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THE LAW OF THE WILDERNESS
It is only a town-dreamed allegory that represents Nature as a fond mother suckling her young upon her breast. Those who have lived literally close to wild Nature know her for a tyrant, void of pity and of mercy, from whom nothing can be wrung without toil and the risk of death.
To all pioneer men — to their women and children, too — life has been one long, hard, cruel war against elemental powers. Nothing else than warlike arts, nothing short of warlike hazards, could have subdued the beasts and savages, felled the forests and made our land habitable for those teeming millions who can exist only in a state of mutual dependence and cultivation. The first lesson of pioneering was self-reliance. “Provide with thine own arm,” said the Wilderness, “against frost and famine and skulking foes, or thou shalt surely die!”
But there were compensations. As the school of the woods was harsh and stern, so it brought up sons and daughters of lion heart. And its reward to those who endured was the most outright independence to be had on earth. No king was so irresponsible as the pioneer, no czar so absolute as he. It needed no martyr spirit in him to sing:
“I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.”
We have seen that the Appalachian region was peculiar in this: that good bottom lands were few and far between. So our mountain farmers were cut off more from the world and from each other, were thrown still more upon their individual resources, than other pioneers. By compulsion their self-reliance was more complete; hence their independence grew more haughty, their individualism more intense. And these traits, exaggerated as they were by force of environment, remain unweakened among their descendants to the present day.
Here, then, is a key to much that is puzzling in highland character. In the beginning isolation was forced upon the mountaineers; they accepted it as inevitable and bore it with stoical fortitude until in time they came to love solitude for its own sake and to find compensations in it for lack of society.
Says a native writer, Miss Emma Miles, in a clever and illuminating book on The Spirit of the Mountains: “We who live so far apart that we rarely see more of one another than the blue smoke of each other’s chimneys are never at ease without the feel of the forest on every side — room to breathe, to expand, to develop, as well as to hunt and to wander at will. The nature of the mountaineer demands that he have solitude for the unhampered growth of his personality, wing-room for his eagle heart.”
Such feeling, such longing, most of us have experienced in passing moods; but in the highlander it is a permanent state of mind, sustaining him from the cradle to the grave. To enjoy freedom and air and elbow-room he cheerfully puts aside all that society can offer, and stints himself and bears adversity with a calm and steadfast soul. To be free, unbeholden, lord of himself and his surroundings — that is the wine of life to a mountaineer.
Such a man cannot stand it to be bossed around. If he works for another, it must be on a footing of equality. Poverty may oblige him to take a turn on some “public works” (by which he means any job where many men work together, such as lumbering or railroad building), but he must be handled with more respect than is shown common laborers elsewhere. At a sharp order or a curse from the foreman he will flare back: “That’s enough out o’ you!” and immediately he will drop his tools. Generally he will stay on a job just long enough to earn money for immediate needs; then back to the farm he goes.
Bear in mind that in the
mountains every person is accorded the consideration that his own qualities
entitle him to, and no whit more. It has always been so. Our Highlanders have
neither memory nor tradition of ever having been herded together, lorded over,
persecuted or denied the privileges of free-men. So, even within their clans,
there is no servility nor any headship by right of birth. Leaders arise, when
needed, only by virtue of acknowledged ability and efficiency. In this respect
there is no analogy whatever to the clan system of ancient
We might expect such fiery individualism to cool gradually as population grew denser; but, oddly enough, crowding only intensifies it in the shy backwoodsman. Neighborliness has not grown in the mountains — it is on the wane. There are to-day fewer log-rollings and house-raisings, fewer husking bees and quilting parties than in former times; and no new social gatherings have taken their place. Our mountain farmer, seeing all arable land taken up, and the free range ever narrowing, has grown jealous and distrustful, resenting the encroachment of too many sharers in what once he felt was his own unfenced domain. And so it has come about that the very quality that is his strength and charm as a man — his staunch individualism — is proving his weakness and reproach as a neighbor and citizen. The virtue of a time out-worn has become the vice of an age new-born.
The mountaineers are non-social. As they stand to-day, each man “fighting for his own hand, with his back against the wall,” they recognize no social compact. Each one is suspicious of the other. Except as kinsmen or partisans they cannot pull together. Speak to them of community of interests, try to show them the advantages of co-operation, and you might as well be proffering advice to the North Star. They will not work together zealously even to improve their neighborhood roads, each mistrusting that the other may gain some trifling advantage over himself or turn fewer shovelfuls of earth. Labor chiefs fail to organize unions or granges among them because they simply will not stick together.
