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WHO ARE THE MOUNTAINEERS?
The Southern Appalachian Mountains happen to be parceled out among eight different States, and for that reason they are seldom considered as a geographical unit. In the same way their inhabitants are thought of as Kentucky mountaineers or Carolina mountaineers, and so on, but not often as a body of Appalachian mountaineers. And yet these inhabitants are as distinct an ethnographic group as the mountains themselves are a geographic group.
The mountaineers are homogeneous so far as speech and manners and experiences and ideals can make them. In the aggregate they are nearly twice as numerous and cover twice as much territory as any one of the States among which they have been distributed; but in each of these States they occupy only the backyard, and generally take back seats in the councils of the commonwealth. They have been fenced off from each other by political boundaries, and have no such coherence among themselves as would come from common leadership or a sense of common origin and mutual dependence.
And they are a people without annals. Back of their grandfathers they have neither screed nor hearsay. “Borned in the kentry and ain’t never been out o’ hit” is all that most of them can say for themselves. Here and there one will assert, “My foreparents war principally Scotch,” or “Us Bumgyarners [Baumgartners] was Dutch,” but such traditions of a far-back foreign origin are uncommon.
Who are these southern mountaineers? Whence came they? What is the secret of their belatedness and isolation?
Before the Civil War they were seldom heard of in the outside world. Vaguely it was understood that the Appalachian highlands were occupied by a peculiar people called “mountain whites.” This odd name was given them not to distinguish them from mountain negroes, for there were, practically, no mountain negroes; but to indicate their similarity, in social condition and economic status, to the “poor whites” of the southern lowlands. It was assumed, on no historical basis whatever, that the highlanders came from the more venturesome or desperate element of the “poor whites,” and differed from these only to the extent that environment had shaped them.
Since this theory still prevails throughout the South, and is accepted generally elsewhere on its face value, it deserves just enough consideration to refute it.
The unfortunate class known as poor whites in the South is descended mainly from the convicts and indentured servants with which England supplied labor to the southern plantations before slavery days. The Cavaliers who founded and dominated southern society came from the conservative, the feudal element of England. Their character and training were essentially aristocratic and military. They were not town-dwellers, but masters of plantations. Their chief crop and article of export was tobacco. The culture of tobacco required an abundance of cheap and servile labor.
On the plantations there was little demand for skilled labor, small room anywhere for a middle class of manufacturers and merchants, no inducement for independent farmers who would till with their own hands. Outside of the planters and a small professional class there was little employment offered save what was menial and degrading. Consequently the South was shunned, from the beginning, by British yeomanry and by the thrifty Teutons such as flocked into the northern provinces. The demand for menials on the plantations was met, then, by importing bond-servants from Great Britain. These were obtained in three ways. —
1. Convicted criminals were deported to serve out their terms on the plantations. Some of these had been charged only with political offenses, and had the making of good citizens; but the greater number were rogues of the shiftless and petty delinquent order, such as were too lazy to work but not desperate enough to have incurred capital sentences.
2. Boys and girls, chiefly from the slums of British seaports, were kidnapped and sold into temporary slavery on the plantations.
3. Impoverished people who wished to emigrate, but could not pay for their passage, voluntarily sold their services for a term of years in return for transportation.
Thus a considerable proportion of the white laborers of the South, in the seventeenth century, were criminals or ne’er-do-wells from the start. A large number of the others came from the dregs of society. As for the remainder, the companionships into which they were thrust, the brutalities to which they were subjected, their impotence before the law, the contempt in which they were held by the ruling caste, and the wretchedness of their prospect when released, were enough to undermine all but the strongest characters. Few ever succeeded in rising to respectable positions.
Then came a vast social change. At a time when the laboring classes of Europe had achieved emancipation from serfdom, and feudalism was overthrown, African slavery in our own Southland laid the foundation for a new feudalism. Southern society reverted to a type that the rest of the civilized world had outgrown.
The effect upon white labor was deplorable. The former bond-servants were now freedmen, it is true, but freedmen shorn of such opportunities as they were fitted to use. Sprung from a more or less degraded stock, still branded by caste, untrained to any career demanding skill and intelligence, devitalized by evil habits of life, densely ignorant of the world around them, these, the naturally shiftless, were now turned out into the backwoods to shift for themselves. It was inevitable that most of them should degenerate even below the level of their former estate, for they were no longer forced into steady industry.
