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by Wilma A. Dunaway

This is a copyrighted document from the electronic archive for Wilma A. Dunaway. Women, Work and Family in the Antebellum Mountain South (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

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One of the most popular stereotypes of Appalachians is the claim that they were historically characterized by "a homogeneity of ethical and ethnical character" because they were descended from pioneers who were "prevailingly Scotch-Irish in descent." Supposedly, the ruggedness of mountain terrain prevented diversification of the settler population, thereby preserving an "outmoded" folk society which remained "asleep culturally" after the Revolutionary War. As Pat Beaver has observed, "mythologized conventions of a static and homogeneous (white) society have dominated the literature on the southern Appalachian region." Despite their continuing popularity, such ideas silence the history of a majority of the ethnic and racial groups that have peopled the region's past (see Table 1), and such explanations are called into question by social scientific analyses of the processes of ethnic identity formation and change. On the one hand, such notions ignore the black slaves who were present from the eighteenth century, and they conceal the bloody conflict of Euroamerican settlers with indigenous Appalachians. On the other hand, such narrow descriptors obliterate the ethnic origins of numerous European emigrant groups (see Table 2). In reality, the entry and exodus of antagonistic Euroamerican ethnic groups, indigenous resistance to their land expropriation, and settler ownership of black slaves would have made it impossible for a singular unchanging white Appalachian ethnic identity to emerge and to persist. Belying popular homogeneity and isolation theses, Euroamerican and African-American populations exploded between 1790 and 1820, threatening the persistence of indigenous Appalachians. These new arrivals lacked a shared culture because they originated from a wide array of ethnic and racial backgrounds. How, then, did the mythology about a backward, homogeneous group of Appalachians get so deeply entrenched in the national popular culture and in scholarly thinking? To answer that question we must turn the clock back to the end of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth century. (1)

Social Darwinism and the Origins of Ethnic and Racial Mythology

The discovery of a "Strange Land and Peculiar People" was announced by Lippincott's Magazine in 1873, initiating a century of literary and policy discourse on Appalachia that would be haunted by the ghosts of social Darwinism. In the late nineteenth century, external and internal change agents popularized bigoted caricatures of white Appalachians. In this same historical era, that regional "Otherizing" paralleled attempts to assign to nonwhite Americans inferior character, as well as social and cultural flaws, that were supposedly predetermined by "racial blood lines." According to Shapiro, it was:

almost inevitable that the language and concepts of "social Darwinism" and popular genetic theory should be utilized in discussions of the mountaineers defined as a discrete group within the American population, and that the contemporary fascination with ethnic or racial distinctions should play a role in the redefinition of the mountaineers as a distinct people.

The finger was pointed at an "uncivilized" backward frontier culture that had purportedly been preserved by self-isolating Appalachians. Moreover, that faulty root culture had been constructed and preserved by a unique "ethnic type" that varied in its characteristics from acceptable indicators of "Anglo-Saxon whiteness." (2)

The postbellum fascination with Appalachians coincided with the construction of legal apartheid in the Jim Crow South where race was defined in terms of presence or absence of "blood ties" to a nonwhite. This was the era in which the dogma of "Anglo-Saxon Protestant racial superiority" was at its highest pinnacle, and white supremacy groups, like the Ku Klux Klan, recruited their largest memberships and enjoyed their strongest political influence all over the country. In terms of minority deaths and assaults, the period from 1880 to the 1920s was the most racially-violent period in the country's history. While local color writers, academics, and church groups were honing their new repertoire of Appalachian stereotypes, nationally there was a public frenzy of lynchings and jail house riots which targeted nonwhites for violence organized by middle-class whites. The racial ideology of this period was cloaked in the respectability of social Darwinism, a short-term intellectual fad popularized by Yale professor William Graham Sumner. As Hofstadter has observed, "the Darwinian mood sustained the belief in Anglo-Saxon racial superiority which obsessed many thinkers in the latter half of the nineteenth century." What, then, were the tenets of that pseudo-science?

  • Americans were supposedly descended from the same white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (primarily English) origins, and that cultural past was the source of U.S. civilization and progress.
  • The standards of a mythologized "Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture" were posited as the "norm," and any deviation was deemed evidence of a "lower type" who was not truly Anglo-Saxon.
  • If one were not an Anglo-Saxon Protestant, one was not "truly white," but an "ethnic mongrel" or a nonwhite. Moreover, degenerate white groups "must amalgamate or be lost in the superior vigor of the Anglo-Saxon race."
  • Classes or races were dominant or subordinate because they were biologically better or less well adapted to the conditions of life (in other words, a vulgar adaptation of Darwin's "survival of the fittest" thesis).
  • Two factors determined the life conditions of a group: (a) its biological connection to ethnic root stock and (b) its degree of isolation from more superior racial groups.
  • So-called scientific methodologies, such as physical phrenology and eugenics were used to identify the ethnic root stock and blood lines of individuals and groups. (3)

In their regional applications of social Darwinism, writers constructed a sociogenic theory of racial oppression which redefined "southern mountaineers" as a degenerate white minority group set apart by their "uncivilized ways." Berea College President William G. Frost argued in 1899 that:

The question is whether the mountain people can be enlightened and guided so that they have a part in the development of their own country, or whether they must give place to foreigners and melt away like so many Indians.

