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Romantic Idealism Dies Hard:

Challenging Scholarly Mythology about Southern Appalachia


Wilma A. Dunaway

School of Public & International Affairs

Virginia Tech

Blacksburg, VA 24060-0113


Links to Maps and Illustrations:

 Map  Where is Southern Appalachia?   Map  Appalachian Transportation Networks

Illustrations Women's work and community roles

When I was a young college undergraduate, I was taught that Southern mountaineers had lived in crippling isolation from the rest of the nation since the arrival of the first European immigrants. As late as 1982, one well-known regional scholar claimed that Appalachians have been marooned on an island of hills and shut off from the forces that have shaped the modern world. In public policy, Southern Appalachia is often portrayed as a region that is backward, lacking development, and severely limited in its economic possibilities. The Appalachian Regional Commission still points to geographical isolation and cultural peculiarities as the underlying causes of Appalachian poverty.

When I published my first book in 1996, most policy makers, tourism development agencies, and many regional scholars were still clinging to 5 myths about Southern Appalachia.

1. The first myth is the notion that Appalachia was isolated from the rest of the country and failed to develop because of its difficult terrain. This stereotype reduces this complex region to the image of impenetrable rugged mountains and rural countryside without towns or transportation networks. This myth blames Appalachians for being poor, claiming that they have been historically trapped in a precapitalist folk society that caused this region to develop in a fashion that is very different from the rest of the country. In short, Appalachians are poor because they just haven= t been capitalist enough and because they are just A hillbillies@ who are just too stupid and too lazy to progress. The Appalachian Regional Commission and the National Park Service continue to portray Southern Appalachians as precapitalist and economically backward until the region was A discovered@ by external investors who developed extractive industries and manufacturing after the Civil War.

2. The second myth is that Southern Appalachians began as a homogenous Scotch-Irish population. Not only does this stereotype ignore the existence of numerous European ethnic groups, but it also denies the presence of Native Americans and African Americans.

3. The third myth is that the region has been characterized by an egalitarian economic structure in which there were few wealth or class differences, and most households owned land. This image reduces all Appalachians to the stereotype of a non-prosperous, struggling male engaged in subsistence farming in rugged terrain.

4. The fourth myth offers us a stereotype of house-bound Appalachian women who had no public lives and were not economically productive.

5. The fifth myth claims that Appalachia existed outside the reach of the Southern slave economy and that most Appalachians were opposed to slavery. For discussion of this myth, click here.

Even as a student, I knew that I couldn= t find out there in Appalachia any real people who fit the biased and erroneous myths about which I was tested as a college undergraduate. I was born into an interracial family in segregated east Tennessee in the 1940s, the daughter of an Irish mother and a Cherokee father who lived their lives in violation of segregation laws that stretched into the 1960s. Surrounding us were neighbors who were poor and middle class whites, Cherokees, the descendants of slaves, and other ethnically-mixed families. Given the numbers of my neighbors who did not fit the mythological stereotypes, I had reason to wonder why my required college readings painted Appalachia as both white and egalitarian.

This was my first experience at learning that a majority of Appalachians have been "peoples excluded from formal history" and "cultures without authenticity." Americans are fascinated by the stereotype of a backward white male "hillbilly" who ekes out his subsistence while the rest of the world passes him by. Such a vacuous cartoon image belies the economic, cultural and ethnic diversity of the region. Today, I will examine each of these myths against the backdrop of the historical research I have done over the last two decades.

Isolation and Backwardness

Perhaps the myth that is taking the longest to die is the notion that 19th century Southern Appalachia was an economically-backward folk society that was cut off from the rest of the country. The National Park Service and most state tourist exhibits depict the region as a self-contained farm economy in which neighbors in small communities bartered domestic produce and work skills and never became integrated into external trade networks. In this scenario, it was the isolation of this closed society which led to a high rate of poverty. This map makes it clear that Southern Appalachia lies at the geographical heart of the country, and that it is not isolated far from the mainstream. Indeed, the Appalachian counties of Maryland, Virginia, and northern West Virginia lie very close to the nation= s capital. Let me also address the misunderstanding that 18th and 19th century Appalachia was locked in isolation because of its rugged mountains. In reality, most of the land area of Southern Appalachia consists of valleys with adjacent ridges and of rolling hills interspersed with plateaus. Only about 20% of the total land area of Southern Appalachia consists of mountains, and those mountains have never been impenetrable. On average, there is a gap between mountains about every 8 to 10 miles, and those gaps became significant travel linkages. For example, Thomas Jefferson wrote about the importance of Rockfish Gap to those who were moving toward the Ohio River from the northern counties of Appalachian Virginia. Further South, 18th century immigrants flowed into Kentucky through Cumberland Gap. In addition to those gaps, this vast region is crisscrossed with several rivers and tributaries over which goods and people flowed since before the arrival of Europeans. In short, we need to overcome the unrealistic stereotype that Appalachia was so rugged and so isolated that its terrain prevented the migration of people and the flow of trade goods.