The white freedmen generally became squatters on such land as was unfit for tobacco, cotton, and other crops profitable to slave-owners. As the plantations expanded, these freedmen were pushed further and further back upon more and more sterile soil. They became “pine-landers” or “piney-woods-people,” “sand-hillers,” “knob-people,” “corn-crackers” or “crackers,” gaining a bare subsistence from corn planted and “tended” chiefly by the women and children, from hogs running wild in the forest, and from desultory hunting and fishing. As a class, such whites lapsed into sloth and apathy. Even the institution of slavery they regarded with cynical tolerance, doubtless realizing that if it were not for the blacks they would be slaves themselves.
Now these poor whites had nothing to do with settling the mountains. There was then, and still is, plenty of wild land for them in their native lowlands. They had neither the initiative nor the courage to seek a promised land far away among the unexplored and savage peaks of the western country. They were a brave enough folk in facing familiar dangers, but they had a terror of the unknown, being densely ignorant and superstitious. The mountains, to those who ever heard of them, suggested nothing but laborious climbing amid mysterious and portentous perils. The poor whites were not highlanders by descent, nor had they a whit of the bold, self-reliant spirit of our western pioneers. They never entered Appalachia until after it had been won and settled by a far manlier race, and even then they went only in driblets. The theory that the southern mountains were peopled mainly by outcasts or refugees from old settlements in the lowlands rests on no other basis than imagination.
How the mountains actually were settled is another and a very different story. —
The first frontiersmen of the Appalachians were those Swiss and Palatine Germans who began flocking into Pennsylvania about 1682. They settled westward of the Quakers in the fertile limestone belts at the foot of the Blue Ridge and the Alleghanies. Here they formed the Quakers’ buffer against the Indians, and, for some time, theirs were the westernmost settlements of British subjects in America. These Germans were of the Reformed or Lutheran faith. They were strongly democratic in a social sense, and detested slavery. They were model farmers and many of them were skilled workmen at trades.
Shortly after the tide of German immigration set into Pennsylvania, another and quite different class of foreigners began to arrive in this province, attracted hither by the same lodestones that drew the Germans, namely, democratic institutions and religious liberty. These newcomers were the Scotch-Irish, or Ulstermen of Ireland.
When James I., in 1607, confiscated the estates of the native Irish in six counties of Ulster, he planted them with Scotch and English Presbyterians. These outsiders came to be known as Scotch-Irish, because they were chiefly of Scotch blood and had settled in Ireland. The native Irish, to whom they were alien both by blood and by religion, detested them as usurpers, and fought them many a bloody battle.
In time, as their leases in Ulster began to expire, the Scotch-Irish themselves came in conflict with the Crown, by whom they were persecuted and evicted. Then the Ulstermen began immigrating in large numbers to Pennsylvania. As Froude says, “In the two years that followed the Antrim evictions, thirty thousand Protestants left Ulster for a land where there was no legal robbery, and where those who sowed the seed could reap the harvest.”
So it was that these people became, in their turn, our westernmost frontiersmen, taking up land just outside the German settlements. Immediately they began to clash with the Indians, and there followed a long series of border wars, waged with extreme ferocity, in which sometimes it is hard to say which side was most to blame. One thing, however, is certain: if any race was ordained to exterminate the Indians that race was the Scotch-Irish.
They were a brave but hot-headed folk, as might be expected of a people who for a century had been planted amid hostile Hibernians. Justin Winsor describes them as having “all that excitable character which goes with a keen-minded adherence to original sin, total depravity, predestination, and election,” and as seeing “no use in an Indian but to be a target for their bullets.” They were quick-witted as well as quick-tempered, rather visionary, imperious, and aggressive.
Being by tradition and habit a border people the Scotch-Irish pushed to the extreme western fringe of settlement amid the Alleghanies. They were not over-solicitous about the quality of soil. When Arthur Lee, of Virginia, was telling Doctor Samuel Johnson, in London, of a colony of Scotch who had settled upon a particularly sterile tract in western Virginia, and had expressed his wonder that they should do so, Johnson replied, “Why, sir, all barrenness is comparative: the Scotch will never know that it is barren.”
West of the Susquehanna, however, the land was so rocky and poor that even the Scotch shied at it, and so, when eastern Pennsylvania became crowded, the overflow of settlers passed not westward but southwestward, along the Cumberland Valley, into western Maryland, and then into the Shenandoah and those other long, narrow, parallel valleys of western Virginia that we noted in our first chapter. This western region still lay unoccupied and scarcely known by the Virginians themselves. Its fertile lands were discovered by Pennsylvania Dutchmen. The first house in western Virginia was erected by one of them, Joist Hite, and he established a colony of his people near the future site of Winchester. A majority of those who settled in the eastern part of the Shenandoah Valley were Pennsylvania Dutch, while the Scotch-Irish, following in their train, pushed a little to the west of them and occupied more exposed positions. There were representatives of other races along the border: English, Irish, French Huguenots, and so on; but everywhere the Scotch-Irish and Germans predominated.