Within the dominant group, the ideologies and stereotypes employed were intended to "reduce all members of the oppressed group to one undifferentiated social status, a status beneath that of any member of any social class." James Klotter described the inverted racial application of social Darwinism to "mountain whites."

Observers seemed to be depicting slave conditions in the antebellum south. One minister found the people "the worst housed, worst fed, most ignorant, most immoral" of any he had encountered. Others stressed the presence of homes that were mere hovels, of windowless log cabins with only one or two rooms. They told of a religious people, but one who believed in spells and witchcraft. Some writers termed the food deplorable and the speech patterns difficult to understand. Lazy, shiftless men and hard-working women inhabited this world. Their melancholy folk songs with origins across the ocean helped to lighten the burdens of everyday life and served as an emotional outlet. It was a closed, "peculiar" society. Yet these words were not written about blacks in slavery. Instead, these observers were describing Appalachian whites in the half-century following the end of Reconstruction.

Just as they utilized notions of black inferiority to buttress their 1870s fund-raising campaigns for freedmen's schools, white church groups employed Darwinistic rhetoric to try to convince contributors that mountain whites were a Caucasian racial isolate who must be rescued from their own barbarity. According to Shapiro, "agents of denominational benevolence [were] peculiarly susceptible" to notions that there was "a degraded origin for that population which settled the mountains originally." (4)

At the same time that social Darwinists were constructing their discourse about postbellum Southern Appalachia, there were many peripheries of the world in which colonizing agents employed racism to justify capitalist exploitation of laborers and of the ecosystems in which they lived. The kinds of "racializing" strategies employed to otherize Appalachians were only a regionally-specific variation of the mechanisms used all over the world. Indeed, racism "came to serve as one of the pillars of the world-system as it historically evolved" since it functioned as the structural mechanism through which "the world division of labour would be 'assimilated'" into the universal capitalist culture. To rationalize surplus extractions, wealth concentration, and political inequities, colonizing agents constrain those at the bottom through policies of polarization, exclusion, discrimination and repression. Then they construct myths and stereotypes that "ideologically camouflage" their own oppression and exploitation of those ethnic minorities. In short, the cultural interlopers "rewrite" the ethnic history of the colonized people. Driven by their ethnocentric sense of superiority, the intruders mythologize their capitalist agenda as a lofty mission to bestow "progress" on "backward barbarians." According to Henderson:

universality creates cultural and cognitive imperialism, which establishes a dominant group's knowledge, experience, culture, and language as the universal norm. Dominators or colonizers reinforce their culture and values by bringing the oppressed and the colonized under their expectations and norms. Given the assumed normality of the dominator's values and identity, the dominators construct the differences of the dominated as inferior and negative.

In short, the newly-constructed civilizational myths justify the external exploitation of local workers and resources and redefine as "benevolence" the transfer of regional wealth to absentee investors. (5)

Culture has always been a weapon that the powerful use to control and subjugate the weak. According to Wallerstein, "the concept of a neutral 'universal' culture to which the cadres of the world division of labour would be 'assimilated'. . . came to serve as one of the pillars of the world-system as it historically evolved." John Gaventa described the ideological elements through which that universal culture of capitalism was used to peripheralize one east Kentucky community. The transformation of Middlesborough, Kentucky into an extractive enclave was justified as "progress" which would finally bring "civilization" to the backward mountaineers. "The exaggerated attractiveness of the industrial order, on the one hand, carried with it the degradation of the culture and society of the mountaineers, on the other." In 1891, Harper's Magazine described the "wild" mountaineers as "rather yellow and cadaverous looking, owing to their idle and shiftless ways, and the bad food upon which they subsist, and perhaps also to their considerable consumption of moonshine whiskey." To shift the public focus away from the "handsome revenues" deriving from employee rentals of makeshift company housing, the corporation described its "model city" as having been established in a "rough wilderness" which only two years before "was the scene of bitter feuds." Local people saw the glaring disjuncture between company propaganda and their own living conditions. In contrast to the luxurious new hotel opened to attract tourists into the mountains, workers complained that their cabins were located "where there [wa]s no road," just a muddy path. Through "the imposition of one identity over another in the cultural arena," Gaventa explains, "the development of a counter-hegemony was made less likely, and the belief in economic oneness maintained." (6)

In short, the ethnic denigration of Appalachians was neither benign nor locally-invented. The rewriting of Appalachian ethnic history was two-pronged. First, nonwhites were silenced and made invisible in the regional population. In the scenarios of the cultural interlopers, there were neither indigenous Appalachians nor black ex-slaves. Second, white Appalachians were redefined to be outside the boundaries of privileged ethnic membership among Anglo-Saxon groups. To become "white enough" for that standard, mountaineers would have to undergo tremendous change that would have to be orchestrated by "civilized" external whites. Writing in 1879, Ziegler and Grosscup argued that Southern Appalachians comprised a "mutant race" that varied from the "norm" of Anglo-Saxon racial superiority because they possessed a "homogeneity of character" rooted in the "racial stock" of early Celtic settlers. Supposedly, "scattered families of other nationalities followed into the wilderness, but so largely did the Scotch-Irish prevail over all other races that the amalgamation of blood which followed brought no perceptible change." Several writers focused on identifying the "ethnic blood lines" that accounted for variation from the Anglo-Saxon norm in physique, coloration, and in-born predispositions to cultural, moral, and behavioral patterns. Psychologists and social scientists of the 1920s purported to be able to document the ethnicity of Appalachians by applying anthropometric measures to the skulls of school children, and they contended that poverty and other "character weaknesses" were directly linked to one degenerate Celtic root stock for all "mountain whites." Geneticists bragged that their especially "trained eyes" could recognize that "streak of blood" which precluded the "evolution" of biologically-inferior whites they labeled "sand-hillers, crackers, dirt eaters, red necks, or hillbillies." The Darwinists pointed to geographical and cultural isolation as the cause of backwardness, as reelected in the persistence of outdated traits from the frontier ethnic root stock. Kephart contended that the descendants of the Scotch-Irish "remained behind in the fastness of the Alleghenies, the Blue Ridge, and the Unakas, and became, in turn, the progenitors of that singular race which. . . is commonly known as the 'mountain whites.'" Similarly, Fiske claimed that "prolonged isolation from the currents of thought and feeling. . . will account for almost any extent of ignorance and backwardness; and there are few geographical situations. . . more conducive to isolation than the south-western portion of the great Appalachian highlands." The "degraded strain" of people who lived there, he claimed, were "white trash" who "withdrew from the haunts of civilization to lead half-savage lives in the backwoods." (7)

