in one important respect: It offers a dynamic definition of Appalachia and its people as both have changed through time. Although the traditional approach to Appalachian regionalism originated at least partly in antimodernism, it relied on the modern definition of region as established by geographers at the end of the nineteenth century: a territory set apart from others by an enumerated set of attributes, features that could be mapped in their distribution from regional core to periphery and measured in intensity so that one could say confidently how "Appalachian" (or southern or western or New Englandish) a given place was.
A postmodern approach to regionalism takes a different tack. It recognizes that every place is a zone characterized by the interaction of global and local human and environmental forces and that regional boundaries inevitably shift with the perspectives both of subject and object. From this standpoint, it is possible to see Appalachia as a zone of interaction among the diverse peoples who have lived in or acted upon it, as it is also of their interactions with the region's complex environment. These interactions go further toward defining the region than a specific set of cultural or socioeconomic or environmental markers. Put another way, the modernist tendency to distinguish between "natural" regions defined in terms of environmental features and "artificial" ones determined by political lines is itself arbitrary. All boundaries are vantage points that allow us to make useful and interesting observations about the world, or in this case, a smallish part of it.
Postmodern Appalachia is thus a zone where diverse groups have interacted with one another and with a set of regional and subregional environments over time. Like the Appalachian Regional Commission and a minority of scholarly studies, this book places Pennsylvania in Appalachia, not only because it was by far the most important colonial hearth of Euro-American culture in Appalachia, but because it was also generally from Pennsylvania that industrializing forces spread southward during the nineteenth century, and it was there that the socioeconomic issues raised by deindustrialization emerged to make the entire region a focus of policy concern in the twentieth. Pennsylvania is also importantalong with neighboring sections of Ohio, West Virginia, and Marylandfor contrasts it provides as well as for its similarities with the Appalachian core. At the southern end of the mountains, northern Alabama serves something of the same function.
This book, then, accepts the 1965 boundaries of Appalachiathough readers will find little about New York or Mississippi in these pagesand it also offers a core region of 164 counties that have been included in most of the influential scholarly or government definitions of Appalachia published during the last century. This core spreads over six statesGeorgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and the two Virginiasand is set within an "official" Appalachia comprising the entire ARC territorywhich in the year 2000 constituted 406 counties in thirteen states. Where statistics are employed in the pages that follow, distinctions between the core and official regions are indicated appropriately. So constructed, my version of the core region features some anomalies of its own in that it excludes such obviously Appalachian counties as Garrett in Maryland, DeKalb and Jackson in Alabama, Oconee in South Carolina, and a smattering of the Virginia counties whose misfortune it was in 1965 to be represented by Congressman Poff, but since these are all included within the official region they are not completely eliminated. Like all boundary makers, I had to draw the line somewhere.
As if the varying boundaries weren't enough, there is no fundamental agreement even about how to pronounce the word "Appalachia." Residents of southern and central Appalachia pronounce the term with a short a (a) in the stressed third syllable; further north, the same a is given a long pronunciation (a), as in "Appal-ay-chia." Most of the experts and bureaucrats who came from Washington and elsewhere to fix the region's problems beginning in the 1960s adopted the northern pronunciation, while resident experts favor the southernwhich led to a situation, according to one commentator, wherein "people who said Appalachia were perceived as outsiders who didn't know what they were talking about but were more than willing to tell people from the mountains what to do and how they should do it." Finally, while a majority of both long and short a users crunch the third syllable as though it were spelled Appal-atch-yuh, in New Englandwhere the term "Appalachian" first came into widespread use by nongeologists thanks to the Appalachian Mountain Club and the development of the Appalachian Traila variant pronunciation uses "sh" rather than "ch," as in Appal-ay-shuh.
It sometimes seems that the only things that suggest a natural unity to all of Appalachia are the general northeast-southwest trend of the mountain-valley-plateau system and its progressive narrowing from south to north. Apart from geology, what is most impressive about the region is its diversity rather than its unity. The hardwood forests that covered much of the region are still the most diverse such forests on earth, notwithstanding the numerous extinctions and depletions of the past three hundred years. The species that Appalachia harbored during the Ice Age have spread from the mountains back to their original homes, leaving only a few widely distributed plants or animals whose habitat is exclusively Appalachian. Features created by humans likewise make it difficult to distinguish the region from others. State lines are almost entirely at odds with natural features, while local rather than regional names dominate the map. Thus the Great Valley is named the Lehigh, Lebanon, and Cumberland valleys in Pennsylvania; the Shenandoah, James, Roanoke, and New River valleys in Virginia; the Tennessee valley in southwest Virginia and East Tennessee. The mountains that border the Great Valley on the northwest are called the Alleghenies in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and the Virginias and the Cumberland Mountains in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alabama. The neighboring Appalachian Plateau is similarly divided on the map between Allegheny and Cumberland.
