Welcome to the final installment of Our Southern Highlanders, by Horace Kephart, published in 1913. Today we will continue our discussion of the origins of the Appalachian people, then finish with a vision of change, “progress,” and change.
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
EvX: The Wikipedia article on the War of the Regulation. It appears to have been triggered by the newly-arrived colonial governor raising taxes in the middle of a drought in order to finance the building of his personal mansion.
“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.
Appalachia in the Civil War:
“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.”
“… 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 [moonshine].
“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. … 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.”
EvX: How’s that going? Have things improved? The author himself seems skeptical:
“Here, then, is Appalachia: one of the great land-locked areas of the globe, more English in speech than Britain itself, more American by blood than any other part of America, encompassed by a high-tensioned civilization, yet less affected to-day by modern ideas, less cognizant of modern progress, than any other part of the English-speaking world.
“Commercialism has discovered the mountains at last, and no sentiment, however honest, however hallowed, can keep it out. The transformation is swift. Suddenly the mountaineer is awakened from his eighteenth-century bed by the blare of steam whistles and the boom of dynamite. He sees his forests leveled and whisked away; his rivers dammed by concrete walls and shot into turbines that outpower all the horses in Appalachia. He is dazed by electric lights, nonplussed by speaking wires, awed by vast transfers of property, incensed by rude demands. Aroused, now, and wide-eyed, he realizes with sinking heart that here is a sudden end of that Old Dispensation under which he and his ancestors were born, the beginning of a New Order that heeds him and his neighbors not a whit.
“All this insults his conservatism. The old way was the established order of the universe: to change it is fairly impious. What is the good of all this fuss and fury? That fifty-story building they tell about, in their big city—what is it but another Tower of Babel? And these silly, stuck-up strangers who brag and brag about “modern improvements”—what are they, under their fine manners and fine clothes? Hirelings all. Shrewdly he observes them in their relations to each other.—
“Each man is some man’s servant; every soul
Is by some other’s presence quite discrowned.”
“Proudly he contrasts his ragged self: he who never has acknowledged a superior, never has taken an order from living man, save as a patriot in time of war. And he turns upon his heel.
“Yet, before he can fairly credit it as a reality, the lands around his own home are bought up by corporations. All about him, slash, crash, go the devastating forces. His old neighbors vanish. New and unwelcome ones swarm in. He is crowded, but ignored. His hard-earned patrimony is robbed of all that made it precious: its home-like seclusion, independence, dignity. He sells out, and moves away to some uninvaded place where he “will not be bothered.”
““I don’t like these improvements,” said an old mountaineer to me. “Some calls them ‘progress,’ and says they put money to circulatin’. So they do; but who gits it?” …
“The curse of our invading civilization is that its vanguard is composed of men who care nothing for the welfare of the people they dispossess. …
“All who know the mountaineers intimately have observed that the sudden inroad of commercialism has a bad effect upon them. …”
“The great need of our mountaineers to-day is trained leaders of their own. The future of Appalachia lies mostly in the hands of those resolute native boys and girls who win the education fitting them for such leadership. Here is where the nation at large is summoned by a solemn duty. And it should act quickly, because commercialism exploits and debauches quickly. But the schools needed here are not ordinary graded schools. They should be vocational schools that will turn out good farmers, good mechanics, good housewives. Meantime let a model farm be established in every mountain county showing how to get the most out of mountain land. Such object lessons would speedily work an economic revolution. It is an economic problem, fundamentally, that the mountaineer has to face.”
EvX: This brings us to the end of Kephart’s work. Though at times it paints an unflattering picture, he was at heart entirely sympathetic to his mountain friends and subjects; like all who observe “primitive” peoples on the cusp of modernity, he saw both the opportunities for material improvement and the dangers of spiritual (and physical) degradation.
Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we are continuing with Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders, published in 1913, starting with homicide rates.
In my opinion, Homicide Rate data collected before 1930 or so is highly questionable, for reasons that will soon become clear:
“Mountaineers place a low valuation on human life. I need not go outside my own habitat for illustrations. In our judicial district, which comprises the westernmost seven counties of North Carolina, the present yearly toll of homicides varies, according to counties, from about one in 1,000 to one in 2,500 of the population. And ours is not a feud district, nor are there any negroes to speak of. Compare these figures with the rate of homicide in the United States at large, about one to 8,300 population; of Italy, one to 66,000; Great Britain, one to 111,000; Germany, one to 200,000.”
EvX: And yet there are very few convictions, as noted previously.
““The laws are insufficient for the Governor to apply a remedy.” One naturally asks, “How so?” The answer is that the Governor cannot send troops into a county except upon request of the civil authorities, and they must go as a posse to civil officers. In most feuds these officers are partisans (in fact, it is a favorite ruse for one clan to win or usurp the county offices before making war). Hence the State troops would only serve as a reinforcement to one of the contending factions. To show how this works out, we will sketch briefly the course of another feud.—
“In Rowan County, Kentucky, in 1884, there was an election quarrel between two members of the Martin and Toliver families. The Logans sided with the Martins and the Youngs with the Tolivers. The Logan-Martin faction elected their candidate for sheriff by a margin of twelve votes. Then there was an affray in which one Logan was killed and three were wounded.
“As usual, in feuds, no immediate redress was attempted, but the injured clan plotted its vengeance with deadly deliberation. After five months, Dick Martin killed Floyd Toliver. His own people worked the trick of arresting him themselves and sent him to Winchester for safe-keeping. The Tolivers succeeded in having him brought back on a forged order and killed him when he was bound and helpless.
“The leader of the Young-Toliver faction was a notorious bravo named Craig Toliver. To strengthen his power he became candidate for town marshal of Morehead, and he won the office by intimidation at the polls. Then, for two years, a bushwhacking war went on. Three times the Governor sent troops into Rowan County, but each time they found nothing but creeks and thickets to fight. Then he prevailed upon the clans to sign a truce and expatriate their chiefs for one year in distant States. Craig Toliver obeyed the order by going to Missouri, but returned several months before the expiration of his term, resumed office, and renewed his atrocities. In the warfare that ensued all the county officers were involved, from the judge down. …
“The posse here mentioned was organized by Daniel Boone Logan, a cousin of the two young men who had been murdered, a college graduate, and a lawyer of good standing. With the assent of the Governor, he gathered fifty to seventy-five picked men and armed them with the best modern rifles and revolvers. Some of the men were of his own clan; others he hired. His plan was to end the war by exterminating the Tolivers.
“The posse, led by Logan and the sheriff, suddenly surrounded the town of Morehead. Everybody gave in except Craig Toliver, Jay Toliver, Bud Toliver, and Hiram Cook, who barricaded themselves in the railroad station, where all of them were shot dead by the posse.
“Boone Logan was indicted for murder. At the trial he admitted the killings; but he showed that the feud had cost the lives of not less than twenty-three men, that not one person had been legally punished for these murders, and that he had acted for the good of the public in ending this infamous struggle. The court accepted this view of the case, the community sustained it, and the “war” was closed.”
EvX: older homicide stats are not trustworthy.
“It should be understood that national and state politics cut little or no figure in these “wars.” Local politics in most of the mountain counties is merely a factional fight, in which family matters and business interests are involved, and the contest becomes bitterly personal on that account. This explains most of the collusion or partisanship of county officers and their remissness in enforcing the law in murder cases. Family ties or political alliances override even the oath of office.”
On the Origins of “poor whites” and Appalachians:
“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[Pg 357] 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. …
“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.”
EvX: Note: the image of the lazy, apathetic Southern white was mostly caused by chronic anemia due to epidemic levels of hookworm infection. Hookworms came with the African slaves, who were at least somewhat adapted and thus resistant to their effects, and quickly infected the local whites (the poorest of whom had no shoes and worked barefoot in the fields, spreading, yes, human waste for fertilizer on the crops) who had much less evolved resistance to the worms…
“Now these poor whites had nothing to do with settling the mountains. …
“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. …
“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.”
EvX: If you aren’t already familiar with the Appalachian chain, a god look at a topographic map reveals that the easiest area for introgression is around Pennsylvania, then southward through parallel mountain valleys, rather than westward over the tops of the mountains.
Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today were are continuing with Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders, published in 1913.
“Spartan diet does not put on flesh. Still, it should be noted that long legs, baggy clothing, and scantiness or lack of underwear make people seem thinner than they really are. Our highlanders are conspicuously a tall race. Out of seventy-six men that I have listed just as they occurred to me, but four are below average American height and only two are fat. About two-thirds of them are brawny or sinewy fellows of great endurance. The others generally are slab-sided, stoop-shouldered, but withey. The townsfolk and the valley farmers, being better nourished and more observant of the prime laws of wholesome living, are noticeably superior in appearance but not in stamina.”
EvX: I cannot help but think we have lost something of healthy stamina.
“There is a wealthy man known to everyone around Waynesville, who, being asked where he resided, as a witness in court, answered: “Three, four miles up and down Jonathan Creek.” The judge was about to fine him for contempt, when it developed that the witness spoke literal truth. He lives neither in house nor camp, but perambulates his large estate and when night comes lies down wherever he may happen to be. In winter he has been known to go where some of his pigs bedded in the woods, usurp the middle for himself, and borrow comfort from their bodily heat.”
EvX: I do not now about you, but I feel a kind of kinship with this man. Often I feel a restlessness, a sense that I am trapped by the walls of my house. It is not a dissatisfaction with the people in my house–toward them I feel no restlessness at all–but the house itself.