Even when local historians and fund-raising church groups tried to cast Appalachians in a positive light, their findings were grounded in social Darwinism. For example, Semple contended that "Kentucky mountaineers" were not Celtic in their frontier origins but were:

the purest Anglo-Saxon stock in all the United States. They are the direct descendants of the early Virginia and North Carolina immigrants, and bear about them in their speech and ideas the marks of their ancestry as plainly as if they had disembarked from their 18th-century vessel but yesterday. . . . The stock has been kept free from the tide of foreign immigrants which has been pouring in recent years into the States.

Haney, on the other hand, was convinced that "English blood is predominant in the Mountain People," adding that their amalgamation with the Scotch-Irish "gave them greater courage, endurance, and sturdiness." Whether caustic or benevolent, these generalizations were aimed at the same misguided goal. They all sought to prove that the characteristics of Appalachians were determined by biological traits acquired from a frontier ethnic past. (8)

Unfortunately, that demeaning external discourse about the ethnic heritage of Appalachians was not eschewed by subsequent generations of regional scholars, for several decades of well-known writers failed to recognize that such reasoning treated Appalachians as a separate ethnic minority who were not quite Anglo-Saxon enough to be "truly white." Why would regional scholars embrace such ideology, and how unusual was it? Colonizers set in motion a "postcolonial ghost dancing" in which the persistence of marginalized groups is insured across many generations. By structuring ethnic differentiation to rationalize their own privileged position, colonizers embed ethnic and racial categories into the historical memory of a peripheralized people. Consequently, the historical processes of incorporation and peripheralization have a dialectical impact on oppressed ethnic minorities who employ "a past defined by outsiders. . . to forge a viable cultural identity in the present." In 1983, David Whisnant warned that "the discourse upon the culture of the Appalachian region" has been "manipulative and external to the extreme." However, that discourse of otherness can be accepted, legitimated, and nurtured by the very people who are being marginalized or by their spokespersons. A cultural intervener:

by virtue of his or her status, and established credibility, is frequently able to define what the culture is, to normalize and legitimize that definition in the larger society, and even to feed it back into the culture itself, where it may be internalized as "real" or "traditional" or "authentic."

Clearly, it is not just external actors who have espoused notions about the cultural peculiarities of Appalachians, for many regional writers have "eaten the myths and prejudices" of the dominant culture. Through a process that Frantz Fanon terms the unreflected imposition of a culture, "marginalized persons filter perceptions of their own group against indicators made hegemonic by the dominant culture." After colonized writers assimilate myths and stereotypes (both positive and negative) of otherness, they become cultural interveners who advocate external prejudices to their own group. (9)

For example, Cratis Williams, who is recognized by some to be "the premier scholar on Appalachian life and culture," drew much of his evidence about the ethnicity of Appalachians from turn-of-the-century social Darwinists and two decades of writers they influenced. Seemingly unaware that the kind of racist pseudo-science that he labeled "historical evidence" had been widely discredited in the 1940s and 1950s, Williams argued that isolation trapped southern highlanders in an "outmoded" frontier culture because they "continued to live within the social and cultural framework of its founding parents." The insularity of the mountain region helped to preserve the static quality of its culture and society so that the whole region" remained "asleep culturally" after the Revolutionary War. Characterized by "a homogeneity of ethical and ethnical character," Southern Appalachians had descended from pioneers who were "prevailingly Scotch-Irish in descent," he contended. In his view and that of earlier social Darwinists, the Scotch-Irish were "a mongrel stock" whose "racial amalgamation" in northern Ireland made them "largely Lowland Scottish" biologically, "old-fashioned English" in their speech patterns, and "nonconformist" in their religion. "As the mountain regions settled down to a static and isolated culture," he argued, "the basic qualities of the Scotch-Irish asserted themselves throughout the region." In 1975, the Appalachian Journal unwittingly gave Williams' Darwinistic notions their stamp of approval by publishing an abridged 500-page version of his 1961 dissertation, thereby transforming it from obscurity into sacred canon. Undergraduate Appalachian Studies readers have included excerpts from that dissertation well into the 1990s, disseminating those faulty ideas to four decades of students while ignoring revisionist regional scholarship about ethnic diversity. (10)

I certainly do not mean to infer that Cratis Williams was the only well-known regional analyst to legitimate the legacy of the social Darwinists. At about the same time that Williams finished his dissertation, Night Comes to the Cumberlands revived once again the idea that contemporary Appalachians carried the "blood lines" of the convicts, indentured servants, and redemptioners who originally settled the region. As late as 1981, Caudill aggressively argued that:

We carry that [frontier past] in our cultural genes. . . . There's no doubt that the frontier had a major impact on our genes, on the kinds of people we became. . . . And those who did survive, of course, carried a different cultural heritage through natural selection down into our times.

