The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Appalachian America

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The Encyclopedia Americana
Appalachian America
Edition of 1920. See also Appalachia on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

APPALACHIAN AMERICA, a term used to designate the southeastern mountain region of the United States. This territory has a certain sociological unity, based on physical conditions, which was long obscured by the fact that it was parceled out among several different States.

Physiographically it is a mountainous territory without arms of the sea, inland lakes or other national waterways; and furthermore it is a territory which forbids canals. Its universal characteristics are difficulty of communication, isolation and remoteness. These conditions were less severe, and were largely overcome by greater commercial and intellectual activity in the portions of the Appalachian system which lay in the northern free States. Accordingly, as a sociological grand division, Appalachian America begins with the southern boundary of Pennsylvania and the Ohio River, and embraces the mountainous portions of the Virginias and Carolinas, Kentucky and Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. In this vast area, which is all a land of saddles and bad roads, there are, of course, great varieties of elevation and climate from the “dissected plateaus” of Kentucky to “the land of the sky” in North Carolina. Descriptions of the geological formations, minerals, forests and other resources, and physiographic conditions appear under the several States. But the one great fact about the whole territory is that it condemns its inhabitants to the ills of isolation.

Historically Appalachian America received its first sparse settlements about the time of the Revolutionary War. A great tide of migration passed through it and around it to the west, and the valley land was occupied by hardy settlers. It was these who fought the battle of King's Mountain, and in the War of 1812 riflemen from the mountains gave material assistance in defeating the British at New Orleans. When the slave power developed in the South subsequent to the Revolution, Appalachian America, retaining its revolutionary spirit of liberty, came to be looked upon with hostility by its Southern neighbors. Slavery was never common in the mountains, and the scorn of the slaveholders for those who did not hold slaves was heartily returned by the mountaineers. Thus social barriers were added to the barriers of nature and the mountain people still further isolated from the world. In the Civil War, however, they emerged from their obscurity and surprised both the North and the South by their vigorous and effective stand for “union and liberty.” They held Kentucky in the Union, made West Virginia “secede from secession,” well-nigh divided Tennessee, and furnished recruits to the loyal armies even from Alabama and South Carolina. Many of these recruits were not enrolled as coming from these States, but the regular regiments enlisted from slave States, nearly all from the mountains, aggregated about 200,000 men. The sufferings of the loyal people throughout the mountains, and especially in East Tennessee, and the eloquence of “Parson Brownlow,” for the time fixed the attention of the nation. Naturally the mountaineers have since the war followed the fortunes of the Republican party.

Sociologically Appalachian America reveals most interesting survivals of the spirit, arts and conditions of colonial times. Within its area are many valleys and villages which differ from other parts of the United States only in superficial matters like the greater number of saddle horses and the more free hospitality. But there is an immense population (commonly estimated at 2,000,000) which has been little affected by modern ideas. The stock is mainly British, representing rural England and the Scotch-Irish, though with traces of the Huguenot and the German. A large number of Washington's soldiers settled in the valley land of Appalachian America, and there is no evidence that the pioneers of the mountain region were in any way inferior to the first settlers in the more favored “blue grass sections.” The early settlers had the education of their time, which lessened in succeeding generations. The conditions of life grew harder when the valley land and game were exhausted, and the public school did not come in until the “reconstruction period.” As a result, a great part of all the native-born illiterates in the United States — many of them people of good character and good abilities — are in this region. In some counties the illiterate white voters exceed a third of the whole number. It is among these people that we find a survival of pioneer conditions — the woodcraft, the log cabin, the open fireplace — with a noble stone chimney in Kentucky, degenerating into a stick and mud chimney farther south. The arts of spinning, dyeing and weaving are still found, together with a wealth of Saxon speech, and even old British ballads which have come down by oral tradition. Survivals in language consist of ancient pronunciations and constructions, and the persistence of words and meanings elsewhere obsolete; as “pack” for carry, “gorm” meaning to muss, etc. A kind of minstrelsy still exists among the ruder classes, so that we may find drinking songs and folk-lore still in the making. Preachers are few and poorly paid, and religion is of a mediæval and fatalistic type. The feuds and homicides which attract so much attention belong with these other survivals. Weapons are carried to some extent in all parts of the South, because men retain the Elizabethan idea that while the government protects the land from foreign foes, each man is to protect his private honor and interests with his own right arm. In the mountains this view is more plausible because the law is not always carried out with the certainty and majesty which could inspire either confidence or dread. Considering these adverse conditions of life, the general good order and morality of the mountains is very creditable. A woman or a stranger who behaves properly is always safe. The chief disorders arise from corrupt political leaders and the whisky bottle, and the mountain people have taken the first great step of progress in very generally enacting local option laws which prohibit the sale of intoxicants. Yet the “moonshine still” — the secret manufacture of spirits on which no tax is paid — survives in many places, and makes Christmas or election time a terror to the mothers of mountain boys.

A most striking characteristic is the absence of any foreign element in the population. The 35 mountain counties of Kentucky, for example, contain about 480,000 people, with only 2,000 or 3,000 who are of foreign birth, and these massed in a few counties where mines or lumber interests have been recently established. There are 15 counties each containing less than 10 persons of foreign birth. The massing of so great a population of purely American birth and breeding is very significant. And these people who owned land but did not own slaves (never to be confused with the “poor whites”) constitute the true yeomanry of the South, its best nucleus for a true middle class. Large families are the rule, and the standard of physical development is high. With this large birth-rate the mountain region is approaching the limit of population and must either improve the means of subsistence or emigrate. Both movements have begun. In time the mineral wealth will bring railroads to a larger extent, and if proper educational guidance is furnished Appalachian America will become what Scotland is in Great Britain, a storehouse of national vigor and patriotism.

Printed information regarding Appalachian America is fragmentary and partial. Chas. Dudley Warner reported a charming tour ‘On Horseback Through Virginia’ and important notices occur in Fisk's ‘Old Virginia and Her Neighbors,’ Roosevelt's ‘Winning of the West,’ and Draper's ‘King's Mountain and Its Heroes.’ The spirit of war times is reproduced in Barton's ‘Hero in Homespun,’ and the general characteristics of mountain life appear in the tales of John Fox, Jr., and Mary N. Murfree (“Charles Egbert Craddock”).