In sharp contrast to the popular stereotype of Appalachian isolation, I contend that participation in the world-economy and in the national economy has been the underlying structural cause of this region's historical maldevelopment. Indeed, it is not isolation that has caused poverty here or elsewhere. Poverty in peripheries of world capitalism, like Appalachia, is caused by the manner in which wealth and resources are drained from those regions to subsidize economic growth in richer areas.

Since the 16th century, Southern Appalachia has never been isolated from the world. If Appalachia were so geographically impossible to navigate, the Spanish could not have explored these mountains in the 1500s in search of gold. If this region were so isolated, European colonists would not have been able to conduct so many geological surveys to search for Appalachian mineral wealth in the early 1700s. Beginning in the 18th century, Southern Appalachia was incorporated into the capitalist world-system as an exploited periphery whose natural resources, agricultural crops, foods, minerals, and surplus workers were targeted to fuel economic growth in other parts of the United States and in other parts of the world. That process of surplus drain explains whyB in every historical eraB the highest degree of poverty lies in those Appalachian counties that export valuable mineral wealth. In the 19th century, the highest incidence of poverty occurred in those counties that were exploiting gold, manganese, iron and lead. Today, those counties that export valuable coal exhibit higher rates of poverty than the national average.

This map illustrates the major transportation networks that linked 19th century Appalachia to the rest of the country. Because of its geographic location and its abundance of rivers, valleys and mountain gaps, Southern Appalachia lay at the very heart of 19th century national and regional flows of trade goods, tourists, migrants, religious sects, and slaves.

There are several historical indicators of the degree to which Southern Appalachia was neither isolated nor precapitalist.

  1. First, this region underwent several phases of ethnic and racial change, as a diverse array of European ethnic groups and African slaves migrated to and from the region.
  2. Second, this region had transportation systems equal to the rural Northeast, but better than the Midwest. In addition to several navigable rivers that connect to the Tennessee, Ohio, and Mississippi River systems, Southern Appalachia was sprinkled with numerous small towns and larger regional trade hubs (like Staunton, Winchester, Wheeling and Knoxville) that integrated the region into national and international flows of commodities to and from distant cities.
  3. As this map shows, Southern Appalachia was geographically situated at the heart of the eastern seaboard. Because of its strategic location, this region exported a diverse assortment of agricultural and industrial commodities to the Lower South and to the Northeast, and it imported consumer goods (like tea and coffee) from all over the world. This region was a major antebellum exporter of timber and valuable metals, such as copper, lead, coal, manganese, and salt. Southern Appalachia was the site of the country= s first gold rush and the first US mint. Moreover, the Lower South cotton economy, Caribbean plantations, and the industrial northeast depended upon exports from this region to fuel their economic growth. For that reason, Appalachians sent to distant markets vast amounts of mineral wealth, tobacco, wheat, corn, and foodstuffs. And they annually drove thousands of cattle, hogs, horses and poultry to the Lower South, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati.
  4. Fourth, Southern Appalachia was home to 134 hot spring resorts that attracted tourists from all over the world and were some of the largest capitalist enterprises in existence in the 19th century.
  5. Fifth, this region attracted external and foreign investments into industrial and commercial enterprises. By 1860, manufacturing and extractive industries were active in nearly 2/3 of Appalachian counties, and most of those enterprises were funded by external investors.
  6. A sixth indicator that Appalachia was not isolated from the rest of the country is the reality that this region attracted the same religious denominations as the rest of the country. By 1850, the Baptists and Methodists were the predominant religious denominations in Southern Appalachia, just as they were in the rest of the US. Archival church records and personal histories of ministers document the frequency with which missionaries, clerics and circuit riders traveled throughout the region, even during the early frontier years.
  7. And then there is this question. If this region was cut off from the national mainstream to the degree this myth claims, why do elite archival documents and working class oral histories indicate that these folks thought of themselves as Americans and as citizens of the states in which their counties were bound? Why did other Americans elect Presidents from this region, and why were there so many famous Appalachian Congressmen before the Civil War?

Are Southern Appalachians the homogeneous racial grouping they are stereotyped to be?