When questioned critically by the Appalachian Journal interviewers, Caudill retorted that if contemporary scholars objected to his Darwinistic notions:

I just ignore it, because the truth transcends, or should transcend, everything else, and part of the supineness and the apathy and the passivity of mountain people is due to the fact that the strong and the smart have gotten up and left, generation after generation. (11)

In the same era as Williams' dissertation and Night Comes to the Cumberlands, the "subculture of poverty" model applied social Darwinism to explain regional social problems as the outgrowth of a "'closed door' culture" derived from a homogeneous ethnic past. According to Weller and other proponents of this model (which included policy writers for the Appalachian Regional Commission and other state and federal programs), Appalachians "through the years developed as a people apart." For that reason their culture kept them "different in many ways from the dominant middle class culture of America." Weller linked the greater incidence of poverty to five ethno-cultural deficiencies of Appalachians: their individualism, their traditionalism, their fatalism, their action orientation, and their psychology of fear. Whether they were indigenous or external to the region, subculture of poverty writers shared the same ethnocentric approach. The blame lay in the inherited ethno-biological deficiencies of the victims themselves, not in the structural constraints and inequalities of the outside world to which they were compared. When the University of Kentucky Press published Yesterday's People, elite academics who had a benevolent attitude toward Appalachia once again legitimated the use of demeaning stereotypes and Darwinistic thinking. Weller's role as a cultural intervener is made clear in Rupert Vance's introduction to Yesterday's People which:

c[a]me out of a minister's thirteen years as missionary to churches in the Southern Appalachians. Mr. Weller brought the objectivity of the stranger. Finally, he came to know these people better than they knew themselves. Intimate involvement in the social life of a people does not necessarily reveal the meaning of that life to a native who has no standard of comparison, but for Mr. Weller there was always a background of the other life, the outside world with which he could make a comparison.

With these words, Vance is announcing that Weller's social Darwinism, his class antagonisms toward the poor, and his victim blaming for the inequalities wrought by global capitalism are less "biased" and more "scientific" than the knowledge of Appalachians themselves or the critiques of regional Appalachian scholars. (12)

When I was completing my undergraduate work at the University of Tennessee, it was an Appalachian professor who proudly introduced as required reading Night Comes to the Cumberlands and Yesterday's People. Like many other young Appalachians, I was being not so subtly taught that the knowledge I possessed about regional ethnicity was far less "reliable" than the social Darwinism of writers like Caudill and Weller. As that same decision was repeated in schools and universities all over the region, so was acculturated the next generation of educated Appalachians, many of whom returned to their communities carrying an unquestioned legacy of social Darwinism. As Kenneth Noe has observed:

Mountain people, according to Weller and like-minded authors, have been so geographically isolated that they remain trapped in the frontier culture of a distant past, too independent to work together and too passively fatalistic to envision something different. Poverty pathologically flows from their individual and collective character flaws. Only outside intervention from state agencies and private enterprise. . . can force Appalachia to embrace progress and American modernity. Part of the culture of poverty model's appeal clearly was its sheer staying power. Contemporary social scientists in the end only repackaged notions that had proven popular among ministers and other intellectual elites for almost a century. . . . Nearly a century of writing by authors of fiction, church workers, educators, sociologists, and others did little more than expand upon [the] theme that Appalachia was an "Other" America. (13)

In the 1980s and 1990s, Appalachian scholars have repeatedly condemned the stereotypical treatments that external writers, media, and the general public apply to Appalachians. However, regional writers and Appalachian Studies programs have been far less critical of their own retention and legitimation of ideas that brand Appalachians to be an ethnically-homogeneous, culturally "peculiar" people. According to Shapiro:

Even the debunkers, within and without the universities, who have risen to the occasion and challenged the accuracy of particular generalizations about the mountaineers. . . have refused to ask the central question of their craft, about the reality of the phenomenon they seek to explicate. Instead, they have begun with the assumption that the mountaineers do in fact compose a distinct people with distinct and describable characteristics. They have argued from within a mythic system.

To have an empirical measure of contemporary scholarly failure to reject a century of imposition of regional culture and history by Darwinistic cultural interveners, we need to observe the extent to which respectable regional writers have embraced and reiterated stereotypes which are the legacy of social Darwinistic models. Even though regional writers since the 1980s have not relied on the kind of racial rhetoric that typified late nineteenth century accounts, many have treated the Darwinist thesis of ethnic homogeneity as unquestioned wisdom. As a result, prize-winning Appalachian scholars have fallen into the trap of relying on notions of a "traditional mountain culture" grounded in uniform ethnicity-- thereby unintentionally legitimating and keeping alive the biased constructs of the social Darwinists. When Gaventa published his ground-breaking Power and Powerlessness in 1980, he depicted preindustrial Appalachians as "Scotsmen, Englishmen and Welshmen," unwittingly adding his stamp of approval to the ethnic assumptions and racial silences that were derived from the legacy of social Darwinism. Even though Batteau made the cutting-edge argument that "there is no set or subset of cultural traits that is found entirely or exclusively in Appalachia," he still offered the ethnic stereotype that "the forbears of the mountain people. . . were primarily Scottish lowlanders." As Ron Eller observed in the late 1970s, such blunders render "invisible" those Appalachians:

whose history ha[s] been neglected by regional scholars. Traditional stereotypes of Appalachia have all but eliminated blacks, European immigrants, and native Americans from the historical landscape in the mountains. (14)