I am at peace again when I find myself in the woods, the trees towering over me; I am at peace in the snow, drifting through a blizzard. I am at peace in a fog, the world shut out by a faded haze. In the distance I see the mountains, and though I am walking to the playground or the shops they tug at me, and I am always tempted to turn my feet and just keep going until I arrive.
I do not want a large or fancy house; I just want to live in the woods among the plants and people I love.
But back to the man in the woods in the court:
“This man is worth over a hundred thousand dollars. He visited the world’s fairs at Chicago and St. Louis, wearing the old long coat that serves him also as blanket, and carrying his rations in a sack. Far from being demented, he is notoriously so shrewd on the stand and so learned in the law that he is formidable to every attorney who cross-questions him.”
“The first settlers of Appalachia mainly were Presbyterians, as became Scotch-Irishmen, but they fell away from that faith, partly because the wilderness was too poor to support a regular ministry, and partly because it was too democratic for Calvinism with its supreme authority of the clergy. This much of seventeenth century Calvinism the mountaineer retains: a passion for hair-splitting argument over points of doctrine, and the cocksure intolerance of John Knox; but the ancestral creed itself has been forgotten.
“The circuit-rider, whether Methodist or Baptist, found here a field ripe for his harvest. Being himself self-supporting and unassuming, he won easily the confidence of the people. He preached a highly emotional religion that worked his audience into the ecstasy that all primitive people love. And he introduced a mighty agent of evangelization among outdoor folk when he started the camp-meeting.
“The season for camp-meetings is from mid-August to October. The festival may last a week in one place. It is a jubilee-week to the work-worn and home-chained women, their only diversion from a year of unspeakably monotonous toil. And for the young folks, it is their theater, their circus, their county fair. (I say this with no disrespect: “big-meetin’ time” is a gala week, if there be any such thing at all in the mountains—its attractiveness is full as much secular as spiritual to the great body of the people.)”
EvX: Vacation Bible Camp is still a thing, of course.
“It is a camp by day only, or up to closing time. No mountaineer owns a tent. Preachers and exhorters are housed nearby, and visitors from all the country scatter about with their friends, or sleep in the open, cooking their meals by the wayside.
“In these backwoods revival meetings we can witness to-day the weird phenomena of ungovernable shouting, ecstasy, bodily contortions, trance, catalepsy, and other results of hypnotic suggestion and the contagious one-mindedness of an overwrought crowd. This is called “taking a big through,” and is regarded as the madness of supernatural joy. It is a mild form of that extraordinary frenzy which swept the Kentucky settlements in 1800, when thousands of men and women at the camp-meetings fell victims to “the jerks,” “barking exercises,” erotic vagaries, physical wreckage, or insanity, to which the frenzy led.
“Many mountaineers are easily carried away by new doctrines extravagantly presented. Religious mania is taken for inspiration by the superstitious who are looking for “signs and wonders.” At one time Mormon prophets lured women from the backwoods of western Carolina and eastern Tennessee. Later there was a similar exodus of people to the Castellites, a sect of whom it was commonly remarked that “everybody who joins the Castellites goes crazy.” In our day the same may be said of the Holy Rollers and Holiness People.”
EvX: Wikipedia appears to have nothing on the Castellites, but Wiktionary says they were a religious group in North Carolina in the late 19th century.
“An editor who had made one or two short trips into the mountains once wrote me that he thought the average mountaineer’s vocabulary did not exceed three hundred words. This may be a natural inference if one spends but a few weeks among these people and sees them only under the prosaic conditions of workaday life. But gain their intimacy and you shall find that even the illiterates among them have a range of expression that is truly remarkable. I have myself taken down from the lips of Carolina mountaineers some eight hundred dialectical or obsolete words, to say nothing of the much greater number of standard English terms that they command. …
“Our highlander often speaks in Elizabethan or Chaucerian or even pre-Chaucerian terms. His pronoun hit antedates English itself, being the Anglo-Saxon neuter of he. Ey God, a favorite expletive, is the original of egad, and goes back of Chaucer. Ax for ask and kag for keg were the primitive and legitimate forms, which we trace as far as the time of Layamon. When the mountain boy challenges his mate: “I dar ye—I ain’t afeared!” his verb and participle are of the same ancient and sterling rank. Afore, atwixt, awar, heap o’ folks, peart, up and done it, usen for used, all these everyday expressions of the backwoods were contemporary with the Canterbury Tales.
“A man said to me of three of our acquaintances: “There’s been a fray on the river—I don’t know how the fraction begun, but Os feathered into Dan and Phil, feedin’ them lead.” He meant fray in its original sense of deadly combat, as was fitting where two men were killed. Fraction for rupture is an archaic word, rare in literature, though we find it in Troilus and Cressida. “Feathered into them!” Where else can we hear to-day a phrase that passed out of standard English when “villainous saltpetre” supplanted the long-bow? It means to bury an arrow up to the feather, as when the old chronicler Harrison says, “An other arrow should haue beene fethered in his bowels.”
Social Organization (or lack thereof):
“Bear in mind that in the mountains every person is accorded the consideration that his own qualities entitle him to, and no whit more. It has always been so. Our Highlanders have neither memory nor tradition of ever having been herded together, lorded over, persecuted or denied the privileges of free-men. So, even within their clans, there is no servility nor any headship by right of birth. Leaders arise, when needed, only by virtue of acknowledged ability and efficiency. In this respect there is no analogy whatever to the clan system of ancient Scotland, to which the loose social structure of our own highlanders has been compared.
“We might expect such fiery individualism to cool gradually as population grew denser; but, oddly enough, crowding only intensifies it in the shy backwoodsman. Neighborliness has not grown in the mountains—it is on the wane. There are to-day fewer log-rollings and house-raisings, fewer husking bees and quilting parties than in former times; and no new social gatherings have taken their place. Our mountain farmer, seeing all arable land taken up, and the free range ever narrowing, has grown jealous and distrustful, resenting the encroachment of too many sharers in what once he felt was his own unfenced domain. And so it has come about that the very quality that is his strength and charm as a man—his staunch individualism—is proving his weakness and reproach as a neighbor and citizen. The virtue of a time out-worn has become the vice of an age new-born.
“The mountaineers are non-social. As they stand to-day, each man “fighting for his own hand, with his back against the wall,” they recognize no social compact. Each one is suspicious of the other. Except as kinsmen or partisans they cannot pull together. Speak to them of community of interests, try to show them the advantages of co-operation, and you might as well be proffering advice to the North Star. They will not work together zealously even to improve their neighborhood roads, each mistrusting that the other may gain some trifling advantage over himself or turn fewer shovelfuls of earth. Labor chiefs fail to organize unions or granges among them because they simply will not stick together.”
I have wanted to find a good book on some of our own American Nations for a long time, and Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders (published in 1913,) is just the volume.
The anthropologist, it may be said, is unfair: he looks only at others, and never turns the lens on himself. Appalachia might not be your people, fair reader, but it contains some of mine, thus my interest.
Kephart tries to paint a sympathetic picture, excusing a great deal of misbehavior on the ground that good roads do not exist in the area and so people are cut off from the civilizing effects of the outside world. This may be so, but it does little to blunt the sharper edges of the image he paints.
But let’s begin with dividing the spoils of the hunt (especially important in a world without refrigeration):
“The mountaineers have an odd way of sharing the spoils of the chase. They call it “stoking the meat,” a use of the word stoke that I have never heard elsewhere. The hide is sold, and the proceeds divided equally among the hunters, but the meat is cut up into as many pieces as there are partners in the chase; then one man goes indoors or behind a tree, and somebody at the carcass, laying his hand on a portion, calls out: “Whose piece is this?”
““Granville Calhoun’s,” cries the hidden man, who cannot see it.
““Whose is this?”
“And so on down the line. Everybody gets what chance determines for him, and there can be no charges of unfairness.”
“Our mountaineers habitually notice every track they pass, whether of beast or man, and “read the sign” with Indian-like facility. Often one of my companions would stop, as though shot, and point with his toe to the fresh imprint of a human foot in the dust or mud of a public road, exclaiming: “Now, I wonder who that feller was! ’Twa’n’t (so-and-so), for he hain’t got no squar’-headed bob-nails; ’twa’n’t (such-a-one), ’cause he wouldn’t be hyar at this time o’ day”; and so he would go on, figuring by a process of elimination that is extremely cunning, until some such conclusion as this was reached, “That’s some stranger goin’ over to Little River [across the line in Tennessee], and he’s footin’ hit as if the devil was atter him—I’ll bet he’s stobbed somebody and is runnin’ from the sheriff!” Nor is the incident closed with that; our mountaineer will inquire of neighbors and passersby until he gets a description of the wayfarer, and then he will pass the word along.”
EvX: There is much in the book about alcohol, as Prohibition was a popular political movement of the day and moonshining was a popular backwoods activity.
The problem, as the author notes, is that it was very difficult to get anything in or out of the mountains (how far do you want to carry a load of corn on your back down a trail too steep and narrow for a horse, much less a wagon?) thus limiting the farmers’ ability to sell their corn at market, much less bring home glass bottles of alcohol, but it is relatively easy to brew up some moonshine right on site in the back of your cornfield. Then in comes the government, which hasn’t bothered to build you so much as a road, demanding that you pay taxes just because you transformed your own corn from a solid to a liquid right there on your own property.
