Joseph E. Dabney is a retired newspaperman and public relations executive who has studied the Carolina and Georgia Low Country, Appalachian, and hill-country food traditions for many years. Author of the highly acclaimed Mountain Spirits and James Beard Cookbook of the Year Award winner Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread, and Scuppernong Wine, he lives in Atlanta, Georgia.
Winner of the James Beard Cookbook of the Year Award
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America's Great Melting Pot
March of the Celts Down the Great Wagon Road
On my father's side were Germans, blue eyes. On Mother's side they was a lot of them that was redheaded, most likely Scotch-Irish.
-Ruth Swanson Hunter, Young Harris, Georgia
Most of my people were Scotch-Irish. The Scotch-Irish have got a Presbyterian conscience. It won't keep you from sinning, but it'll keep you from enjoying your sin, and it will smite you unmercifully if you don't do what it tells you is right.
-The late North Carolina U.S. senator Sam Irvin, in Mountain Voices by Warren Moore
Grandpa Raburn was Red Irish and Grandma Raburn was Black Dutch. 'Course she wasn't dark-skinned. That's just what they called them...Aunt Sara and Uncle Joe Raburn.
-Hazel French Farmer, Union County, Georgia
It was serendipity. Or perhaps an answer to an author's prayer. Just about the time I was about to give up my quest for a succinct metaphor to describe the human tide of European immigrants that poured down Virginia's Great Valley in the mid 1700s, a moonshiner from the north Georgia hills came to my rescue. His voice boomed forth from two decades before, via an audiotape. After I replayed it, I remembered the day Theodore (Thee) King told me his family history as we sat on the doorsteps of his home just off the square in Blairsville, Georgia.
"Joe," Thee told me, "where I take my flutter mill from-my tongue-is from my mother. She was a redheaded Scotch-Irishman with some German in her for good measure."
While Thee King's gift of blarney could be credited to a Gaelic grandparent, I wondered how it was that his hair was jet black and straight, having none of the Irish reddishness to it, and his skin bore the dark patina of a Lincoln, definitely not Scot ruddy. "I'm quarter Cherokee," Thee King quickly told me. "My grandpa King was a thoroughbred Cherokee Indian."
Well now. Of course. I could see Thee's Indian-ness. He was tall and lanky and bony. And he had the gait of a Cherokee. It would be easy to picture him a few decades ago looking for a sign in the wilds leading up to Brasstown Bald, rearing up 4,780 feet of blue splendor just to the east. But the moonshiner's story didn't end there. Thee King, now deceased, who loved to go by the nickname "Doc," wanted me to hear all about the roots of his family tree.
"My grandmother King," he said, "she was a thoroughbred Englishman... and my grandpa Pitt, he was a thoroughbred German." Looking up with a triumphant grin, Theodore winked at me and declared, "Joe, I'm four mixed up; I don't know where I take my sense of reasoning and what little common sense I got, but I believe it's atter the Germans!"
Wow. What a melting pot of a man, carrying just about all the strains of traditional Blue Ridge mountain stock, except perhaps a bit of the French as typified by "Nolichucky Jack" Sevier, Tennessee's first governor, and the Welsh, typified by the greatest American Welshman of all time, the Blue Ridge's own Thomas Jefferson.
I realized that here, in the person of Theodore King, sour mash whiskey-maker supreme, a native of Gum Log, Georgia, was a microcosm of the people who rolled down the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road, beginning around 1720, in their covered wagons-Scotch-Irish, German, and English.
Thee King's Cherokee ancestry added another element to the Appalachian mix. It was the Indians-despite their bloody warrior reputation-whose benevolence provided the basis for many of the Appalachian foods, and whose lessons in hunting and fishing and farming and mountain living were crucial to the survival of the new Americans all the way from the first settlers at Jamestown.
The country we're talking about, of course, and the object of the human juggernaut of Celt migrants who invaded the colonial American interior in the 1700s, was the majestic Southern Appalachians-the country of rolling blue ridges, green valleys, swift flowing streams (by the hundreds), and dark coves by the thousands-all straddling the ancient mountains, a chain whose high peaks rise over six thousand feet, a magnificent complex of hills and valleys formed two million years ago at the beginning of the Pleistocene Ice Age.
The territory soon gained the nickname of "backcountry," particularly among the nouveau riche Tidewater planters who looked down their noses at the region and its settlers. Philadelphia's land speculators envisioned it as America's "Great Southwest" and so did the enthusiastic landseekers. They viewed the Appalachians as a wonderful world to conquer, the splendid and fertile Piedmont "foot of the mountain" country all the way from Pennsylvania down to north Alabama. And on the other side of the chain the verdant Indian hunting grounds that would become Tennessee and Kentucky. The region embraced the western section of Virginia and the future West Virginia, the western end of the Carolinas, and the mountain plateaus extending to Georgia and Alabama. Many mountain offshoots, plateaus, and valleys were part of the majestic mosaic-the Cumberlands, the Alleghenies, the Blue Ridge, the Smokies, the Cohuttas, and Sand Mountain southwest of Chattanooga.
The Great Philadelphia Wagon Road served as the eighteenth-century conduit for the tide of new Americans. Many would later follow Daniel Boone's lead through the Cumberland Gap on the Wilderness Road into Kentucky and south down the Holston and Watauga Rivers into Tennessee.
But the nation's busiest thoroughfare was the Wagon Road-a 435-mile stretch surveyed by Peter Jefferson from Philadelphia down the Great Valley of Virginia to North Carolina's Yadkin River. Generally, it followed the route of the Iroquois' Great Warrior's Path along the valley of the Shenandoah, "Daughter of the Stars" in Iroquois. The road picked up the Cherokee Trading Path from Salisbury, North Carolina, south on to Mecklenburg County and eventually to Augusta, Georgia.
Southbound traffic in the early 1770s soared to tens of thousands of wagons, horses, and humans, becoming the heaviest-traveled road in the continent.* As Carl Bridenbaugh wrote, the road "must have had more vehicles jolting along its rough and tortuous way than all other main roads put together," crowded with "horsemen, footmen, and pioneer families with horse and wagon and cattle."
The tide gained great momentum following the Cherokee defeat at the hands of the British in 1761.
Two years later, the French and Indian War, which had kept the frontiers tense, came to an end. In 1768, the Iroquois gave up land claims.
"Over the mountains, through the gaps, down the watershed they came," wrote Wilma Dykeman, Tennessee's eminent historian, "Scotch-Irish, English, German, low Dutch and occasionally French Huguenots...in their search of what they called the Southwest."
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