Despite this call for a paradigm shift, Eller himself repeated the ethnic blunders against which he had cautioned other writers. In his 1982 Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers, he accepted the assumptions of earlier social Darwinists about community and ethnic homogeneity. Even when he acknowledges the presence of blacks, he brands them insignificant to the white folk culture, as this description of preindustrial Appalachia demonstrates:

Unlike the rest of the South, where the emergence of commercial agriculture spawned a highly stratified social system based on black slavery. . . the self-sufficient, family-based economy of the southern mountains served to inhibit the growth of a rigid social hierarchy. . . . While slavery existed in almost every mountain county before the Civil War and prospered among a few wealthy families in the larger valley communities, the "peculiar institution" never influenced Appalachian culture and society as it did that of the lowland South. In fact, settlements of free blacks thrived in some areas of Appalachia before and after the war, and their descendants came to have much in common culturally and economically with their white neighbors.

In fact, regional writers continued to depict Appalachia as an economic island entrapped by the alien plantation South and as a culture in which slavery was alien to the mentality of the predominant yeomen farmers until revisionist writers began to focus on black Appalachians in the 1980s. Notwithstanding revisionist research of Inscoe, Lewis, Dew, Stealey, myself, and a few others, the predominant popular perception- inside and outside the region-- is in agreement with Campbell's 1921 claim that "there were [so] few Negroes in the Highlands in early times" that they made no impact on the regional white culture. When I present to external academic meetings or to white Appalachian student and community groups the weighty body of archival and census evidence about regional slavery, it is always evidence from the early social Darwinists (and the work of subsequent regional writers who endorsed their myths) which listeners use to try to explain away the empirical information they have just been shown. It is not only external exhibits at state and national parks or the assumptions of the Appalachian Regional Commission which preserve these myths, for regional folk culture centers and too many university Appalachian Studies programs still portray the region's citizens using the same outdated stereotypes of ethnic homogeneity. (15)

Just as regional scholars began to eschew earlier social Darwinist mythology, external writers rediscovered Southern Appalachia again in the 1980s. Not only did this new generation maintain the ethnic homogeneity thesis, but they also outdid in many respects the bigoted rhetoric of the turn-of-the-century writers. Not only do these writers use the unsupported prejudiced generalizations of earlier social Darwinists as empirical evidence, but also they contrive new stereotypes when they fail to distinguish hostile ethnic prejudices (their own and that of other writers) from factual information. Consider these few examples. As only one among hundreds of such bigoted generalizations, McWhiney claimed that the Scotch-Irish and all other Celtics who emigrated to the U.S. South "despised hard work, anything English, most government. . . and any other restraint." According to Fischer, the Scotch-Irish were characterized by "contempt" for "book learning," obsession with sorcery, and fatalism. He also claims that the Ulster emigrants brought whiskey distilling to America and that, as a result, "Appalachia's idea of a moderate drinker was the mountain man who limited himself to a single quart at a sitting." Ignoring significant evidence to the contrary presented by James Lemon in 1972, Raitz subsequently quipped (without any facts) that "the Scotch-Irish often squatted on land in forested coves and mountainsides." The McDonalds went so far as to claim that they "had little respect for property rights in land." Similarly, Wilhelm claimed that "habits dictated that they seek hill country" because the Scotch-Irish settlers of the Shenandoah Valley "invented little if anything new." As late as 1990, Cattell-Gordon rehashed the social Darwinism of Caudill to argue that something he calls "traumatic stress syndrome" has been "bred in the bones of the people of the region." As a sociologist who routinely teaches undergraduate race/ethnicity courses, I expect my college freshmen to do far better than these writers have done at recognizing the distinction between a neutral fact and a demeaning ethnic or racial stereotype. In the sections that follow, I have made every effort to ignore the bigoted rubble so we can focus on research that moves Appalachian scholarship out of the segregated cemetery of social Darwinism. (16) In the following sections, I will take a revisionist look at the Euroamerican heritage of Southern Appalachia by examining:

  • Ethnic diversity of Euroamerican resettlers,
  • Intolerance and conflict among Euroamerican ethnic groups, and
  • Pressures toward assimilation.