Miss Miles says of her
people (the italics are my own): “There is no such thing as a community of
mountaineers. They are knit together, man to man, as friends, but not as a body
of men.... Our men are almost incapable of concerted action unless they are
needed by the Government.... Between blood-relationship and the Federal
Government no relations of master and servant, rich and poor, learned and
ignorant, employer and employee, are interposed to bind society into a
whole.... The mountaineers must awake to a consciousness of themselves as a
people. For although throughout the highlands of Kentucky, Tennessee and
the Carolinas our nature is one, our hopes, our loves, our daily life the same,
we are yet a people asleep, a race without knowledge of its own existence.
This condition is due ... to the isolation that separates the mountaineer from
all the world but his own blood and kin, and to the consequent utter simplicity
of social relations. When they shall have established a unity of thought
corresponding to their homogeneity of character, then their love of country
will assume a practical form, and then, indeed,
To the Highlanders of four
States here mentioned should be added all those of Old Virginia,
And the strange thing is that they do not know it. Their isolation is so complete that they have no race consciousness at all. In this respect I can think of no other people on the face of the earth to which they may be likened.
As compensation for the peculiar weakness of their social structure, the Highlanders display an undying devotion to family and kindred. Mountaineers everywhere are passionately attached to their homes. Tear away from his native rock your Switzer, your Tyrolean, your Basque, your Montenegrin, and all alike are stricken with homesickness beyond speech or cure. At the first chance they will return, and thenceforth will cling to their patrimonies, however poor these be.
So, too, our man of the
Domestic affection is seldom expressed by the mountaineers — not even by motherly or sisterly kisses — but it is very deep and real for all that. In fact, the ties of kinship are stronger with them, and extend to remoter degrees of consanguinity, than with any other Americans that I know. Here again we see working the old feudal idea, an anachronism, but often a beautiful one, in this bustling commercial age. Our hived and promiscuous life in cities is breaking down the old fealty of kith and kin. “God gives us our relatives,” sighs the modern, “but, thank God, we can choose our friends!” Such words would strike a mountaineer deep with horror. Rather would he go the limit of Stevenson’s Saint Ives: “If it is a question of going to hell, go to hell like a gentleman, with your ancestors!”
Photo by U. S. Forest Service
When the wilderness came to be settled by white men, courts were feeble to puerility, and every man was a law unto himself. Many hard characters came in with the pioneers — bad neighbors, arrogant, thievish, bold. As society was not organized for mutual protection, it was inevitable that cousin should look to cousin for help in time of trouble. So arose the clan, the family league, and, as things change very slowly in the mountains, we still have clan loyalty outside of and superior to the law. “My family right or wrong!” is a slogan to which every highlander will rise, with money or arms in hand, and for it he will lay down his last dollar, the last drop of his blood. There is scarce any limit to which this fealty will not go. Your brother or cousin may have committed a crime that shocks you as it does all other decent citizens; but will you give him up to the officers and testify against him? Not if you are a mountaineer. You will hide him out in the laurel, carry him food, keep him posted, help him to break jail, perjure yourself for him in court — anything, everything, to get him clear.
We see here a survival,
very real and widespread, in this twentieth-century
The same chivalrous, self-sacrificing fidelity to family and to clan leader is still shown by our own highlanders, as scores of feuds and hundreds of criminal trials attest. All this is openly and unblushingly “above the law”; but let us remember that the law itself, in many of these localities, is but a feeble, dilatory thing that offers practically no protection to those who would obey its letter. So, in an imperfectly organized society, it is good to have blood-ties that are faithful unto death. And none knows it better than he who has missed it — he who has lived strange and alone in some wild, lawless region where everyone else had a clan to back him.
So far as primitive society is concerned, we may admit with the Scotch historian Henderson that “the clan system of government was in its way an ideally perfect one — probably the only perfect one that has ever existed.... The clansman was not the subject — a term implying some sort of conquest — but the kinsman of his chief.... Obedience became rather a privilege than a task, and no possible bribery or menace could shake his fidelity. Towards the Sassenach or the members of clans at feud with him he might act meanly, treacherously, and cruelly without check and without compunction, for there he recognized no moral obligations whatever. But as a clansman to his clan he was courteous, truthful, virtuous, benevolent, with notions of honor as punctilious as those of the ancient knight.”