And the southwestward movement, once started, never stopped. So there went on a gradual but sure progress of northern peoples across the Potomac, up the Shenandoah, across the Staunton, the Dan, the Yadkin, until the western piedmont and foot-hill region of Carolina was similarly settled, chiefly by Pennsylvanians.
The archivist of North Carolina, the late William L. Saunders, Secretary of State, said in one of his historical sketches that “to Lancaster and York counties, in Pennsylvania, North Carolina owes more of her population than to any other known part of the world.” He called attention to the interesting fact that when the North Carolina boys of Scotch-Irish and Pennsylvania Dutch descent followed Lee into Pennsylvania in the Gettysburg campaign, they were returning to the homes of their ancestors, by precisely the same route that those ancestors had taken in going south.
Among those who made the long trek from Pennsylvania southward in the eighteenth century, were Daniel Boone and the ancestors of David Crockett, Samuel Houston, John C. Calhoun, “Stonewall” Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln. Boone and the Lincolns, although English themselves, had been neighbors in Berks County, one of the most German parts of all eastern Pennsylvania.
So the western piedmont and the mountains were settled neither by Cavaliers nor by poor whites, but by a radically distinct and even antagonistic people who are appropriately called the Roundheads of the South. These Roundheads had little or nothing to do with slavery, detested the state church, loathed tithes, and distrusted all authority save that of conspicuous merit and natural justice. The first characteristic that these pioneers developed was an intense individualism. The strong and even violent independence that made them forsake all the comforts of civilization and prefer the wild freedom of the border was fanned at times into turbulence and riot; but it blazed forth at a happy time for this country when our liberties were imperilled.
Daniel Boone first appears in history when, from his new home on the Yadkin, he crossed the Blue Ridge and the Unakas into that part of western Carolina which is now eastern Tennessee. He was exploring the Watauga region as early as 1760. Both British and French Indian traders and soldiers had been in this region before him, but had left few marks of their wanderings. In 1761 a party of hunters from Pennsylvania and contiguous counties of Virginia, piloted by Boone, began to use this region as a hunting-ground, on account of the great abundance of game. From them, and especially from Boone, the fame of its attractions spread to the settlements on the eastern slope of the mountains, and in the winter of 1768-69 the first permanent occupation of eastern Tennessee was made by a few families from North Carolina.
About this time there broke out in Carolina a struggle between the independent settlers of the piedmont and the rich trading and official class of the coast. The former rose in bodies under the name of Regulators and a battle followed in which they were defeated. To escape from the persecutions of the aristocracy, many of the Regulators and their friends crossed the Appalachian Mountains and built their cabins in the Watauga region. Here, in 1772, there was established by these “rebels” the first republic in America, based upon a written constitution “the first ever adopted by a community of American-born freemen.” Of these pioneers in “The Winning of the West,” Theodore Roosevelt says: “As in western Virginia the first settlers came, for the most part, from Pennsylvania, so, in turn, in what was then western North Carolina, and is now eastern Tennessee, the first settlers came mainly from Virginia, and indeed, in great part, from this same Pennsylvania stock.”
Boone first visited Kentucky, on a hunting trip, in 1769. Six years later he began to colonize it, in flat defiance of the British government, and in the face of a menacing proclamation from the royal governor of North Carolina. On the Kentucky River, three days after the battle of Lexington, the flag of the new colony of Transylvania was run up on his fort at Boonesborough. It was not until the following August that these “rebels of Kentuck” heard of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and celebrated it with shrill warwhoops around a bonfire in the center of their stockade.
Such was the stuff of which the Appalachian frontiersmen were made. They were the first Americans to cut loose entirely from the seaboard and fall back upon their own resources. They were the first to establish governments of their own, in defiance of king and aristocracy. Says John Fiske:
“Jefferson is often called the father of modern American democracy; in a certain sense the Shenandoah Valley and adjacent Appalachian regions may be called its cradle. In that rude frontier society, life assumed many new aspects, old customs were forgotten, old distinctions abolished, social equality acquired even more importance than unchecked individualism. The notions, sometimes crude and noxious, sometimes just and wholesome, which characterized Jeffersonian democracy, flourished greatly on the frontier and have thence been propagated eastward through the older communities, affecting their legislation and their politics more or less according to frequency of contact and intercourse. Massachusetts, relatively remote and relatively ancient, has been perhaps least affected by this group of ideas, but all parts of the United States have felt its influence powerfully. This phase of democracy, which is destined to continue so long as frontier life retains any importance, can nowhere be so well studied in its beginnings as among the Presbyterian population of the Appalachian region in the 18th century.”