Ethnic Diversity of Euroamerican Resettlers

Well before the British prohibited settlement west of the 1763 Proclamation Line down the crests of the Appalachians, repopulation was underway in Blue Ridge and Shenandoah Virginia, the eastern and Ohio-River fringes of West Virginia, northwestern South Carolina and western Maryland. In a second phase between 1770-1789, upper east Tennessee, the northwestern tip of North Carolina, and the area around Madison County, Kentucky were repeopled. In the flurry of post-Revolutionary expansion, emigrants and slaves flowed into east Kentucky, the Cumberland Plateau and middle-eastern Tennessee, much of northwestern North Carolina, and central West Virginia. Additional areas opened for resettlement after the 1819 cession of Cherokee lands in southwestern North Carolina, southeast Tennessee, and northern Georgia. The final era of resettlement did not occur until after the 1838 forced removal of the Cherokees opened new lands in northern Alabama, northern Georgia, and southeast Tennessee. (17)

Even though the greatest nineteenth-century influx of white emigrants into the South occurred in the 1810 to 1820 decade, Appalachia did not receive an equitable share of that population explosion or of the ethnic groups that dominated transnational migration to the United States in this period. By 1820, the proportion of whites in the region had declined slightly, reflecting the out-migration of some ethnic groups and a continuing in-migration of black slaves. At this point, fewer than one of every fifty people was an indigenous Appalachian. In 1820, whites represented a smaller proportion of the populations of the Appalachian counties of Kentucky, Maryland, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia than they had in 1790. By 1860, the ethnic composition had shifted again, reflecting greater white population growth than in the early nineteenth century, the influx of a new wave of migrating ethnic groups after 1840, the export of slaves, and the 1838 forced relocation of Cherokees. (18)

These changing white population patterns were a refection of different eras of in-migration and out-migration by Euroamericans and of the frequent movement of impoverished households to seek land tenancy contracts or new employment. After 1790, Southern Appalachia was predominately populated by Caucasians of English, Celtic, and German heritage who:

  • emigrated into the region in different decades,
  • relocated within the region to varying degrees between 1790 and 1820,
  • and out-migrated in great numbers after 1820.

In its patterns of shifting emigration, Appalachia paralleled the rest of the South. Between 1790 and 1840, the Old South lost a significant proportion of its population to the New South (including Appalachia). After 1840, the New South "became a region of major exodus," as family units moved to the Midwest and the Southwest. (19)

In the 1980s and 1990s, there has been national controversy about the ethnic origins of U.S. whites (see Table 2). That scholarship makes it clear that new arrivals were ethnically diverse, that ethnic groups immigrated at different historical points, and that the influxes from some European countries were scattered over several decades. While still controversial, the latest research estimates that three-fifths of all 1790 U.S. whites were English in ethnic origin, more than one-quarter were Celtic (Welsh, Scottish, Irish, and Scotch-Irish), and about 9 percent were German. Rather than being regionally exceptional, the ethnic origins of white Southern Appalachians were a reflection of those national patterns of emigration. In order to test popular notions about regional ethnic homogeneity, I employed the latest research about U.S. ethnic origins to construct three scenarios of possible emigration of Euroamerican settlers into Southern Appalachia (see Table 3). None of the three scenarios could have resulted in a homogeneous population in any section of the region. Moreover, none of the three possible scenarios would have caused the Scotch-Irish to become the numerical majority of whites within any of the sections. If we suppose that Appalachian counties received an even share of the Scotch-Irish emigrants that poured into their states before 1790, that ethnic group would have represented no more than one-tenth to one-fifth of the white populations in the various sections. Because the Appalachian counties of Tennessee and Virginia were already well settled by 1790, they provide a realistic test case for the homogeneity thesis. By 1790, two-thirds of the population of Tennessee was concentrated in its Appalachian counties. If we assume that those counties received an even share (i.e., most of the emigrants), the Scotch-Irish represented fewer than one of every five of the whites on that frontier. By 1790, two-fifths of Virginia's population resided in its western and West Virginia counties. If we assume that those Appalachian counties received 40 percent of the emigrants, no more than 12 percent would have been Scotch-Irish. Thus, it is likely that fewer than one of every five east Tennesseans was Scotch-Irish while only one of every eight whites in the Appalachian counties of Virginia and West Virginia would have been Scotch-Irish. Let us be clear what this means. Appalachian counties of Virginia might have had more Scotch-Irish prior to 1790, but by the time of the first census those households had out-migrated. The Appalachian counties of Tennessee are quite different. The 1790 census is a good measure of the white ethnic origins of this section since that frontier had not been open very long. Consequently, the estimate that 18 percent of whites were Scotch-Irish is probably a good reflection of the European ethnic origins of emigrants of the first phase of the opening of the Appalachian Tennessee frontier. By 1790, western Maryland had been settled for several decades, so the three possible scenarios inform us that probably no more than one-tenth to one-sixth of the whites in that section were Scotch-Irish. When I made similar calculations for the presence of the English, I found parallel results. Thus, it is not likely that early nineteenth-century Southern Appalachia was either (a) ethnically homogeneous or (b) characterized by a clear numerical majority of any one European emigrant group. (20)