This has led to the shooting of a lot of “revenuers.” But back to the book:
“As a rule, the mountain people have no compunctions about drinking, their ideas on this, as on other matters of conduct, being those current everywhere in the eighteenth century. Men, women and children drink whiskey in family concert. I have seen undiluted spirits drunk, a spoonful at a time, by a babe that was still at the breast, and she never batted an eye (when I protested that raw whiskey would ruin the infant’s stomach, the mother replied, with widened eyes: “Why, if there’s liquor about, and she don’t git none, she jist raars!”).
“In spite of this, taking the mountain people by and large, they are an abstemious race. In drinking, as in everything else, this is the Land of Do Without. Comparatively few highlanders see liquor oftener than once or twice a month. The lumberjacks and townspeople get most of the output; for they can pay the price.”
On the Origin of the Appalachians:
“Let it be noted closely, for it bears directly on a problem that has puzzled many of our own people, namely: What was the origin of our southern mountaineers?
“The north of Ireland, at the time of which we have been speaking, was not settled by Irishmen, but by Scotchmen, who had been imported by James I. to take the place of native Hibernians whom he had dispossessed from the three northern counties. These immigrants came to be known as the Scotch-Irish. They learned how to make poteen in little stills, after the Irish fashion, and to defend their stills from intrusive foreigners, also after the Irish fashion. By and by these Scotch-Irish fell out with the British Government, and large bodies of them emigrated to America, settling, for the most part, in western Pennsylvania.
“They were a fighting race. Accustomed to plenty of hard knocks at home, they took to the rough fare and Indian wars of our border as naturally as ducks take to water. They brought with them, too, an undying hatred of excise laws, and a spirit of unhesitating resistance to any authority that sought to enforce such laws.
“It was these Scotchmen, in the main, assisted by a good sprinkling of native Irish, and by the wilder blades among the Pennsylvania-Dutch, who drove out the Indians from the Alleghany border, formed our rear-guard in the Revolution, won that rough mountain region for civilization, left it when the game became scarce and neighbors’ houses too frequent, followed the mountains southward, settled western Virginia and Carolina, and formed the vanguard westward into Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, and so onward till there was no longer a West to conquer. Some of their descendants remained behind in the fastnesses of the Alleghanies, the Blue Ridge, and the Unakas, and became, in turn, the progenitors of that singular race which, by an absurd pleonasm, is now commonly known as the “mountain whites,” but properly southern highlanders.”
Whiskey Taxes drive men into the Mountains:
“The law of 1791, although it imposed a tax on whiskey of only 9 to 11 cents per proof gallon, came near bringing on a civil war, which was only averted by the leniency of the Federal Government in granting wholesale amnesty. The most stubborn malcontents in the mountains moved southward along the Alleghanies into western Virginia and the Carolinas, where no serious attempt was made to collect the excise; so they could practice moonshining to their heart’s content, and there their descendants remain to-day. …
“As illustrating the extraordinary resistance which the officers have had on some occasions to encounter, I refer to occurrences in Overton County, Tennessee, in August last, where a posse of eleven internal revenue officers, who had stopped at a farmer’s house for the night, were attacked by a band of armed illicit distillers, who kept up a constant fusillade during the whole night, and whose force was augmented during the following day till it numbered nearly two hundred men. The officers took shelter in a log house, which served them as a fort, returning the fire as best they could, and were there besieged for forty-two hours, three of their party being shot—one through the body, one through the arm, and one in the face. I directed a strong force to go to their relief, but in the meantime, through the intervention of citizens, the besieged officers were permitted to retire, taking their wounded with them, and without surrendering their arms.”
The Mountain Code of Conduct:
“And here is another significant fact: as regards personal property I do not know any race in the world that is more honest than our backwoodsmen of the southern mountains. As soon as you leave the railroad you enter a land where sneak-thieves are rare and burglars almost unheard of. In my own county and all those adjoining it there has been only one case of highway robbery and only one of murder for money, so far as I can learn, in the past forty years.
“The mountain code of conduct is a curious mixture of savagery and civility. One man will kill another over a pig or a panel of fence (not for the property’s sake, but because of hot words ensuing) and he will “come clear” in court because every fellow on the jury feels he would have done the same thing himself under similar provocation; yet these very men, vengeful and cruel though they are, regard hospitality as a sacred duty toward wayfarers of any degree, and the bare idea of stealing from a stranger would excite their instant loathing or white-hot scorn.”
EvX: Where have I heard this before? The Middle East? Algeria?
“Anyone of tact and common sense can go as he pleases through the darkest corner of Appalachia without being molested. Tact, however, implies the will and the insight to put yourself truly in the other man’s place. Imagine yourself born, bred, circumstanced like him. It implies, also, the courtesy of doing as you would be done by if you were in that fellow’s shoes. No arrogance, no condescension, but man to man on a footing of equal manliness.
“And there are “manners” in the rudest community: customs and rules of conduct that it is well to learn before one goes far afield. For example, when you stop at a mountain cabin, if no dogs sound an alarm, do not walk up to the door and knock. You are expected to call out Hello! until someone comes to inspect you. None but the most intimate neighbors neglect this usage and there is mighty good reason back of it in a land where the path to one’s door may be a warpath.
“If you are armed, as a hunter, do not fail to remove the cartridges from the gun, in your host’s presence, before you set foot on his porch. Then give him the weapon or stand it in a corner or hang it up in plain view. Even our sheriff, when he stopped with us, would lay his revolver on the mantel-shelf and leave it there until he went his way. If you think a moment you can see the courtesy of such an act. It proves that the guest puts implicit trust in the honor of his host and in his ability to protect all within his house. There never has been a case in which such trust was violated.
“I knew a traveler who, spending the night in a one-room cabin, was fool enough (I can use no milder term) to thrust a loaded revolver under his pillow when he went to bed. In the morning his weapon was still there, but empty, and its cartridges lay conspicuously on a table across the room. Nobody said a word about the incident: the hint was left to soak in.
“The only real danger that one may encounter from the native people, so long as he behaves himself, is when he comes upon a man who is wild with liquor and cannot sidestep him. In such case, give him the glad word and move on at once. I have had a drunken “ball-hooter” (log-roller) from the lumber camps fire five shots around my head as a feu-de-joie, and then stand tantalizingly, with hammer cocked over the sixth cartridge, to see what I would do about it. As it chanced, I did not mind his fireworks, for my head was a-swim with the rising fever of erysipelas and I had come dragging my heels many an irk mile down from the mountains to find a doctor. So I merely smiled at the fellow and asked if he was having a good time. He grinned sheepishly and let me pass unharmed.”
Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees, and sometimes you look at your own discipline and can’t articulate what, exactly, the point of it is.
Yes, I know which topics social studies covers. History, civics, geography, world cultures, reading maps, traffic/pedestrian laws, etc. Socialstudies.org explains, “Within the school program, social studies provides coordinated, systematic study drawing upon such disciplines as anthropology, archaeology, economics, geography, history, law, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, and sociology, as well as appropriate content from the humanities, mathematics…” etc. (I’m sure you did a lot of archaeology back in elementary school.)
But what is the point of lumping all of these things together? Why put psychology, geography, and law into the same book, and how on earth is that coordinated or systematic?
The points of some other school subjects are obvious. Reading and writing allow you to decode and encode information, a process that has massively expanded the human ability to learn and “remember” things by freeing us from the physical constraints of our personal memories. We can learn from men who lived a thousand years ago or a thousand miles away, and add our bit to the Great Conversation that stretches back to Homer and Moses.
Maths allow us to quantify and measure the world, from “How much do I owe the IRS this year?” to “Will this rocket land on the moon?” (It is also, like fiction, pleasurable for its own sake.) And science and engineering, of course, allow us to make and apply factual observations about the real world–everything from “Rocks accelerate toward the earth at a rate of 9.8m/s^2” to “This bridge is going to collapse.”
But what is social studies? The question bugged me for months, until Napoleon Chagnon–or more accurately, the Yanomamo–provided an answer.
Chagnon is a anthropologist who carefully documented Yanomamo homicide and birth rates, and found that the Yanomamo men who had killed the most people went on to father the most children–providing evidence for natural selection pressures making the Yanomamo more violent and homicidal over time, and busting the “primitive peoples are all lovely egalitarians with no crime or murder” myth.
In an interview I read recently, Chagnon was asked what the Yanomamo made of him, this random white guy who came to live in their village. Why was he there? Chagnon replied that they thought he had come:
“To learn how to be human.”
Sometimes we anthropologists lose the signal in the noise. We think our purpose is to document primitive tribes before they go extinct (and that is part of our purpose.) But the Yanomamo are correct: the real reason we come is to learn how to be human.
All of school has one purpose: to prepare the child for adulthood.
The point of social studies is prepare the child for full, adult membership in their society. You must learn the norms, morals, and laws of your society. The history and geography of your society. You learn not just “How a bill becomes a law” but why a bill becomes a law. If you are religious, your child will also learn about the history and moral teachings of their religion.
Most religions have some kind of ceremony that marks the beginning of religious adulthood. For example, many churches practice the rite of Confirmation, in which teens reaffirm their commitment to Christ and become full members of the congregation. Adult Baptism functions similarly in some denominations.
Judaism has the Bar (and Bat) Mitzvah, whose implications are quite clearly articulated. When a child turns 13 (or in some cases, 12,) they are now expected to be moral actors, responsible for their own behavior. They now make their own decisions about following Jewish law, religious duties, and morality.
But there’s an upside: the teen is also now able to part of a minyan, the 10-person group required for (certain) Jewish prayers, Torah legal study; can marry*; and can testify before a Rabbinic court.