The trouble with clan government was, as this same writer has pointed out, that “it was the very thoroughness of its adaptation to early needs that made it so hard to adjust to new necessities. In its principles and motives it was essentially opposed to the bent of modern influences. Its appeal was to sentiment rather than to law or even reason: it was a system not of the letter but of the spirit.... The clan system was efficient only within a narrow area; it gave rise to interminable feuds; and it was inapplicable to the circumstances created by the rise of modern industry and trade.”
Everywhere throughout Highland Dixie to-day we can observe how clan loyalty interferes with the administration of justice. When a case involving some strong family comes up in the courts, immediately a cloud of false witnesses arises, men who should testify on the other side are bribed or run out of the country before subpoenas can be served, and every juror knows that his peace and prosperity in future depend largely upon which side he espouses.
To what lengths the
hostility of a clan may go in defying justice was shown recently in the
massacre of almost a whole court by the Allen clan at
In some measure this morbid
sentiment is due to the spectacular features of the Hillsville tragedy. If
there be one human quality that the mountaineer admires above all others, it is
“nerve.” And what greater display of nerve has been made in this generation
than for a few clansmen to shoot down a judge at the bench, the public
prosecutor, the sheriff, the clerk of the court, and two jurymen, then take to
the mountain laurel like Corsicans to the maquis, and
defy the armed power of the country? The cause does not matter, to a
mountaineer. Our Highlanders are anything but robbers, for instance, and yet
the only outsider who has ballads sung in his memory throughout
Come all ye bold undaunted men
And outlaws of the day,
Who’d rather wear the ball and chain
Than work in slavery!
Said Donohue to his comrades,
“If you’ll prove true to me,
This day I’ll fight with all my might,
I’ll fight for liberty;
Be of good courage, be bold and strong,
Be galliant and be true;
This day I’ll fight with all my might,”
Says bold Jack Donohue.
Six policemen he shot down
Before the fatal ball
Pierced the heart of Donohue
And ’casioned him to fall;
And then he closed his struggling eyes,
And bid this world adieu.
Come all ye boys that fear no noise,
And pray for Donohue!
No doubt the mountain
minstrels are already composing ballads in honor of the Allens; for it is a
fact we cannot blink at that the outlaw is the popular hero of Appalachia
to-day, as Rob Roy and Robin Hood were in the
But this is only half an explanation. The statement that our highlanders are not hostile to law and order must be qualified to this extent: they have a profound distrust of the courts. The mountaineer is not only a born fighter but he is also litigious by nature and tradition. A stranger will be surprised to find how deeply the average backwoodsman is versed in the petty subtleties of legal practice. It comes from experience. “Court-week” draws bigger crowds than a circus. The mountaineer who has never served as juror, witness, or principal in a lawsuit is a curiosity. And this familiarity has bred secret contempt. I violate no confidence in saying that many a mountaineer would hold up one hand to testify his respect for the law while the other hand hovered over his pistol.
Just because his experience has taught him (rightly or wrongly — but he firmly believes it) that courts are swayed by sinister influences when important matters are at stake. Those influences are clan money and clan votes. Hence, if he or a kinsman be involved in “lawin’” with a member of some rival tribe, he does not look for impartial treatment, but prepares to fight cunning with cunning, local influence with local influence. There are no moral obligations here. “All’s fair in love and war” — and this is one form of war.
If the reader will take down his David Balfour and read the intrigues, plots, and counterplots of David’s attorneys and those of the Crown, he will grasp our own highlanders’ viewpoint.
That mountain courts are often impotent is due in part to the limitations under which their officers are obliged to serve. For example, in the judicial district where I reside, the solicitor (State’s attorney) receives nothing but fees, and then only in case of conviction. It might seem that this would stir him to extra zeal, and perhaps it does; but he has a large circuit, there are no local officials specially interested in securing evidence for him while the case is white-hot, everything spurs the defendant to get rid of dangerous witnesses before the solicitor can get at them, public opinion is extremely lenient toward homicides, and man-slayers so often get off scot-free after the most faithful and laborious efforts of the solicitor, that he becomes discouraged.
The sheriff, too, serves without salary, getting only fees and a percentage of tax collections. How this works, in securing witnesses, may be shown by an anecdote. —
I looked up from my work, one day, to see a neighbor striding swiftly along the trail that passed my cabin.