Because of the continuing control of the Cherokees over much of the land area of western North Carolina in 1790, the first census provides us a glimpse of the ethnic origins of whites who had emigrated into only about half the total land area that would later open up for resettlement. If we make the overstated assumption that 25 to 35 percent of all Scotch-Irish emigrants to North Carolina flowed into its Appalachian counties before 1790, there still would not have been an ethnically-homogeneous population in that section. If we assume that western North Carolina had received the same share of Scotch-Irish emigrants as every other county in the state, only about one of every six whites would have been Scotch-Irish. In order for western North Carolina to have attained a 1790 white population in which two-fifths to one-half of the whites had Scotch-Irish heritage, one-quarter to one-third of the state's entire influx of Scotch-Irish would need to have relocated into those counties. This is an unrealistic assumption since the fear of Indian hostilities deterred white settlement, encouraging higher emigration into the Piedmont and Tidewater counties. Consequently, it is more likely that Scotch-Irish comprised only one-fifth to one-third of the whites in western North Carolina and that there was a good deal of ethnic variation among the counties. What then of the ethnic origins of east Kentucky whites? None of the three possible scenarios of emigration in Table 1.3 results in a homogeneous Scotch-Irish population or in a Scotch-Irish majority. If we assume that east Kentucky received an equal share of the Scotch-Irish emigrants who flowed into that state before 1790, only about one of every six whites would have been Scotch-Irish in heritage. Even if we unrealistically assume that one-quarter to one-third of all Scotch-Irish emigrants to Kentucky settled in the Appalachian counties, only one-third to two-fifths of the whites would have been Scotch-Irish in heritage. Despite the continuing popularity of the ethnic homogeneity thesis with external representors of regional culture (such as the National Park Service), several Appalachian scholars have lambasted such thinking. For example, Blethen has argued that "it is unlikely that Scotch-Irish settlers comprised a majority of the population of the southern mountains" because the region was "shaped by ethnic and cultural diversity." The Scots-Irish "were arguably not the largest European ethnic group to settle the Southern Appalachians," contends Donald Davis. Horning dismisses as myth the notion of uniform Blue Ridge ethnic origins. "Rather than being the last refuge of hardy, egalitarian Scotch-Irish pioneers," she contends, these Appalachian sections of Virginia were "populated by a diverse group of 18th- and early-19th-century settlers." (21)

Indeed, frontier primary sources and cultural markers refute the possibility of a homogeneous folk society. Archaeological studies of Appalachian South Carolina point to a fusion of foodways, crafts, and textiles production among several European and Euroamerican ethnic groups, Indians, and Africans. Cuming described the late eighteenth-century population of the counties that are present-day West Virginia as being "compounded of a great number of nations, not yet amalgamated," including "English, Irish, Scotch, Dutch, Swiss, German, French, and almost from every country in Europe." According to Toulmin, the town of Winchester had 1,660 inhabitants in 1793, and they were "a motley set of Germans, Irish, Scots, and Anglo-Americans." As the Revolutionary War opened, English, Scotch-Irish, German, Welsh, and French Huguenot emigrants had settled in northwestern North Carolina. While ethnic groups of English and Celtic heritage predominated, German emigrants had a strong presence in several areas of antebellum Southern Appalachia. One of every four western Maryland households was German, and Germans accounted for one of every seven of the households in the Appalachian counties of Virginia and West Virginia. In the Appalachian counties of North Carolina and Tennessee, one of every eight households was German. In addition to settlers of English, Celtic, and German origins, emigrants from other European countries were sprinkled all over the region. For example, a 1782 will bequeathed Berkeley County, West Virginia, slaves and land to Italian Guiseppi Minghini. In 1793, a landless Hispanic male named "James Gunsaulas" [Gonzalez] paid taxes on one horse and three cattle to Floyd County, Kentucky. Similar entries for non-Anglo-Saxon households can easily be spotted in frontier county tax lists all over the region. (22)



1. Regarding ethnic homogeneity, see Williams, "Southern Mountaineer," pp. 12-14. Such stereotypes are still reprinted in undergraduate readers; see, for example, Ergood and Kuhre, Appalachia, pp. 54-58. Moreover, this thinking still dominates regional cultural exhibits, especially those of the National Park Service. Beaver, "Women in Appalachia," p. ix.

2. Harney, "Strange Land," pp. 429-38. Shapiro, Appalachia on Our Mind, pp. 80-86.

3. Tolnay and Beck, Festival of Violence, pp. 10-22. Hofstadter, Social Darwinism, pp. 51-66, 172, 192-193. Encyclopedia of Sociology, p. 269. Modern Dictionary of Sociology, p. 263.

4. Allen, Invention of the White Race, vol. 1, pp.31-32, 46. Frost, "Our Contemporary Ancestors," p. 319. Klotter, "Black South," p. 51. Regarding rhetoric about freedmen's schools, see Frederickson, Black Image, pp. 180-81. For specific examples from the period, see Parmelee, "Freedmen's Aid Societies," pp. 260-95 and Langhorne, "Homes," pp. 17-25. Shapiro, Appalachia on Our Mind, p. 92.

5. I have previously described the historical process through which this region was incorporated into the capitalist world-system; see Dunaway, First American Frontier, pp. 1-22. Wallerstein, Historical Capitalism, p. 83. Cox, Foundations, pp. 17-33. Patterson, Slavery, p. 212. Dunaway, "Incorporation as Interactive Process," pp. 455-70. Wallerstein, Historical Capitalism, pp. 97-102. Abdel-Malek, Civilisations, pp. 73-81. Dunaway, "Ethnic Conflict, "" pp. 1-34. Henderson, "Postcolonial Ghost Dancing," p. 63.

6. Wallerstein, Geopolitics, p. 193. "Southern Lands," p. 117. Gaventa, Power and Powerlessness, pp. 64-70.

7. Spaulding, Men of the Mountains, p. 61. Ziegler and Grosscup, Heart, pp. 214-15. Hirsch, "Experimental Study," pp. 185-229. Shaler, Kentucky, p. 373. For an uncritical summary of these notions, one has only to read notes 13, 44, 45, 47, 48 of Williams, "Southern Mountaineer," pp. 38-39. The rhetoric make it clear that Williams was not critical of these ideas from the 1920s. For example, he does not question blond hair as one indicator used by a geneticist to identify ethnic heritage, and he freely uses "blood of the settlers" to explain the presence or absence of ethnic groups. Kephart, Our Southern Highlanders, p. 151. Fiske, Old Virginia, pp. 319-22.