Among names with a broader currency, "Piedmont" is a term of art based on a confused view of Italian geography, applied to the Great Valley during the eighteenth century but popularized by industrial promoters in the Carolinas during the late nineteenth century; "Blue Ridge" is a designator rarely used north of Virginia, and even in the South the singular term "ridge" is misleading. In Virginia, the Blue Ridge is actually a chain of mountains, nowhere exceeding four thousand feet in elevation except near the North Carolina border. In the Carolinas, however, the Blue Ridge escarpment rises above its foothills to heights of over five thousand feet in places, creating an eastern boundary as imposing as anything in North America east of the Rocky Mountains' front range. To the northwest of these peaks lies a high-altitude plateau, up to sixty miles wide, containing the headwaters of the New River and a succession of Tennessee River tributaries. This plateau is bounded in turn on the northwest by a series of mountain rangesthe Stone, Iron, Black, and, most famously, Great Smoky Mountainsthrough which the headwater streams have cut gorges nearly as spectacular as the canyons further north that the Potomac, James, and Roanoke Rivers carved through the Blue Ridge. These mountain chains form the present North Carolina-Tennessee border and are often included within the bounds of the Blue Ridge. Yet residents of this plateau, surrounded by a multitude of peaks that, as Thomas Wolfe put it, race like hounds across the horizon, typically refer to themselves as living "on the mountain" and have even coined the term "off-mountain" to describe less pleasant locations. This almost willful disregard of diversity in favor of unity is echoed in the scholarly and popular literature, providing grist for the analytical mills of such writers as Henry Shapiro and Allen Batteau, who argue that Appalachia does not exist except in the imaginations of people who want it to.
Naming conventions also dictate how one refers to the Appalachian sections of particular states. East Tennessee is a name enshrined in the state constitution, formally recognized with Middle and West Tennessee as one of three "grand divisions," each with its own star in the state flag. It is customary to refer to north Georgia and southwest Virginia but also to eastern Kentucky and western North Carolina; apparently both northern and north Alabama are correct. The mountain district of South Carolina is part of the "upstate," a much larger region. West Virginia has two "panhandles," one extending northward and the other eastward, but before Virginia was divided in 1863 there was only one "Pan Handle." Northeastern Tennessee does indeed lie in that direction relative to Knoxville, but it is more common to hear it described as upper East Tennessee. I have honored these conventions where it could be done without confusion.
A fluid approach to boundaries also affects the division of Appalachian history into time periods. In the first period of postcontact history, extending from the DeSoto entrada of 1539-42 to the Cherokee Removal three hundred years later, Appalachia is more or less coterminus with the region that colonial historians call the "backcountry." Colonial Appalachia can be defined by the pathways that linked it to the eastern beachheads of the Atlantic civilization and that led European and African Americans swiftly and deeply into the continent's interior during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The discovery and exploitation of these paths as routes of settlement and conquest and their subsequent consolidation as transportation corridors binding Appalachia to the commercial and political lineaments of the American nation constitutes the first phase of Appalachian history. The succeeding era, extending variously from the 1760s in the Valley of Virginia to the late antebellum period in the Allegheny and Cumberland plateaus, constitutes the second phase. During this period, Euro-American and African American labor established the farm-and-forest economy of what might be called classical Appalachia and made it the region's most prosperous era relative to other parts of the nation.
The Civil War disrupted the continuity of Appalachian history, as it did that of American history generally, yet the most fundamental trendthe decay of the farm-and-forest economy as population growth came up against a relatively fixed array of environmental resourceswas not interrupted, only exacerbated by the violence and impoverishment that occurred during and after the war. Appalachia south of Pennsylvania was devastated by the war. Its wartime experience led the region to be regarded as somehow different from the rest of the South, while at the same time it was visited with many of the same punishments dispensed to the losing side. As the postwar era evolved, Appalachia's differences came to be viewed as markers of cultural peculiarity, an impression deeply engraved on the American imagination and a source of lively and continuing debate among scholars. This was the period when Appalachia was discovered and named by observers for whom the differences that separated Appalachia from the rest of the nation were more compelling than the factors that united them. It was also the time when two defining stereotypes lodged in the American mind: the Appalachian mountaineer, noble and stalwart, rugged and independent, master or mistress of the highlands environment; and the profligate hillbilly, amusing but often also threatening, defined by deviance and aberration, a victim of cultural and economic deprivation attributable to mountain geography.
During the first half of the twentieth century, national institutionscorporations, labor unions, state and federal governments, professions, media, the military, cultural institutions, and the apparatus of tourismbrought Appalachia's economic and cultural resources into the embrace of supraregional systems. This multistaged process included not only the labor struggles to which many historians have been drawn, but also key events in institutional history, such as the origins of the Tennessee Valley Authority, of Appalachia's national parks and forests, of the Council of the Southern Mountains and the Southern Highlands Handicrafts Guild, of folk schools and festivals and commercial entertainment industries, and of various other federal programs active in the region. This was also an era of town building, and attention must be paid to the gulf that opened between Appalachian towns and cities and their hinterlands in the railroad era and to the gradual closure of that gulf in the succeeding era of automobiles, radio, rural electrification, and consolidated schools.