During the Revolution, the Appalachian frontier was held by a double line of the men whom we have been considering: one line east of the mountains, and the other west of them. The mountain region itself remained almost uninhabited by whites, because the pioneers who crossed it were seeking better hunting grounds and farmsteads than the mountains afforded. It was not until the buffalo and elk and beaver had been driven out of Tennessee and Kentucky, and those rolling savannahs were being fenced and tilled, that much attention was given to the mountains proper. Then small companies of hunters and trappers from both east and west began to move into the highlands and settle there.
These explorers, pushing outward from the cross-mountain trails in every direction, found many interesting things that had been overlooked in the scurry of migration westward. They discovered fair river valleys and rich coves, adapted to tillage, which soon attracted settlers of a better class; and so, gradually, the mountain solitudes began to echo with the ring of axes and the lowing of herds. By 1830 about a million permanent settlers occupied the southern Appalachians. Naturally, most of them came from adjoining regions — from the foot of the Blue Ridge on one side and from the foot of the Unakas or of the Cumberlands on the other, and hence they were chiefly of the same frontier stock that we have been describing. No colonies of farmers from a distance ever have been imported into the mountains, down to our own day.
Deterioration of the mountain people began as soon as population began to press upon the limits of subsistence. At first, naturally, the best people among the mountaineers were attracted to the best lands. And there to-day, in the generous river valleys, we find a class of citizens superior to the average mountaineers that we have been considering in this book. But the number and extent of such valleys was narrowly limited. The United States topographers report that in Appalachia, as a whole, the mountain slopes occupy 90 per cent. of the total area, and that 85 per cent. of the land has a steeper slope than one foot in five. So, as the years passed, a larger and larger proportion of the highlanders was forced back along the creek branches and up along the steep hillsides to “scrabble” for a living.
It will be asked, Why did not this overplus do as other crowded Americans did: move west?
First, because they were so immured in the mountains, so utterly cut off from communication with the outer world, that they did not know anything about the opportunities offered new settlers in far-away lands. Moving “west” to them would have meant merely going a few days’ wagon-travel down into the lowlands of Kentucky or Tennessee, which already were thickly settled by a people of very different social class. Here they could not hope to be anything but tenants or menials, ruled over by proprietors or bosses — and they would die rather than endure such treatment. As for the new lands of the farther West, there was scarce a peasant in Ireland or in Scandinavia but knew more about them than did the southern mountaineers.
Second, because they were passionately attached to their homes and kindred, to their own old-fashioned ways. The mountaineer shrinks from lowland society as he does from the water and the climate of such regions. He is never at ease until back with his home-folks, foot-loose and free.
Third, because there was nothing in his environment to arouse ambition. The hard, hopeless life of the mountain farm, sustained only by a meager and ill-cooked diet, begat laziness and shiftless unconcern.
Finally, the poverty of the hillside farmers and branch-water people was so extreme that they could not gather funds to emigrate with. There were no industries to which a man might turn and earn ready money, no markets in which he could sell a surplus from the farm.
So, while the transmontane settlers grew rapidly in wealth and culture, their kinsfolk back in the mountains either stood still or retrograded, and the contrast was due not nearly so much to any difference of capacity as to a law of Nature that dooms an isolated and impoverished people to deterioration.
Beyond this, it is not to be overlooked that the mountains were cursed with a considerable incubus of naturally weak or depraved characters, not lowland “poor whites,” but a miscellaneous flotsam from all quarters, which, after more or less circling round and round, was drawn into the stagnant eddy of highland society as derelicts drift into the Sargasso Sea. In the train of western immigration there were some feeble souls who never got across the mountains. These have been described tersely as the men who lost heart on account of a broken axle.
The anemic element thus introduced is less noticeable in Kentucky than in Virginia and the States farther south — for the reason, no doubt, that it took at least two axles to reach Kentucky — but it exists in all parts of Appalachia. Moreover, the vast roughs of the mountain region offered harborage for outlaws, desperadoes of the border, and here many of them settled and propagated their kind. In the backwoods one cannot choose his neighbors. All are on equal footing. Hence the contagion of crime and shiftlessness spreads to decent families and tends to undermine them.