“You seem in a hurry, John. Woods afire?”
Photo by Arthur Keith
The road follows the Creek. — There may be a dozen fords in a mile.
“No: I’m dodgin’ the sheriff.”
“Whose pig was it?”
“Aw! He wants me as witness in a concealed weepon case.”
“One of your boys?”
“Huk-uh: nobody as I’m keerin’ fer.”
“Then why don’t you go?”
“I cain’t afford to. I’d haffter walk nineteen miles out to the railroad, pay seventy cents the round-trip to the county-site, pay my board thar fer mebbe a week, and then a witness don’t git no fee at all onless they convict.”
“What does the sheriff get for coming away up here?”
“Thirty cents for each witness he cotches. He won’t git me, Mister Man; not if I know these woods since yistiddy.”
Verily the law of Swain is hard on the solicitor, hard on the sheriff, and hard on the witness, too!
Mountaineers place a low
valuation on human life. I need not go outside my own habitat for
illustrations. In our judicial district, which comprises the westernmost seven
And the worst of it is that no Black Hand conspirators or ward gun-men or other professional criminals figure in these killings. Practically all of them are committed by representative citizens, mostly farmers. Take that fact home, and think what it means. Remember, too, that most of these murderers either escape with light penal sentences or none at all. The only capital sentence imposed in our district within the past ten years was upon an Indian who had assaulted and murdered a white girl (there was no red tape or procrastination about that trial, the court-house being filled with men who were ready to lynch him under the judge’s nose if the sentence were not satisfactory).
I said at the very outset of this book that “Our mountain folk still live in the eighteenth century. The progress of mankind from that age to this is no heritage of theirs.... And so, in order to be fair and just with these our backward kinsmen, we must, for the time, decivilize ourselves to the extent of going back and getting an eighteenth century point of view.”
As regards the valuation of human life, what was that point of view?
The late Professor Shaler of Harvard, himself a Southerner, one time explained the prevalence of manslaughter among southern gentlemen. His remarks apply with equal truth to our mountaineers, for they, however poor they may be in worldly goods, are by no means “poor white trash,” but rather patricians, like the ragged but lofty chiefs and clansmen of old Scotland. —
“Nothing so surprises the northern people as the fact that southern men of good estate will, for what seems to the distant onlooker trifling matters of dispute, proceed to slay each other. Nothing so gravely offends the characteristic southern man as the incapacity of his brethren of northern societies to perceive that such action is natural and consistent with the rules of gentlemanly behavior. The only way to understand these differences of opinion is by a proper consideration of the history of the moral growth of these diverse peoples.
“The Southerner has retained and fostered — in a certain way reinstated — the medieval estimate as to the value of life. In the opinion of those ages it was but lightly esteemed; it was not a supreme good for which almost all else was to be sacrificed, but something to be taken in hand and put in risk in the pursuit of manly ideals.
“Modernism has worked to intensify the passion for existence until those who are the most under its dominion cannot well conceive how a man, except for some supreme duty to which he is pledged by altruistic motives, can give up his own life or take that of his neighbor. If these people of to-day will but perceive that the characteristic Southerner has preserved the motives of two centuries ago, if they will but inform themselves as to the state of mind on this subject which prevailed in the epoch when those motives were shaped in men, they will see that their judgment is harsh and unreasonable. It is much as if they judged the actions of Englishmen of the seventeenth century by the changed standards of to-day.
“Nor will it be altogether reasonable to condemn the lack of regard of life which we find in the southern gentleman as compared with his northern contemporary. We must, of course, reprobate in every way the evil consequences of this state of mind; but the question as to the propriety of that extreme devotion to continued mundane existence which is so manifest in our modern civilization is certainly open to debate. Irrational and brutal as are the ways in which the old-fashioned gentleman of the South shows that his regard for his own honor or that of his household outweighs his love of life, it must be remembered that the same condition existed in the richest ages of our race — those which gave proportionally the largest share of ability and nobility to its history.
“As long as men are more keenly sensitive to the opinions of their fellows than they are to the other goods which existence brings them, as long as this opinion makes personal valor and truthfulness the jewels of their lives, we must expect now and then to have degradation of the essentially noble motives. It is, undoubtedly, a dangerous state of mind, but not one that is degraded.” — (North American Review, October, 1890.)
“The motives of two
centuries ago” are the motives of present-day