*Local laws still apply.
In short, the ceremony marks the child’s entry into the world of adults and full membership in their society. (Note: obviously 13 yr olds are not treated identically to 33 yr olds; there are other ceremonies that mark the path to maturity.)
Whatever your personal beliefs, the point of Social Studies is to prepare your child for full membership in society.
A society is not merely an aggregation of people who happen to live near each other and observe the same traffic laws (though that is important.) It is a coherent group that believes in itself, has a common culture, language, history, and even literature (often going back thousands of years) about its heroes, philosophy, and values.
To be part of society is to be part of that Great Conversation I referenced above.
But what exactly society is–and who is included in it–is a hotly debated question. Is America the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave, or is it a deeply racist society built on slavery and genocide? As America’s citizens become more diverse, how do these newcomers fit into society? Should we expand the canon of Great Books to reflect our more diverse population? (If you’re not American, just substitute your own country.)
These debates can make finding good Social Studies resources tricky. Young students should not be lied to about their ancestors, but neither should they be subjected to a depressing litany of their ancestors’ sins. You cannot become a functional, contributing member of a society you’ve been taught to hate or be ashamed of.
Too often, I think, students are treated to a lop-sided curriculum in which their ancestors’ good deeds are held up as “universal” accomplishments while their sins are blamed on the group as a whole. The result is a notion that they “have no culture” or that their people have done nothing good for humanity and should be stricken from the Earth.
This is not how healthy societies socialize their children.
If you are using a pre-packaged curriculum, it should be reasonably easy to check whether the makers hold similar values as yourself. If you use a more free-form method (like I do,) it gets harder. For example, YouTube* is a great source for educational videos about all sorts of topics–math, grammar, exoplanets, etc.–so I tried looking up videos on American history. Some were good–and some were bad.
*Use sensible supervision
For example, here’s a video that looked good on the thumbnail, but turned out quite bad:
From the description:
In which John Green teaches you about the Wild, Wild, West, which as it turns out, wasn’t as wild as it seemed in the movies. When we think of the western expansion of the United States in the 19th century, we’re conditioned to imagine the loner. The self-reliant, unattached cowpoke roaming the prairie in search of wandering calves, or the half-addled prospector who has broken from reality thanks to the solitude of his single-minded quest for gold dust. While there may be a grain of truth to these classic Hollywood stereotypes, it isn’t a very big grain of truth. Many of the pioneers who settled the west were family groups. Many were immigrants. Many were major corporations. The big losers in the westward migration were Native Americans, who were killed or moved onto reservations. Not cool, American pioneers.
Let’s work through this line by line. What is the author’s first priority: teaching you something new about the West, or telling you that the things you believe are wrong?
Do you think it would be a good idea to start a math lesson by proclaiming, “Hey kids, I bet you get a lot of math problems wrong”? No. Don’t start a social studies lesson that way, either.
There is no good reason to spend valuable time bringing up incorrect ideas simply because a child might hold them; you should always try to impart correct information and dispel incorrect ideas if the child actually holds them. Otherwise the child is left not with a foundation of solid knowledge, but with what they thought they knew in tatters, with very little to replace it.
Second, is the Western movie genre really so prominent these days that we must combat the pernicious lies of John Wayne and the Lone Ranger? I don’t know about you, but I worry more about my kids picking up myths from Pokemon than from a genre whose popularity dropped off a cliff sometime back in the 80s.
“We are conditioned to think of the loner.” Conditioned. Yes, this man thinks that you have been trained like a dog to salivate at the ringing of a Western-themed bell, the word “loner” popping into your head. The inclusion of random psychology terms where they don’t belong is pseudo-intellectual garbage.
The idea of the “loner” cowboy and prospector, even in their mythologized form, is closer to the reality than the picture he draws. On the scale of nations, the US is actually one of the world’s most indivdualist, currently outranked only by Canada, The Netherlands, and Sweden.
Without individualism, you don’t get the notion of private property. In many non-Western societies, land, herds, and other wealth is held collectively by the family or clan, making it nearly impossible for one person (or nuclear family) to cash out his share, buy a wagon, and head West.
I have been reading Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders, an ethnography of rural Appalachia published in 1913. Here is a bit from the introduction:
The Southern highlands themselves are a mysterious realm. When I prepared, eight years ago, for my first sojourn in the Great Smoky Mountains, which form the master chain of the Appalachian system, I could find in no library a guide to that region. The most diligent research failed to discover so much as a magazine article, written within this generation, that described the land and its people. Nay, there was not even a novel or a story that showed intimate local knowledge. Had I been going to Teneriffe or Timbuctu, the libraries would have furnished information a-plenty; but about this housetop of eastern America they were strangely silent; it was terra incognita.
On the map I could see that the Southern Appalachians cover an area much larger than New England, and that they are nearer the center of our population than any other mountains that deserve the name. Why, then, so little known? …
The Alps and the Rockies, the Pyrennees and the Harz are more familiar to the American people, in print and picture, if not by actual visit, than are the Black, the Balsam, and the Great Smoky Mountains. …For, mark you, nine-tenths of the Appalachian population are a sequestered folk. The typical, the average mountain man prefers his native hills and his primitive ancient ways. …
The mountaineers of the South are marked apart from all other folks by dialect, by customs, by character, by self-conscious isolation. So true is this that they call all outsiders “furriners.” It matters not whether your descent be from Puritan or Cavalier, whether you come from Boston or Chicago, Savannah or New Orleans, in the mountains you are a “furriner.” A traveler, puzzled and scandalized at this, asked a native of the Cumberlands what he would call a “Dutchman or a Dago.” The fellow studied a bit and then replied: “Them’s the outlandish.” …
As a foretaste, in the three and a half miles crossing Little House and Big House mountains, one ascends 2,200 feet, descends 1,400, climbs again 1,600, and goes down 2,000 feet on the far side. Beyond lie steep and narrow ridges athwart the way, paralleling each other like waves at sea. Ten distinct mountain chains are scaled and descended in the next forty miles. …
The only roads follow the beds of tortuous and rock-strewn water courses, which may be nearly dry when you start out in the morning, but within an hour may be raging torrents. There are no bridges. One may ford a dozen times in a mile. A spring “tide” will stop all travel, even from neighbor to neighbor, for a day or two at a time. Buggies and carriages are unheard of. In many districts the only means of transportation is with saddlebags on horseback, or with a “tow sack” afoot. If the pedestrian tries a short-cut he will learn what the natives mean when they say: “Goin’ up, you can might’ nigh stand up straight and bite the ground; goin’ down, a man wants hobnails in the seat of his pants.” …
Such difficulties of intercommunication are enough to explain the isolation of the mountaineers. In the more remote regions this loneliness reaches a degree almost unbelievable. Miss Ellen Semple, in a fine monograph published in[Pg 23] the Geographical Journal, of London, in 1901, gave us some examples:
“These Kentucky mountaineers are not only cut off from the outside world, but they are separated from each other. Each is confined to his own locality, and finds his little world within a radius of a few miles from his cabin. There are many men in these mountains who have never seen a town, or even the poor village that constitutes their county-seat…. The women … are almost as rooted as the trees. We met one woman who, during the twelve years of her married life, had lived only ten miles across the mountain from her own home, but had never in this time been back home to visit her father and mother. Another back in Perry county told me she had never been farther from home than Hazard, the county-seat, which is only six miles distant. Another had never been to the post-office, four miles away; and another had never seen the ford of the Rockcastle River, only two miles from her home, and marked, moreover, by the country store of the district.”
When I first went into the Smokies, I stopped one night in a single-room log cabin, and soon had the good people absorbed in my tales of travel beyond the seas. Finally the housewife said to me, with pathetic resignation: “Bushnell’s the furdest ever I’ve been.” Bushnell, at that time, was a hamlet of thirty people, only seven miles from where we sat. When I lived alone on “the Little Fork of Sugar Fork of[Pg 24] Hazel Creek,” there were women in the neighborhood, young and old, who had never seen a railroad, and men who had never boarded a train, although the Murphy branch ran within sixteen miles of our post-office.
And that’s just Appalachia. What sorts of men and women do you think settled the Rockies or headed to the Yukon? Big, gregarious families that valued their connections to society at large?
Then there are the railroads. The video makes a big deal about the railroads being funded by the government, as proof that Americans weren’t “individuals” but part of some grand collectivist society.
Over in reality, societies with more collectivist values, like Pakistan, don’t undertake big national projects. In those societies, your loyalty is to your clan or kin group, and the operative level of social planning and policy is the clan. Big projects that benefit lots of people, not just particular kin networks, tend not to get funded because people do not see themselves as individuals acting within a larger nation that can do big projects that benefit individual people. Big infrastructure projects, especially in the 1800s, were almost entirely limited to societies with highly individualistic values.
Finally we have the genocide of the American Indians. Yes, some were definitely killed; the past is full of sins. But “You’re wrong, your self-image is wrong, and your ancestors were murderers,” is not a good way to introduce the topic.
It’s a pity the video was not good; the animation was well-done. It turns out that people have far more strident opinions about “Was Westward Expansion Just?” than “Is Pi Irrational?”
I also watched the first episode of Netflix’s new series, The Who Was? Show, based on the popular line of children’s biographies. It was an atrocity, and not just because of the fart jokes. The episode paired Benjamin Franklin and Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi was depicted respectfully, and as the frequent victim of British racism. Franklin was depicted as a buffoon who hogged the spotlight and tried to steal or take credit for other people’s ideas.