Finally, there is the postindustrial era of Appalachian history. During and after World War II, Appalachian people in unprecedented numbers poured out of the mountains into military service and into the cities of the surrounding lowlands. For the first time, the region acquired a set of official boundaries, yet any distinctiveness that might be claimed for its history and culture seemed irrevocably compromised. Scholars commonly characterized the region's fate during this era as that of a "colonial economy," but the postwar era featured persistence and resistance as well as acquiescence to exploitation. It was a time of renewal, in other words, as well as of crisis, although the crises attracted most of the journalistic and scholarly ink.
One of the hallmarks of renewal was the emergence of a literary movement that shows no sign of abating, a movement anchored in a rather old-fashioned narrative realismout of step, perhaps, with the taste for experimentation and irony that characterizes other art in the postmodern agebut one that draws on the ways in which Appalachian people have always used narrative for entertainment and understanding, parsing their experience through Bible stories and folk tales, traditional ballads and country songs, not to mention the everyday parlance of people in small communities who, to borrow a phrase from Eudora Welty, have "a narrative sense" of each others' lives. "Most Appalachian fiction has wanted to depict . . . the specific and concrete world of everyday people and local places," according to the Kentucky writer Gurney Norman: "Our best writers are true heroes to the community because they have been able to take the materials of local life and make something universal from this part of the world." One of the keys to the success of the region's writers is that they haveas educators, folklorists, and missionaries did in earlier erascontinued to hold up to the larger nation an "alternative America," a not-always-welcome image that contrasted with the stress and placelessness that beset "a nation of exiles."
For much of the century, official attention turned on the question of why and how the region failed to keep pace with the material growth of an urbanized consumer society, but at the beginning of the twenty-first century it is reasonable to ask whether Appalachia may have led the nation, not lagged behind, into a future whose outline is only now just coming into view. In the new terrain of globalized market capitalism, the combination of exploitation and per-/re-sistance, of crisis and renewal, that Appalachian history manifests may turn out to be instructive to every dweller in the postmodern world.
Excerpted from Appalachia by John Alexander Williams. Copyright © 2002 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
What People are saying about this
This comprehensive study of the Appalachian past is based on the latest scholarship and original sources. This volume is much more than a textbook; it is an outstanding interpretation of Appalachian history. Williams's explanations on many topics are the best presently available from any publication.Gordon B. McKinney, Berea College
It is a book that should be studied and savored by every Appalachian resident who cares at all about his or her homeland, and it will stand as a touchstone for studies of the region for many years to come.Journal of Southern History
Williams's new volume will appeal both to scholars and to a broader public long befuddled by repetitions of the tiredest of myths about the southern mountains. . . . Williams has written a book that can (and should) stand as the definitive one-volume history of Appalachia for some time to come. It is a welcome and valuable addition to the steadily growing body of new work on a long misunderstood region.American Historical Review
Williams has done what long needed doing. He has penned a readable, thoughtful, and comprehensive history of Appalachia. . . . Williams's study makes clear that Appalachia is a collection of very different places, with a population that is anything but homogeneous. . . . Well written and demonstrates a mastery of the available research on Appalachia. . . . [A] sterling achievement. This book is a milestone and will shape the debates in Appalachian history for years to come.North Carolina Historical Review
He or she who cares deeply about this region needs this book.Blue Ridge Country
This volume is the most comprehensive history of the Appalachian region written to date. It will certainly stand as an invaluable resource for both students and future historians of Appalachia.Our State
Williams has written about Appalachia as place rather than problem and tells us what went on there. He does so, moreover, with grace and wit, in a book that is at once charming and helpful. As a contribution to the historiography of America, it is delicious. As a contribution to the historiography of Appalachia, it is essential. . . . A magisterial achievement, and welcome.Journal of American History
By analyzing carefully the complex dialectic of myths surrounding Appalachia, Williams does an especially fine job in evoking a sense of place. This quality is critical to understanding how the people of Appalachia define themselves, and no study can successfully describe the region's history without unraveling these myriad, often contradictory, layers of self-perception. Williams does so with both style and a trenchant sense of irony.Durwood Dunn, Tennessee Wesleyan College
A vivid and perceptive portrait of the region. [Williams's] seminal account not only provides an exceptionally readable and accurate text for the classroom, but it marks a new level of achievement and synthesis in Appalachian Studies. . . . Combines the narrative storytelling of good history with personal observations of someone who knows the region and its people. . . . An eloquent statement of how far we have come, Appalachia: A History provides a new platform upon which the next generation of Appalachian historians will begin their work. . . . Williams knows Appalachia and Appalachian scholarship. This book is a fine tribute to his commitment and skill; it should stand for years as the standard introduction to Appalachian history.Appalachian Journal
Meet the Author
Author or coauthor of five previous books, John Alexander Williams is professor of history at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.
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