We can understand, then, how it happened in many cases that highland families founded by well-informed and thrifty pioneers deteriorated into illiterate and idle triflers, all run down at heels. Lincoln’s family is an apt illustration. His grandfather sold his Virginia farms for seventeen thousand dollars and bought large tracts of land in Kentucky. But Abraham Lincoln’s father set up housekeeping in a shed, later built a log hut of one room without doors or windows (although he was a carpenter by trade), then moved to another cabin a little better, tired of it, moved over into Indiana, and made his family spend the winter in a half-faced camp, where they were saved from freezing by keeping up a great log fire in front of the lean-to through days and nights when the temperature was far below zero. The Lincolns were not mountaineers, but they were of the same stock, and were subjected to much the same vicissitudes.
So the southern highlanders languished in isolation, sunk in a Rip Van Winkle sleep, until aroused by the thunder-crash of the Civil War. Let John Fox tell the extraordinary result of that awakening. —
“The American mountaineer was discovered, I say, at the beginning of the war, when the Confederate leaders were counting on the presumption that Mason and Dixon’s Line was the dividing line between the North and South, and formed, therefore, the plan of marching an army from Wheeling, in West Virginia, to some point on the Lakes, and thus dissevering the North at one blow.
“The plan seemed so feasible that it is said to have materially aided the sale of Confederate bonds in England. But when Captain Garnett, a West Point graduate, started to carry it out, he got no farther than Harper’s Ferry. When he struck the mountains, he struck enemies who shot at his men from ambush, cut down bridges before him, carried the news of his march to the Federals, and Garnett himself fell with a bullet from a mountaineer’s squirrel rifle at Harper’s Ferry.
“Then the South began to realize what a long, lean, powerful arm of the Union it was that the southern mountaineer stretched through its very vitals; for that arm helped hold Kentucky in the Union by giving preponderance to the Union sympathizers in the Blue-grass; it kept the east Tennesseans loyal to the man; it made West Virginia, as the phrase goes, ‘secede from secession’; it drew out a horde of one hundred thousand volunteers, when Lincoln called for troops, depleting Jackson County, Kentucky, for instance, of every male under sixty years of age and over fifteen; and it raised a hostile barrier between the armies of the coast and the armies of the Mississippi. The North has never realized, perhaps, what it owes for its victory to this non-slaveholding southern mountaineer.”
President Frost, of Berea College, says:
“The loyalty of this region in the Civil War was a surprise to both northern and southern statesmen. The mountain people owned land but did not own slaves, and the national feeling of the revolutionary period had not spent its force among them. Their services in West Virginia and east Tennessee are perhaps generally known. But very few know or remember that the whole mountain region was loyal [except where conscripted]. General Carl Schurz had soldiers enlisted in the mountains of Alabama, and the writer has recently seen a letter written by the Confederate Governor of South Carolina in which he relates to General Hardee the troubles caused by Union sentiment in the mountain counties.
“It is pathetic to know how these mountain regiments disbanded with no poet or historian or monument to perpetuate the memory of their valor. The very flag that was first on Lookout Mountain and ‘waved above the clouds’ was lost to fame in an obscure mountain home until Berea discovered and rescued it from oblivion and destruction.”
It may be added that no other part of our country suffered longer or more severely from the aftermath of war. Throughout that struggle the mountain region was a nest for bushwhackers and bandits that preyed upon the aged and defenseless who were left at home, and thus there was left an evil legacy of neighborhood wrongs and private grudges. Most of the mountain counties had incurred the bitter hostility of their own States by standing loyal to the Union. After Appomattox they were cast back into a worse isolation than they had ever known. Most unfortunately, too, the Federal Government, at this juncture, instead of interposing to restore law and order in the highlands, turned the loyalty of the mountaineers into outlawry, as in 1794, by imposing a prohibitive excise tax upon their chief merchantable commodity.
Left, then, to their own devices, unchecked by any stronger arm, inflamed by a multitude of personal wrongs, habituated to the shedding of human blood, contemptuous of State laws that did not reach them, enraged by Federal acts that impugned, as they thought, an inalienable right of man, it was inevitable that this fiery and vindictive race should fall speedily into warring among themselves. Old scores were now to be wiped out in a reign of terror. The open combat of bannered war was turned into the secret ferocity of family feuds.
But the mountaineers of to-day are face to face with a mighty change. The feud epoch has ceased throughout the greater part of Appalachia. A new era dawns. Everywhere the highways of civilization are pushing into remote mountain fastnesses. Vast enterprises are being installed. The timber and the minerals are being garnered. The mighty waterpower that has been running to waste since these mountains rose from the primal sea is now about to be harnessed in the service of man. Along with this economic revolution will come, inevitably, good schools, newspapers, a finer and more liberal social life. The highlander, at last, is to be caught up in the current of human progress.