It made me regret buying a biography of Marie Curie last week.
If your children are too young to read first-hand ethnographic accounts of Appalachia and the frontier, what do I recommend instead? Of course there are thousands of quality books out there, and more published every day, but here are a few:
More important than individual resources, though, is the attitude you bring to the subject.
Before we finish, I’d like to note that “America” isn’t actually the society I feel the closest connection to. After all, there are a lot of people here whom I don’t like. The government has a habit of sending loyal citizens to die in stupid wars and denying their medical treatment when they return, and I don’t even know if the country will still exist in meaningful form in 30 years. I think of my society as more “Civilization,” or specifically, “People engaged in the advancement of knowledge.”
By the way, guys, I have not been able to write as much as I would like to, lately, so I am dropping the Wed. post and only going to be updating 4 times a week. Hopefully I’ll get more time soon. :)
It is very easy to dismiss Appalachia’s problems by waving a hand and saying, “West Virginia has an average IQ of 98.”
But there are a hell of a lot of states that have average IQs lower than West Virginia, but are still doing better. For that matter, France has a lower average IQ, and France is still doing pretty well for itself.
So we’re going to discuss some alternative theories.
(And my apologies to WV for using it as a stand-in for the entirety of Greater Appalachia, which, as discussed a few days ago, includes parts of a great number of states, from southern Pennsylvania to eastern Texas. Unfortunately for me, only WV, Kentucky, and Tennessee fall entirely within Greater Appalachia, and since it is much easier to find data aggregated by state than by county or “cultural region,” I’ve been dependent on these states for much of my research.)
At any rate, it’s no secret that Appalachia is not doing all that well:
The Death of Manufacturing
Having your local industries decimated by foreign competition and workforces laid off due to automation does bad things to your economy. These things look great on paper, where increasing efficiency and specialization result in higher profits for factory owners, but tend to work out very badly for the folks who have lost their jobs.
Indeed, the US has barely even begun thinking about how we plan on dealing with the effects of continued automation. Do 90% of people simply become irrelevant as robots take over their jobs? Neither “welfare for everyone” nor “everybody starves” seem like viable solutions. So far, most politicians have defaulted to platitudes about how “more education” will be the solution to all our woes, but how you turn a 45-year old low-IQ meat packer who just got replaced by a robot into a functional member of the “information economy” remains to be seen.
Of course, economic downturns happen; fads come and go; industries go in and out. The Rust Belt, according to Wikipedia, runs north of Greater Appalachia, through Pennsylvania, New York, northern Ohio, Detroit, etc. These areas have been struggling for decades, but many of them, like Pittsburgh, are starting to recover. Appalachia, by contrast, is still struggling.
This may just be a side effect of Appalachia being more rural; Pittsburgh is a large city with millions of people employed in a variety of industries. If one goes out, others can, hopefully, replace it. But in a rural area with only one or two large employers–sometimes literal “company towns” built near mines–if the main industry goes out, you may not get anything coming back in.
Appalachia has geography that makes it difficult to transport goods in and out as cheaply as you can transport them elsewhere, but then, so does Switzerland, and Switzerland seems to be doing pretty well. (Of course, Switzerland seems to have specialized in small, expensive, easy to transport luxury goods like watches, chocolate, and bank deposits, while Appalachia has specialized in cheap, heavy, unpleasant to produce goods like coal.)
But I am being over-generous: America killed its manufacturing.
We killed it because our upper classes look down their noses at manufacturing; such jobs are unpleasant and low-class, and therefore they cannot understand that for some people, these jobs are the only thing standing between them and poverty. Despite the occasional protest against outsourcing, our government–Republicans and Democrats–has forged ahead with its free-trade, send-everything-to-China-and-fire-the-Americans, import-Mexicans-and-fire-the-Americans, and then reap-the-profits agenda.
Too Much Regulation
Over-regulation begins with the best of intentions, then breaks your industries. Nobody wants to die in a fire or a cave-in, but you can’t regulate away all risk and still get anything done.
Every regulation, every record-keeping requirement, every mandated compliance, is a tax on efficiency–and thus on profits. Some regulation, of course, probably increases profits–for example, I am more likely to buy a medicine if I have some guarantee that it isn’t made with rat poison. But beyond that guarantee, increasing requirements that companies test all of their products for toxins imposes more costs than the companies recoup–at which point, companies tend to leave for more profitable climes.
Likewise, while health insurance sounds great, running it through employers is madness. Companies should devote their efforts to making products (or services,) not hiring expensive lawyers and accountants to work through the intricacies of health care law compliance and income withholding.
The few manufacturers left in Appalachia (and probably elsewhere in the country) have adopted a creative policy to avoid paying health insurance costs for their workers: fire everyone just before they qualify for insurance. By hiring only temp workers, outsourcing everything, and only letting employees bill 20 hours a week, manufacturers avoid complying with employee-related regulations.
Oh, sure, you might think you could just get two 20-hour a week jobs, but that requires being able to schedule two different jobs. When you have no idea whether you are going to be working every day or not until you show up for work at 7 AM, and you’ll get fired if you don’t show up, getting a second job simply isn’t an option.
I have been talking about over-regulation for over a decade, but it is the sort of issue that it is difficult to get people worked up over, much less make them understand if they haven’t lived it. Democrats just look aghast that anyone would suggest that more regulations won’t lead automatically to more goodness, and Republicans favor whichever policies lead to higher profits, without any concern for the needs of workers.
New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman recently encapsulated this view in a piece called “Start-Ups, Not Bailouts.” His argument: Let tired old companies that do commodity manufacturing die if they have to. If Washington really wants to create jobs, he wrote, it should back startups.
Friedman is wrong. Startups are a wonderful thing, but they cannot by themselves increase tech employment. Equally important is what comes after that mythical moment of creation in the garage, as technology goes from prototype to mass production. This is the phase where companies scale up. They work out design details, figure out how to make things affordably, build factories, and hire people by the thousands. Scaling is hard work but necessary to make innovation matter.
The scaling process is no longer happening in the U.S. And as long as that’s the case, plowing capital into young companies that build their factories elsewhere will continue to yield a bad return in terms of American jobs. …
As time passed, wages and health-care costs rose in the U.S. China opened up. American companies discovered that they could have their manufacturing and even their engineering done more cheaply overseas. When they did so, margins improved. Management was happy, and so were stockholders. Growth continued, even more profitably. But the job machine began sputtering.
The 10X Factor
Today, manufacturing employment in the U.S. computer industry is about 166,000, lower than it was before the first PC, the MITS Altair 2800, was assembled in 1975 (figure-B). Meanwhile, a very effective computer manufacturing industry has emerged in Asia, employing about 1.5 million workers—factory employees, engineers, and managers. The largest of these companies is Hon Hai Precision Industry, also known as Foxconn. The company has grown at an astounding rate, first in Taiwan and later in China. Its revenues last year were $62 billion, larger than Apple (AAPL), Microsoft (MSFT), Dell (DELL), or Intel. Foxconn employs over 800,000 people, more than the combined worldwide head count of Apple, Dell, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), Intel, and Sony (SNE) (figure-C).
Companies don’t scale up in the US because dealing with the regulations is monstrous. Anyone who has worked in industry can tell you this; heck, even Kim Levine, author of Millionaire Mommy (don’t laugh at the title, it’s actually a pretty good book,) touches on the subject. Levine notes that early in the process of scaling up the manufacture of her microwavable pillows, she had dreams of owning her own little factory, but once she learned about all of the regulations she would have to comply with, she decided that would be a horrible nightmare.
I don’t have time to go into more detail on the subject, but here is a related post from Slate Star Codex:
I started the book with the question: what exactly do real estate developers do? …
As best I can tell, the developer’s job is coordination. This often means blatant lies. The usual process goes like this: the bank would be happy to lend you the money as long as you have guaranteed renters. The renters would be happy to sign up as long as you show them a design. The architect would be happy to design the building as long as you tell them what the government’s allowing. The government would be happy to give you your permit as long as you have a construction company lined up. And the construction company would be happy to sign on with you as long as you have the money from the bank in your pocket. Or some kind of complicated multi-step catch-22 like that. The solution – or at least Trump’s solution – is to tell everybody that all the other players have agreed and the deal is completely done except for their signature. The trick is to lie to the right people in the right order, so that by the time somebody checks to see whether they’ve been conned, you actually do have the signatures you told them that you had. The whole thing sounds very stressful.
The developer’s other job is dealing with regulations. The way Trump tells it, there are so many regulations on development in New York City in particular and America in general that erecting anything larger than a folding chair requires the full resources of a multibillion dollar company and half the law firms in Manhattan. Once the government grants approval it’s likely to add on new conditions when you’re halfway done building the skyscraper, insist on bizarre provisions that gain it nothing but completely ruin your chance of making a profit, or just stonewall you for the heck of it if you didn’t donate to the right people’s campaigns last year. Reading about the system makes me both grateful and astonished that any structures have ever been erected in the United States at all, and somewhat worried that if anything ever happens to Donald Trump and a few of his close friends, the country will lose the ability to legally construct artificial shelter and we will all have to go back to living in caves.
The current socio-economic system is designed by rootless, soulless, high-IQ, low-time preference, money-/status-grubbing homo economicus for benefit of those same homo economicus. It is a system for designed for intelligent sociopaths. Those who are rootless with high-IQ and low-time preference can succeed rather well in this system, but it destroys those who need rootedness or those who are who are low-IQ or high time preference.