A second popular stereotype is the claim that Appalachians were predominantly Scotch-Irish. The early 20th century rewriting of Appalachian ethnic history was two-pronged. First, nonwhites were silenced and made invisible in regional history. Second, the ethnic diversity of white Appalachians was reduced to a single Celtic identity that was stigmatized. In the 1870s, Appalachians were described by scholars as a A mutant race@ that varied from the A American norm@ of Anglo-Saxon racial superiority because they possessed a genetically-grounded character and culture rooted in the A racial stock@ of early Scotch-Irish, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh settlers. Despite their continuing popularity, such ideas obliterate the history of a majority of the ethnic and racial groups that have peopled the region= s past.

In reality, antebellum Southern Appalachia was a reflection of the ethnic diversity and conflict which characterized transnational migration to the New World. On the one hand, this region was racially diverse. In the 18th century, Cherokees and other Indians far outnumbered the white settlers on Appalachian frontiers. By 1790, Indians had shrunk to 4 % of the population, African-Americans comprised 11%, and Euroamericans were in the majority. On the other hand, white Appalachians lacked a shared culture because they originated from a wide array of ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds. In 1790, the Scotch-Irish accounted for no more than 10 to 20% of the population in any Appalachian subsection. English migrants probably always outnumbered the Scotch-Irish, but there were also large numbers of Welsh and Irish migrants. Germans were the largest non-English group in Southern Appalachia, and they were scattered in varying numbers all over the region. In 1790, one of every four white Appalachians living in Maryland and Virginia was a German, as were 12% of the western North Carolina and east Tennessee populations.

Between 1790 and 1860, communities were a changing kaleidoscope of migrating racial and ethnic groups, and Appalachians were deeply divided by racial, ethnic and religious differences. Not only did white settlers exhibit racial intolerance toward Indians and African-Americans. They also despised members of European ethnic groups different from their own. Rather than being an idyllic frontier of equality, pre-Civil War Southern Appalachia was characterized by rancorous, open conflicts between whites and nonwhites and among European ethnic groups. Archival sources are filled with instances of racial hatred among whites. The English discriminated against the Irish, the Welsh, the Scots, and the Germans. The Scotch-Irish despised the Welsh, the Scots, the English, and the Germans. The Presbyterians struggled against the Baptists and the Methodists, and all these denominations oppressed religious minorities like the Quakers or the Mennonites who opposed slavery. And they all singled out Irish Catholics and Jews for aggression. In short, it is far more accurate to think of antebellum Appalachia as the mirror image of the ethnic and racial conflict and discrimination that characterized the entire country, as new waves of immigrants flowed in from Europe after the Revolutionary War.

Were Appalachians the egalitarian land owners they have been idealized to be?

The third myth that I have attacked is the notion that there was little or no class diversity among Appalachians. In the 1920s, writers believed that Appalachian land was cheap and easy to acquire and that the vast majority of people had become landowners. As late as the 1980s, regional scholars were still claiming that land resources were abundant and equally divided, making it possible for most mountaineers to own land. All these writers ignored historical information that is very easy to locate. First, land was never easy for migrants to acquire. Appalachia is the only region of the United States in which there was never a federal public land program. Missing from the textbook history of the beginning of the country is analysis of the unique way in which the 13 original colonies treated the Appalachian lands that lay at their western frontiers. As they built their state treasuries after the Revolutionary War, NC, VA, MD, PA and NY sold off their western mountain territories to private speculators. On the one hand, such speculation placed a majority of Appalachian lands into the hands of absentee owners as early as the 1790s. On the other hand, poor immigrants flowing into these areas had no access to cheap public lands, as did migrants into sections of the country that lay further west.

As a result of these practices, 2/3 to 3/4 of the land in Southern Appalachia was owned by absentee speculators throughout the antebellum period, and those investors held on to these lands expecting to get rich through future sale of their mineral wealth or through their resale value to migrants. Little wonder, then, that 60% or more of the white settlers arriving on Appalachian frontiers remained landless and desperately poor. Throughout the antebellum period, 2 or more of the free population of Appalachia remained landless. I have found it easy to locate archival documents and oral histories that describe how families remained tied to the same large landowners generation after generation, trapped into exploitative systems of sharecropping and tenancy. Rather than being an idyllic region of small farm owners, white Appalachians were deeply divided into 3 broad economic groupings: (1) a small wealthy elite that inequitably shaped politics and local economies, (2) the prosperous middle classes of farm owners and town entrepreneurs who comprised nearly 40% of the households, and (3) the majority of landless poor laboring households.