8. Semple, "Anglo-Saxons," p. 588. For a critical review of the Social Darwinism of church groups, see Shapiro, Appalachia on Our Minds, pp. 32-58. Haney, Mountain People, p. 25.

9. Henderson, "Postcolonial Ghost Dancing," p. 63. Dunaway, "Ethnic Conflict, "" pp. 17-21. Friedman, "The Past," p. 844. Whisnant, All That Is Native and Fine, p. 260. Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, p. 97. Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, pp. 188-91.

10. For laudatory comments about Williams, see Library Journal 128 (12) (2003): 111; Appalachian Journal 3 (1) (1975): 8; or Williamson, Appalachian Symposium, pp. v, xii. Williams, "Southern Mountaineer," pp. 12-14. For critiques of social Darwinism from the 1930s and 1940s, see Hofstadter, Social Darwinism, pp. 11-41. For an undergraduate reader that has reprinted William's historical evidence about ethnic origins in three editions, see Ergood and Kuhre, Appalachia, pp. 54-58.

11. Williamson and Arnold, Interviewing Appalachia, pp. 136-37.

12. Weller, Yesterday's People, pp. ii, 17, 29.

13. Noe, "Appalachia before Mr. Peabody," pp. 7-8

14. For studies which critique external stereotyping of Appalachians, see Batteau, Invention of Appalachia, Cunningham, Apples on the Flood and Williamson, Hilbillyland. Shapiro, Appalachia on Our Mind, p. 264 Gaventa, Power and Powerlessness, p. 48. Batteau, "Appalachia," pp. 11, 25. Eller, "Finding Ourselves," p. 29.

15. Eller, Miners, Millhands, p. 9. Campbell, Southern Highlander, p. 94. For revisionist studies of black Appalachians, see Dunaway, Slavery in the Mountain South; Dunaway, African-American Family; Inscoe, Mountain Masters; Dew, Bond of Iron; Stealey, Antebellum Kanawha Salt; Lewis, Coal, Iron and Slaves; Turner and Cabbell, Blacks in Appalachia. For example, one world-system analyst cited the work of Appalachian scholars as evidence for his stereotype of Appalachia as a "subsistence refuge region;" see Chase-Dunn, Global Formation, p. 210.

16. McWhiney, Cracker Culture, p. 8. Fischer, Albion's Seed, pp. 720, 708, 697, 729-30. Lemon, Best Poor Man's Country, pp. 59-72. Raitz, Appalachia, p. 115. Wilhelm, "Shenandoah Resettlements," pp. 15-17. McDonald and McDonald, "Ethnic Origins," p. 182. Cattell-Gordon, "Appalachian Inheritance," pp. 41-62.

17. For a map of resettlement, see Dunaway, First American Frontier, p. 54.

18. Regarding southern demographic trends, see McClelland and Zeckhauser, Demographic Dimensions, p. 6. Regarding export of Appalachian slaves, see Dunaway, African-American Slave Family, pp. 18-50.

19. For the controversy about estimation of the ethnic composition of the 1790 U.S. population, see American Council of Learned Societies, "Report;" Henretta, Evolution; U.S. Census Office, Historical Statistics; McDonald and McDonald, "Ethnic Origins, pp. 179-99; Atkenson, "Why Accepted Estimates," Doyle, Ireland, Irishmen.

20. McClelland and Zeckhauser, Demographic Dimensions, p. 6. Blethen, "Scotch-Irish Heritage," pp. 213-26. Hofstra, "Land, Ethnicity," pp. 167-88. Gerlach, "Scotch-Irish," pp. 146-66. Purvis, "European Ancestry," pp. 85-101, is the first to offer estimates of Scotch-Irish populations. The work of the McDonalds, "Ethnic Origins," and of McWhiney, Cracker Culture, have been discredited because of their heavy dependence on ethnic stereotypes, their inability to recognize bigotry and prejudice in the sources from which they drew information, and their own personal expressions of bigotry. For critiques, see Berthoff, "Celtic Mist," pp. 523-46 and Jones, "Scotch-Irish," pp. 284-313. The 1790 census does not inform us about the ethnic origins of later emigrants who would move into southeastern Tennessee, as the Cherokees made additional land cessions between 1790 and 1838. In the early 1920s, John Campbell, Southern Highlander, pp. 62-65, reported the findings of a Russell Sage Foundation study which claimed that 39 percent of the white immigrants were English, 34 percent were Scotch-Irish, and 15 percent were German.

21. Blethen, "Scotch-Irish Heritage," vol. 1, p. 7. Davis, Where There Are Mountains, p . 98. Horning, "Myth, Migration," pp. 13-37, 145.

22. Regarding South Carolina, see Steen, "Stirring Ethnic Stew," pp. 93-120, and Groover, "Evidence," pp. 41-64. McCauley, Appalachian Mountain Religion, p. 171, continues to claim that "the single largest ethnic group to settle in Appalachia was the Scots-Irish." Cuming, Sketches, vol. 4, pp. 109-110. Toulmin, Western Country, p. 57. Anderson-Green, "New River Frontier," p. 423. "1700s in Berkeley," p. 11. Elswick, "Floyd County," p. 47.