Kevin says, “Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster.” But he’s wrong, there was a disaster, but no just one, multiple related disasters all occurring simultaneously. …
Every support the white working class (and for that matter the black working class) had vanished within less than a generation. There was a concerted effort to destroy these supports, and this effort succeeded. Through minimal fault of their own the white working class was left with nothing holding them up.
Personally, I lack good first-hand insight into working class cultural matters; I have no idea how much Hollywood mores have penetrated and changed people’s practical lives in rural Arkansas. I must defer, there, to people more knowledgeable than myself.
While death rates have been falling for the rest of the developed world and for America’s blacks and Hispanics, death rates have been rising over the past couple of decades for American whites–middle aged and younger white women, to be exact. They’re up pretty much everywhere, but Appalachia has been the hardest hit.
The first thing everyone seems to cite in response is meth. And indeed, it appears that there is a lot of meth in Appalachia (and a lot of other places):
But I don’t think this explains why death rates are headed up among women. Maybe I’m wrong, (I know rather little about drug use patterns,) but it doesn’t seem like women would be more likely to OD on meth than men. If anything, I get the impression that illegal drugs that fuck you up and kill you are more of a guy thing than a gal thing. Men are probably far more likely to die of alcohol-related causes like drunk driving and cirrhosis of the liver than women, for example, and you don’t even have to deal with criminals to get alcohol.
So, while I agree that drugs appear to be a rising problem, I don’t think they are the problem. (And even still, drug overdoses only beg the deeper question of why more people are using drugs.)
As I mentioned a few posts ago, SpottedToad ran the death rate data by county and came up with three significant correlations: poverty, obesity, and disability. (I don’t know if he looked at meth/drug use by county.)
I, for one, am not surprised to find out that disabled, overweight people are not in the best of health.
Here are SpottedToad’s graphs, showing the correlations he found–I recommend reading his entire post.
Obviously one possibility is that unemployed people feel stressed, binge on cheap crap, get sick, get SSDI, and then die.
But then why are death rates only going up for white women? Plenty of white men are unemployed; plenty of black men and women are poor, fat, and disabled.
Obviously there are a ton of possible confounders–perhaps poor people just happen to make bad life decisions that both make them poor and result in bad health, like smoking cigarettes. Perhaps poor people have worse access to health care, or perhaps being really sick makes people poor. Or maybe the high death rates just happen to be concentrated among people who happen to be fat for purely biological reasons–it appears that the British are among the fattest peoples in Europe, and the Scottish are fatter than the British average. (Before anyone gets their hackles up, I should also note that white Americans are slightly fatter than Scots.)
And as many people have noted, SSI/SSDI are welfare for people who wouldn’t otherwise qualify.
In my correspondence with an observing teacher in the hill country of western Pennsylvania, she reported that in her school a condition was frequent in the families, namely, that the children could not carry prescribed textbook work because of low mentality. This is often spoken of, though incorrectly, as delayed mentality. In one family of eight children only the first child was normal. The mental and physical injuries were increasingly severe. The eighth child had both hare-lip and a double cleft palate. The seventh child had cleft palate and the sixth was a near idiot. The second to fifth, inclusive, presented increasing degrees of disturbed mentality.
In my cabin-to-cabin studies of families living in the hill country of North Carolina, I found many cases of physical and mental injury. Among these cases arthritis and heart disease were very frequent, many individuals being bed ridden. A typical case is shown in the upper part of figure 148 [sorry, I can’t show you the picture, but it is not too important,] of a father and mother and their one child. The child is so badly injured that he is mentally an imbecile. They are living on very poor land where even the vegetable growth is scant and of poor quality. Their food consisted largely of corn bread, corn syrup, some fat pork, and strong coffee.
As the title of the book implies, Dr. Price’s thesis is that bad nutrition leads to physical degeneration. (Which, of course, it does.) He was working back when folks were just discovering vitamins and figuring out that diseases like curvy, pellagra, and beriberi were really nutritional deficiencies; figuring out the chemical compositions necessary for fertile soil; and before the widespread adoption of artificial fertilizers (possibly before their invention.) Dr. Price thought that American soils, particularly in areas that had been farmed for longer or had warmer, wetter weather, had lost much of their nutritional content:
My studies of this problem of reduced capacity of sols for maintaining animal life have included correspondence with the agricultural departments of all of the states of the union with regard to maintaining cattle. The reduction in capacity ranges from 20 to 90 per cent… I am advised that it would cost $50 an acre to replace the phosphorus alone that has been shipped off the land in large areas.
There is an important fact that we should consider; namely, the role that has been played by glaciers in grinding up and distributing rock formations. One glacier, the movement of which affected the surface soil of Ohio, covered only about half the state; namely, that area west of a line starting east of Cleveland and extending diagonally west across the state to Cincinnati. It is important for us to note that, in the areas extending south and east of this line, several expressions of degeneration are higher than in the areas north and west of this line. The infant mortality per thousand live births in 1939 is informative. In the counties north and west of that line, the death rate was from 40 49 per thousand live births; whereas, in the area south and east of that Line, the death rate was from 50 to 87.
It is of particular interest to us as dentists that studies show the percentage of teeth with caries to be much higher southeast of this line than northwest of it.
So I Googled around, and found this map of the last glaciation of Ohio:
Okay, I lied, it’s obviously a map of ACT scores. But it actually does look a lot like the glaciation map.
Australia’s soils, from what I understand, are particularly bad–because the continent’s rocks are so geologically old, the soil is extremely low in certain key nutrients, like iodine. Even with iodine supplementation, deficiencies are still occasionally a problem.
Many of the soils in the state are steeply sloping and tend to be shallow, acidic, and deficient in available phosphorus. As early as the late 19th century progressive farmers used rock phosphate, bone meal, and lime to increase crop yield and quality. Since the mid-20th century farmers have used soil tests and corrected mineral deficiencies. Most crop land and much of the pasture land are no longer severely deficient in essential nutrients. West Virginia has always been primarily a livestock producing state. Land on steep slopes is best suited to producing pasture and hay.
Nutritional deficiencies due to poor soil could have been a problem a century ago, just as Pellagra and hookworms were a problem, but they seem unlikely to be a big deal today, given both modern fertilizers and our habit of buying foods shipped in from California.
Looking at statistics from 2005 (the latest for which mortality rates are available) the researchers found that though coal mining brought in about $8 billion to the state coffers of Appalachian states, the costs of the shorter life-spans associated with coal mining operations were nearly $17 billion to $84.5 billion.
Coal mining areas in Appalachia were found to have nearly 11,000 more deaths each year than other places in the nation, with 2,300 of those attributable to environmental factors such as air and water pollution.
The Nation reports that:
In 2010, an explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in southern West Virginia killed twenty-nine miners. Later that year, an explosion at a West Virginia chemical plant killed two workers and released toxic fumes into the surrounding areas. This past year, West Virginia led the nation in coal-mining deaths. …
One study found that residents of areas surrounding mountaintop-removal coal mines “had significantly higher mortality rates, total poverty rates and child poverty rates every year compared to other…counties.” Another study found that compared to residents of other areas in the state, residents of the state’s coal-mining regions were 70 percent more likely to suffer from kidney disease, over 60 percent more likely to develop obstructive lung diseases such as emphysema and 30 percent likelier to have high blood pressure.
In 2014, the Elk River Chemical spill left 300,000 residents of West Virginia without potable water. Five months later, another spill happened at the same site, the fourth in five years. (The chemicals involved are used int he processing/washing of coal.)
Overloaded coal trucks are a perpetual menace on the narrow, winding roads of the Appalachian coalfields. From 2000 to 2004, there were more than seven hundred accidents involving coal trucks in Kentucky alone; fifty-three people died, and more than five hundred were injured. …
After the coal is washed, a slurry of impurities, coal dust, and chemical agents used in the process remains. This liquid waste, called “coal sludge” or “slurry,” is often injected into abandoned underground mines, a practice that can lead to groundwater contamination. … In public hearings, many coalfield residents have attributed their health problems to water wells polluted after the coal mining industry “disposes” its liquid waste by injecting coal slurry underground. The primary disposal practice for coal slurry is to store it in vast unlined lagoons or surface impoundments created near mountaintop-removal mines. Hundreds of these slurry impoundments are scattered across the Appalachian coalfields. Individual impoundments have been permitted to store billions of gallons of waste. … In 2000 a slurry impoundment operated by the Martin County Coal Company in Kentucky broke through into abandoned mineworks, out old mine portals, and into tributary streams of the Big Sandy River. More than 300 million gallons of coal slurry fouled the waterway for a hundred miles downriver.
So, living near a coal mine is probably bad for your health.
Concentration of Land
Wikipedia claims that land in Appalachia (or maybe it was just WV) is highly concentrated in just a few hands–one of those being the government, as much of Appalachia is national parks and forests and the like. Of course, this could be an effect rather than a cause of poverty.
Appalachia may be “isolated” and “rural,” but it’s quite close to a great many cities and universities. Parts of West Virginia are close enough to DC that people apparently commute between them.
In the early 1900s, so many people left Appalachia for the industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest that U.S. Route 23 and Interstate 75 became known as the “Hillbilly Highway.” (BTW, I don’t think Appalachians like being called “hillbillies.”)
Compared to Appalachian areas in Arkansas or Oklahoma, West Virginia and Kentucky are particularly close to the industrial regions and coastal universities. As a result, they may have lost a far larger number of their brightest and most determined citizens.