Appalachian Civil War veterans document the vast gulf between these social classes. According to these men, the prosperous elite and middle-class families made it impossible for poor men to purchase small farms over time on credit. Those who were poor had almost no opportunities to rise to a higher status. Annual incomes of these landless laborers averaged $100 or less, and they were rarely paid in cash that might help them buy land or fund an education. Few of them owned their own farms or homes. Most poor whites lived in tiny cabins on sharecropping parcels, and their housing was no better than the dwellings supplied for local slaves. Annual county tax lists show that these poor households were in constant motion. They almost never stayed in the same county longer than 2-3 years because they repeatedly relocated to seek land or employment opportunities or to escape imprisonment for unpaid debts. Most of these households were chronically hungry, and mothers watched half or more of their children die from malnutrition and hard labor. On the eve of the Civil War, the average life expectancy of a poor white Appalachian male was less than 30 years.

Prosperous Appalachians enjoyed a very different lifestyle. In the minds of the landholders, a man who was poor was deficient in character and lacked an adequate supply of genetic endowments that made him truly white. According to one wealthy elite, his neighbors brought poverty upon themselves A by being too lazy to work and too thriftless to save.@ Through such attitudes, prosperous Appalachians reflected the anti-poor mythology that dominated the country in the antebellum period.

The trends toward poverty that would come to characterize Southern Appalachia in the 20th century were already in place by 1860. Even though the region was deeply embedded in external trade, that economic activity did not disperse wealth to the poorer segments of the population. In fact, external trade served to make prosperous households wealthier and to expand absentee control over local lands. In 1860, the richest 10% of Appalachians controlled nearly 3/4 of the region= s land and wealth while less than half of all households owned a farm, a town lot or a small enterprise. In 1860, Appalachian farm operators were 5 times more likely to be landless than northern farmers. Appalachian towns were filled with landless poor white and free black workers who could almost never find stable jobs that paid them cash wages. Because slaveholders opposed free public education, Appalachians were twice as likely to be illiterate as other Americans. At the time that Southern Appalachians entered the Civil War, their region exhibited all the structural problems that would characterize poor countries in the 20th century. While the region= s mineral wealth and agricultural outputs fueled the growth of other parts of the country and the world, a majority of Southern Appalachians remained poor, living in precarious circumstances.

Were Appalachian women the housebound drudges they have been depicted to be?

Click here for illustrations of women's work and community roles.

The fourth myth that I have attacked is the notion that Appalachian women were housebound drudges who bore such large numbers of children that they never worked outside their homes and rarely went to town. From the 1890s through the 1980s, yellow journalists and policymakers have reduced the lives of Appalachian women to that of illiterate white mountain matriarchs who are powerless victims of toil, of sexual promiscuity, and of a backward culture. Since 1980, only a few regional writers have mentioned women at all. Thus, most regional scholars and teachers still expound the stereotype that women= s roles were confined to home-bound wife and mother. In 1989, the regionally esteemed Weatherford Award was given to Albion= s Seed. That book makes the Social Darwinist claim that Appalachian women could never overcome their poverty because they inherited the corrupted genes of racial throwbacks who settled the region= s frontiers. In a period when so many feminist writers are questioning such stereotypes, the recent Encyclopedia of Appalachia reduces the region= s women to a homogenous rural white group who are confined in patriarchal homes where their singular role is to dispense A loving nurture to husbands and children.@

In order to move beyond such stereotypes, we must first recognize that there are sharp racial, ethnic, and class divisions among 19th century Appalachian women. For example, white females were so deeply divided that they rarely socialized outside their own ethnic, religious, or class groupings, not even in churches. To avoid reducing women to a fictitious caricature, we must examine and compare the lives of Cherokee, free black, and enslaved females, in addition to our exploration of white womenB with all their ethnic, religious, and class differences. By doing that, I found several patterns that challenge regional mythology. In reality, a majority of Appalachian women worked at agricultural and nonagricultural labor outside their homes. A majority of women routinely worked in the fields and at back-breaking labor that Southern elites termed A men= s work.@ Only the most prosperous Appalachian women whose households could afford slaves or servants could enjoy the idyllic housebound existence captured in the mythology. Most women earned income through market sales and through waged employment, and they engaged in many home-based artisan crafts that brought significant resources and income into their homes, as this table shows. According to the 1840 census, Appalachian females wove in their homes nearly 7.5 million yards of cloth valued at nearly $4 million, and they sold or traded more than half their output. In fact, white and free black women marketed 59 cents worth of household outputs to every dollar= s worth of regional manufactured goods.