While the Appalachian states don’t have particularly low IQs, their IQ curve seems likely to be narrower than other states’. West Virginia, for example, is only about 3% black, 1% Hispanic, and 0.5% Asian. MA, by contrast, is 9% black, 11% Hispanic, and 6% Asian. Blacks and Hispanics tend to score lower than average on IQ tests, and Asians tend to score higher, potentially giving MA more people scoring both above and below average, while WV may have more people scoring right around the middle of the distribution. With its brightest folks heading to universities outside the region, Appalachia may continue to struggle.
And finally, yes, maybe there is just something about the kinds of people who live in Appalachia that predispose them to certain ailments, like smoking or over-eating. Perhaps the kinds of people who end up working in coal mines are also the kinds of people who are predisposed to get cancer or use drugs. I don’t know enough people from the area to know either way.
To the people of Appalachia: I wish you health and happiness.
Disclaimer: while I am probably 25% Appalachian by blood and lived there for a bit as a small child, I really know diddly squat about the region. But if my Appalachian contacts are to be believed, Appalachia is the awesomeist place ever and everywhere else is full of lame strivers. (Note: the majority of people I have talked to, no matter where they are from, like the culture they grew up in.)
So with that in mind, let’s take a look back at the history of Appalachia:
Once upon a time, lots of different groups lived in Britain (and Ireland):
and a great many of them moved to the US, where they spread out, creating broad cultural zones that may have persisted to this day, like Yankeedom and the Deep South. Folks from the borderlands between Scotland (many of whom had apparently first moved to Northern Ireland) skipped over the coastal flat region and headed for the mountains.
You might think that the border between Scotland and England would be a partially-Englishy place that would somewhat resemble the monoraialized English further south, like the guys who settled New England, with the highlanders from further north being the really wild folks, but it turns out that the border was apparently kind of a lawless place because if you committed a crime in Scotland you could just hop over to the English side to avoid prosecution, and vice versa. So I hear, anyway. So instead of being, like, half manorialized, the border was more like anti-manorialized.
The first trickle of Scotch-Irish settlers arrived in New England. Valued for their fighting prowess as well as for their Protestant dogma, they were invited by Cotton Mather and other leaders to come over to help settle and secure the frontier … The Scotch-Irish radiated westward across the Alleghenies, as well as into Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. The typical migration involved small networks of related families who settled together, worshipped together, and intermarried, avoiding outsiders.
… Most Scotch-Irish headed for Pennsylvania, with its good lands, moderate climate, and liberal laws. … Without much cash, they moved to free lands on the frontier, becoming the typical western “squatters”, the frontier guard of the colony, and what the historian Frederick Jackson Turner described as “the cutting-edge of the frontier.”
… With large numbers of children who needed their own inexpensive farms, the Scotch-Irish avoided areas already settled by Germans and Quakers and moved south, down the Shenandoah Valley, and through the Blue Ridge Mountains into Virginia. These migrants followed the Great Wagon Road from Lancaster, through Gettysburg, and down through Staunton, Virginia, to Big Lick (now Roanoke), Virginia. Here the pathway split, with the Wilderness Road taking settlers west into Tennessee and Kentucky, while the main road continued south into the Carolinas.
The name “Appalachia,” btw, is one of the oldest place names in the US, hailing from the name of an Indian tribe or something that made it onto a map way back in the 1500s.
Anyway, these folks moved to the mountains, probably because they were rough-and-tumble sorts who could survive out in the harsh wilderness where more wilting types fainted from the lack of square corners and nicely plowed fields and then got killed by Indians. Also according to Wikipedia:
Because the Scotch-Irish settled the frontier of Pennsylvania and western Virginia, they were in the midst of the French and Indian War and Pontiac’s Rebellion that followed. The Scotch-Irish were frequently in conflict with the Indian tribes who lived on the other side of the frontier; indeed, they did most of the Indian fighting on the American frontier from New Hampshire to the Carolinas.
Mountains tend to remain wilderness areas long after flatlands are settled and conquered, you you had to be tough to survive in the mountains. So the Appalachians attracted and rewarded a particular sort of person who could survive in them.
I get the impression that the Appalachians were basically left alone most of the time (except for getting invaded during the Civil War, which was pretty sucky since there weren’t even a lot of slaves in Appalachia and the folks there weren’t really in favor of secession, they just got dragged along by the rest of their states. [As I mentioned yesterday, Appalachia seceded from Virginia over the issue,] and the occasional issue like the Whiskey Rebellion.)
Being up in the mountains was probably bad for the development of agriculture, both because it is difficult to plow steep hillsides, (especially without having all of your dirt wash away come the next rainfall,) and also because it was harder to build railways and other transportation networks that could get the crops/produce/meat out of the mountains and down to other markets. Likewise, it was difficult to ship in manufactured goods like factory woven cotton cloth for people to purchase; as a result, the Appalachians were probably rather cut-off from the rest of the expanding economy of the 1800s. I have searched for comparative GDP numbers for the 1800s, but unfortunately found nothing.
Railway lines only really expanded into the area after coal mining became a big deal.
It’s pretty much impossible to talk about the history of Appalachia without talking about coal. Apparently people knew about the coal way back in the 1700s, but it only became a big deal after the Civil War. The massive expansion of the mining industry attracted newly freed blacks from the Deep South and immigrants (mostly Irish but probably also Italians, eastern Europeans, etc.) from the coastal cities. There aren’t a lot of black folks currently in Appalachia, so it looks like they didn’t stick around, but the Irish did.
Coal mining was dangerous, exhausting, terrible work. If you didn’t die in a cave-in or an explosion, there was always miner’s lung. In return for powering the US, miners were paid crap–usually company scrip, only usable in company stores, so that even if they got a raise, the company would just increase the cost of goods at the store. And then there’s the pollution.
Eventually this led to strikes and attempts at unionization, to which the mine owners responded with violence, murdering strikers and assassinating their leaders, which culminated with an “army” of armed miners marching on the mines and Federal troops being called in to put down the “revolt.”
(This is better than the way the British treated their Scottish coal miners, who were literally enslaved for nearly two centuries, but still pretty shitty.)
These were the days when the Democrats were the party of Southern laborers, the Republicans were the party of Northern industrialists, an anarchist shot the President and the Russians executed their Czar.
Anyway, conditions in and around the coal mines gradually improved, until mining became a reasonable way to support a family rather than a death trap. (And if mining wasn’t to your liking, there were garment factories, tobacco farms in the South and steel mills in the North.) It was a time of relative economic well-being–unfortunately, it’s also when mechanization kicked in, and most of the miners became redundant. NAFTA and trade with China killed manufacturing, and the shift away from smoking left tobacco growers with a bunch of plants they could no longer sell.
This has been not good for the local economies.
See that X at the very bottom center of the IQ vs. GDP graph? That’s West Virginia. (The X on the far left is Mississippi.) Kentucky isn’t doing much better, though Tennessee, the third state that falls almost entirely within “Greater Appalachia,” isn’t doing too badly.
While it is true that the graph is practically random noise, West Virginia seems to me to be doing worse than it ought to be. There seems to be a basic sort of “floor” below which few of the states fall–were Appalachia on this floor, per cap GDP would be about 4k higher.
There’s a certain irony to all of this. Like Appalachia, Saudi Arabia contains a vast wealth of fossil fuel. To the best of my knowledge, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Oil States have attempted to use their vast wealth to uplift their people and are trying to develop modern, functioning economies that will be able to keep chugging even once the oil dries up. Sure, the Saudi princes get to live like, well, princes, but every one else in Saudi Arabia is probably a lot more comfortable than folks were a few generations back when the primary occupation was nomadic goat herding. (Don’t cite me on that I don’t actually know what the primary occupation in Saudi Arabia was a few generations ago.)
In Appalachia, by contrast, the locals have seen relatively little of the coal wealth (and that after a good deal of violent struggle,) and many areas are still not seeing long-term economic development.
To be fair, the US has tried to uplift the region, eg, LBJ’s War on Poverty, and been fairly successful in some areas. TVA cut flooding, rural electrification brought people lightbulbs, and pretty much everyone these days has a flush toilet and shoes. But many regions of Appalachia are still suffering–and some are doing much worse than they were a generation ago.
Appalachia is a lovely geographic region of low mountains stretching from southern NY state to northeastern Mississippi; as a cultural region, “Greater Appalachia” includes all of West Virginia and Kentucky; almost all of Tennessee and Indiana; large chunks of Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, Ohio, North Carolina, and Virginia; small parts of nearby states like Alabama and Pennsylvania; and a few counties in the northwest Florida (not on the map.) (The lack of correspondence between state boundaries and Appalachia’s boundaries makes most state-level aggregated data useless and forces me to use county level data whenever possible.)
While generally considered part of “the South,” Appalachia is culturally and ethnically distinct from the “Deep South,” generally opposed secession (West Virginia seceded from Virginia following Virginia’s secession from the Union in order to return to the Union,) and never had an economy based on large, slave-owning plantations.
Appalachia is also one of the US’s persistent areas of concentrated poverty (the others are the highly black regions of the Deep South and their migrant diaspora in northern inner-cities; the Mexican region along the Texas border; and Indian reservations.) Almost 100% of the nation’s poorest counties are located in these areas; indeed, the Southern states + New Mexico as a whole are significantly poorer than the Northern ones.