By comparing poor white, Indian and black women, I discovered much common ground in how they confronted their daily lives. These women lived in similar cabins, struggled against similar degrees of hunger and malnutrition, and battled legal systems that threatened to remove their children. All these females regularly worked alongside men in racially-mixed labor forces on farms and in factories, and they were entering every line of nonagricultural work by 1850. When I examined the oral histories of women and Civil War veterans, I found evidence that white and free black mothers were idealized and respected by their family members when they engaged in hard labor outside the home or on the farm. These women were not just drudges or victims. Without any pressure from males, they did whatever labor was necessary to provision their households, and they did not succumb to local cultural stigma about income-producing work away from their homes. Even middle-class wives and daughters engaged in market-oriented labors, including the operation of small businesses.

Through examination of archival documents and personal narratives, it is also possible to assess the degree to which women engaged in resistance against patriarchy and oppression. In order to work for income, poor white women routinely violated local cultural and legal standards, risking the loss of their children to courts and Poor Houses.

Enslaved women engaged in numerous forms of resistance to protect family members from being sold or from being punished. The region= s slave women were whipped just as frequently as black males, and these females were most often brutalized because they had resisted sexual exploitation or had interfered to protect family members. Cherokee women were no less A uppidity.@ When the Cherokee National Council --controlled by rich slaveholding mestizo elitesB passed legislation to end traditional female political rights, women initiated covert and public resistance that spanned 30 years. In that period, women successfully prevented white missionaries and the National Council from replacing the Cherokee language with English, and they refused to abandon their traditional field work, as the US civilizational program demanded. Church journals are filled with accounts of A barbaric@ Cherokee women who engaged in public protest during church services in which white missionaries called for an end to women= s traditional work roles and an end to the matriarchal families that typified Cherokee communities.


Think about how these myths silence the historical economic contributions of Appalachia to the development and growth of the United States. Consider how these stereotypes demean and insult the lives of all Appalachian peoples. Obviously, such popular mythology has become a destructive burden to the region, especially since public policy makers ground their so-called problem solutions in these assumptions about Appalachians. We need to replace these stereotypes with a better understanding of the ways in which this region has been acted upon and has been an actor in the global economy for 300 years. This region was incorporated into the capitalist world-system through the integration of indigenous Appalachians into the 18th century international trade in deerskins and Indian slaves. Subsequently, white Appalachia was born capitalist. Euroamerican migrants and Black slaves came to these mountains from that global economy, bringing with them cultures in which most Appalachians locate their family roots. Global demands for food crops, livestock, timber, tourist resorts, and mineral ores triggered the types of economic activities that emerged in antebellum Southern Appalachia. And that external trade generated environmental devastation as early as the 18th century and throughout the antebellum period. We cannot hope to understand why this region has developed the way it has until we put these mountains into their global context. All over the world, capitalists have developed and exploited mountains in similar ways, and there is much we can learn from those comparisons.

Appalachia did not develop in an isolated vacuum, far from civilizationB like the regional mythology claims. Appalachia is a product of the capitalist world-system, and its communities have always had to struggle to survive the crises caused by the world-economy. Appalachian communities did not autonomously structure their roles in 19th century global capitalism, and those communities are not determining their positions in today's world market. Modern capitalists are now restructuring the global economy again. Multinational corporations have downsized labor forces in the US, so that 3/4 of American manufacturing jobs have been relocated to other countries. In a repetition of earlier history, factories are closing, jobs are disappearing, and small Appalachian communities are facing extinction.

Such has been this region's cyclical economic history. By 1860, Southern Appalachia was economically stagnant because the region exported agricultural produce and mineral ores that were over-supplied in global markets. Today, Appalachia is redundant again in the world-economy. So the region has a surplus of unemployed workers, and it is producing fewer and fewer commodities that are in demand on the world market. We can be better prepared to face the region= s troubled future if we throw regional mythology into the trash and understand better the empirical history of Appalachia. On the one hand, we demean ourselves and our past every time we verbalize these myths as our own descriptions of what it means to be Appalachian. On the other hand, we are ill-equipped to face the future if we never comprehend the global structural causes for this region= s problems because we are blinded by mythology. We are also ill equipped to confront future problems if we continue to think of that which is Appalachian as being somewhere else, somebody else. Whether we have deep roots in this region or moved here recently, we are all vested in its future because we live and work here. There are now 13.3 million poor people in Appalachia, and these numbers have been increasing since 2006.

For discussion of Myth 5 about slavery, click here.