First a note, though, on poverty:
There is obviously a great difference between the “poverty” of someone who chooses a low-income lifestyle in a rural part of the country because they enjoy it and are happy trading off money for pleasure, and someone who struggles to stay employed at crappy, demeaning jobs, cannot make rent, and is miserable. Farming tends not to pay as well as finance, but I don’t think anyone would be better off if all of the farmers parked their tractors and took up finance. Farmers seem pretty happy with their lives and contribute to the nation’s well-being by producing food. By contrast, I’ve yet to talk to anyone employed in fast food who enjoyed their job or wanted to stay in the industry; if they could trade for a job in finance, they’d probably take it.
Unfortunately, Appalachia (and parts of the Deep South) appear to be the most depressed states in the country. (No data for KY and NC, but I bet they match their neighbors.) Given that depression rates tend to be higher for whites than for blacks, I suspect the effect is concentrated among Southern whites, but I wouldn’t be surprised if black people in Mississippi are depressed, too.
Of course, depression itself may just be genetic, and the Scandinavian ancestors of the northern mid-west may have gifted their descendants with a uniquely chipper outlook on life, except that Scandinavians have pretty high suicide rates.
(Note also that Appalachia has higher suicide rates than the black regions of the Deep South, the Hispanic El Norte, and white regions in NY.)
The white death rate is highest in Mississippi, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky, Nevada, and South Carolina, with the greatest increases in death rates in West Virginia and Mississippi.
I have assembled a list of articles and a few quotes discussing the increasing white death rates:
“I hang out in WV fracking country from time to time. The local community college had a 1 year program to learn how to become a “tool handler” (or something). Get your certificate, and go straight to work making $50k / year – good money is a crummy economy. The program was under-subscribed because the majority of the applicants failed the drug test.” — Jim Don Bob
“… SSDI (“disability”) culture has been deeply entrenched in West Virginia for decades, particularly in the southern coal counties where work-related injuries have historically been common…” — Chip Smith
But we will get back to death rates later. For now, given high rates of poverty, depression, suicide, and rising death rates, I’m willing to say that Appalachia sounds like it is in distress. Yes, it’s probably a drugs and obesity problem; the question is why?
The generally accepted explanation in HBD circles for Appalachian poverty is IQ–“West Virginia has an average IQ of 98”–and the personalities of its Scotch-Irish founding population. I find this inadequate. For starters, West Virginia’s average IQ of 98.7 is slightly higher than the national average. And yet West Virginia is the second poorest state in the country, with a per capita GDP of only $30,389 (in 2012 dollars.) (Only Mississippi is poorer, and Mississippi has the lowest IQ in the country.)
If IQ were the whole story, West Virginians would be making about $42,784 a year, the national average.
For that matter, Canada’s IQ is 97, Norway, Austria, Denmark, and France has IQs of 98, and Poland and Hungary are up at 99. Their respective per cap GDPs (in 2014 $s, unfortunately): $44,057, 64,856, 46,223, 44,916, 38,848, 24,745, 24,721 (but Poland and Hungary are former Soviet countries whose economies are believed to have been retarded by years of Communism.)
So IQ does not explain Appalachian poverty. But it is getting late, so I will have to continue this tomorrow.
Set in the little-known backwoods region of Florida, [Strawberry Girl] is Birdie Boyer’s story; of how she and her fierce Cracker pride battled nature, animals, and feuding neighbors to become the best “strawberry girl” the backwoods ever knew.
I confess: I picked this one out of the used books bin for the obvious reason.
The newly-released, 60th anniversary edition has a different back blurb, which doesn’t mention “Crackers.” I don’t know if they censored the text, too.
Strawberry Girl is a middle grade novel–about right for a fourth or fifth grader, depending on their tolerance for dialect–along the lines of the Little House Series.
From the Forward:
Few people realize how new Florida is, or that, aside from the early Indian and Spanish settlements, Florida has grown up in the course of a single man’s lifetime. In the early 1900’s, the date of my story, Florida was still frontier country, with vast stretches of unexplored wilderness, woodland and swamp, and her towns were frontier towns thirty and forty years later than the same frontier period in the Middle West.
After the Seminole War, 1835-1842, Anglo-Saxons from the Carolinas, Georgia, and West Florida drifted south and took up land in the lake region of Florida. … Their descendants, in the second and third generation, were, in 1900 and the following decade, just prior to the coming of the automobile, living in a frontier community, with all its crudities, brutalities, and cruelties. The “Crackers” lived a primitive life, an endless battle went on–a conflict with nature, with wild life, and with their fellow man. …
Like their antecedents in the Carolina mountains, the Florida Crackers have preserved a flavorsome speech, rich in fine old English idiom–word, phrase and rhythm. Many old customs, folk songs, and superstitions have been handed down along with Anglo-Saxon purity of type, shown in their unusual beauty of physical feature, and along with their staunch integrity of character. …
My material has been gathered personally from the Crackers themselves, and from other Floridians who know and understand them. I have visited in Cracker homes. … All the characters in my book are imaginary, but practically all incidents used were told to me by people who had experienced them.
Assuming Mrs. Lenski is accurate, there’s a great deal of interesting material here. For starters, yes, apparently “Florida Crackers” are a real thing and not just a slur, and even have their own (small) Wikipedia page. (So do the “Georgia Crackers.”) According to Wikipedia:
By the 1760s the English, both at home and in the American colonies, applied the term “Cracker” to Scotch-Irish and English settlers of the remote southern back country, as noted in a passage from a letter to the Earl of Dartmouth: “I should explain to your Lordship what is meant by Crackers; a name they have got from being great boasters; they are a lawless set of rascalls on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia, who often change their places of abode.” The word was later associated with the cowboys of Georgia and Florida, many of them descendants of those early frontiersmen.
There is some debate, it appears, over the word’s origin, whether from Shakespearean usage, “to crack a joke, to boast,” ie, people who were loud-mouth boasters, or from the sound of a whip cracking as the cowboys drove their cattle to market.
Today, of course, the term is much more likely to be used as a slur, eg, “creepy cracker.”
The Scotch-Irish are more commonly known as Appalachians. Lenski’s characterization of her informants as “Anglo-Saxons” is therefore perhaps not entirely true; indeed, her main character’s last name, Boyer, is most commonly French. (This is not an insurmountable issue–plenty of French Huguenots settled in the American South after getting kicked out of France, and had long intermarried with everyone else.)
“Purity of type” is a phrase one doesn’t hear much anymore.
My main regret about this novel is that it is told from the POV of the Boyers instead of the Slaters. The Boyers have just arrived in Florida from “Caroliny,” and their goal is to start a commercially viable farm growing oranges and strawberries, which they send by train to markets in other states. The Slaters have been in the state for 4 generations (since grandpa Slater fought in the Seminole Indian Wars,) and are subsistence ranchers. While the Boyers’ experiences are interesting, I understand the motivations of commercial farmers pretty well. I’d rather learn more about the Slaters’ POV–their lifestyle is far less common. Since the Slaters are the antagonists, they just come across as dumb/lazy/mean (though not all of them.)
The book’s principle dram revolves around conflict between the Boyers’ lifestyle–which requires fencing off the land, hard labor, and long-term planning–or the Slaters’ lifestyle–which involves hunting and occasionally rounding up freely-ranging hogs and cattle. The Boyers’ fences interfere with the Slaters’ hogs and cattle getting to food and water, and the Slaters’ hogs and cattle ate and trampled the Boyers’ crops. Before the Boyers showed up, the Slaters had few neighbors, and free-ranging livestock weren’t really a problem. So from the Slaters’ POV, they had a perfectly good system going before the Boyers had to go move in next door. (Or did they? What was the TFR for folks like the Slaters?)
I’d really like to know how common this pattern was–did many places get settled by, shall we say, wilder, more impulsive, violent folks (mostly Borderlands Scots and Scots-Irish?) who were willing to take their chances fighting Indians in untamed frontier areas and favored hunting, fishing, and ranching, and then once they’d done the hard work of “taming” these areas, did more English and German settlers fence everything off, start commercially profitable farms, and displace them? (A kind of gentrification of the frontier?)
You may have noticed Birdie’s bare feet on the cover; Lenski mentions bare feet often in the narrative, and the manure spread on the fields for fertilizer. This, as you know, is a recipe for hookworm infection–which 40% of Southern children suffered from.
Hookworm infections cause anemia, malnutrition, malnourishment, lethargy, and death. In fact, the Southern stereotype of lazy, pale, gaunt, and impoverished people–personified in the book by the Slaters–is due, in large part, to the effects of mass hookworm infection.
The book takes place around 1900 and the few years after. The first public hookworm eradication campaigns started in 1910, and there was another big campaign going on in Florida at the time the book was published. So I suspect hookworms were on the informants’ and author’s minds when describing their old lifestyles, in a “we didn’t know!” kind of way.
The book also depicts two older boys (teenagers) getting in a fight with the school master and beating the tar out of him. Interestingly, in the first chapter of Farmer Boy (in the Little House series,) Almanzo Wilder is worried about the older boys at his school beating the tar out of his teacher. (Farmer Boy is set in Upstate New York.) Was beating up the teacher some kind of regular thing?
As is typical for the time, there’s a Prohibition theme (technically, Prohibition never fully ended in parts of Appalachia,) with the grown ups clucking moralistically over the antagonist’s habit of spending all of his family’s money on alcohol and then going into alcohol-fueled rages.
Unfortunately, the ending is not very good–it basically feels like the author decided she was done writing and so the main antagonist spontaneously found Christ and decided to stop being lazy and mean, but this is an overlookable flaw in an otherwise good book.