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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Ramp Hollow

The Ordeal of Appalachia

Steven Stoll

Hill and Wang

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

1. Contemporary Ancestors

FROM DANIEL BOONE TO HILL-BILLY


In all societies there are off-casts. This impure part serves as our precursors or pioneers.

—J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer, Letter III (1782)

IT IS AN ORDINARY MAP of southern West Virginia, adorned with shapes representing private property. Some of the shapes adhere to watercourses. Others run ruler straight, throwing squares and trapezoids across innumerable hills and hollows. Distant investors consulted the Title Map of the Coal Field of the Great Kanawha Valley for its cross-section diagrams, which reveal the depths and strata of bituminous minerals. They learned the exact distances by river and railroad from these deposits to factories in Cincinnati, Richmond, and New York City. But their two-dimensional aspirations did not match three-dimensional reality. Thousands of people hunted and gathered, planted beans and maize, and raised livestock beneath the ownerships of the men whose names mark each survey. Looked at in this way, a mundane illustration of cadastral boundaries, “fixed by litigation or otherwise,” posed a threat in cartographic form, a lit fuse in an ongoing war over the control of subsistence in the southern mountains.1

There are many other maps like this one, each a fragment of a region known better by myth and legend than by history. The named investors believed that the best use of the Kanawha Valley was to remove its trees and dig its coal. They believed that these commodities enriched not only them but West Virginia, the United States, and even the world—that imposing private property over these mountains enlisted a neglected land and a forgotten people in an inevitable movement. They also believed that nothing stood in their way. As they saw it, the Kanawha Valley lay within a propitious region where wealth multiplied without social or environmental obstacles. For their part, the people on the ground had never paid much attention to lines demarcating private property or to landowners who often lived far from the mountains. Together, the investors and residents created a region, not by cooperating or by participating as equals in a political process but by the outcome of their conflict. We know the geographical location of this region as the southern extent of the Appalachian Mountains. The industrial invasion that took place there gave it another name: Appalachia.2

Where is Appalachia? Is it a province of eastern North America, locatable on any map? Or is it a set of cultural characteristics, not entirely limited to elevation or topography? West of Washington, D.C., the traveler makes a gradual ascent, rising 328 feet in forty miles to the undulating plain of the Piedmont. The Blue Ridge comes into view, topping off at 1,100 feet outside of Harpers Ferry. The landscape then slopes into the northernmost point of the Shenandoah Valley. The Civil War battlefield Antietam lies on the eastern bank of the Shenandoah River. On the other side begins a physiographic formation known as Ridge and Valley, including Spruce Mountain (4,863 feet), Cheat Mountain (4,848 feet), and Back Allegheny Mountain (4,843), features of an escarpment called the Allegheny Front. Crossing over, the countryside extends west and south as the broad, highly eroded Appalachian Plateau. A forester writing in the 1880s described rivers with myriad tributaries, each opening to still smaller forks and branches. “What renders the topography of this region most remarkable is the extraordinary narrowness of its numberless watersheds, the different creeks and brooks taking rise in the immediate neighborhood of each other.”3

We could just leave the question there and say that Appalachia consists of these uplands, including southwestern Pennsylvania, a sliver of Virginia, all of West Virginia, the eastern thirds of Kentucky and Tennessee, and the elevated counties of Georgia and the Carolinas. But physical features are not always enough to define a place as distinctive. One government report concluded that the various counties and corners often referred to as Appalachia “have only one feature in common—an elevation higher than that of the surrounding country.” There is also a wider conception that draws in all of western Pennsylvania, the bottom tier of counties in New York, parts of Ohio, a third of Alabama, and a bite of Mississippi. Not all of these areas are particularly elevated. The first use of the name Appalachia offers no clarity. While wandering in what is now northern Florida, the survivors of a disastrous Spanish expedition heard the name of a village as Apalachen. A map from 1562 has the word hovering over a vague northern territory.

Nor does Appalachia have a specific or unique ethnic identity. Shawnee, Mingo, Delaware, and Cherokee all lived there at different times, but none of them exclusively. Many among the descendants of the white settlers who found their way to the mountains after the American Revolution kept on moving, generation after generation. Before the end of the nineteenth century, they had arrived in the Ozark Mountains, the Illinois prairie, the Great Plains, and the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Whether highland whites composed a separate subculture of the South or a slight variation in the foodways, music, and lore found in the lowlands depends on whether we choose to emphasize minor differences or major similarities. As late as 1900, a Cherokee in northern Georgia, an African-American in North Carolina, and a Hungarian recently arrived in Kentucky would not have thought that they lived in the same region.4

There might be no reliable way of defining a cultural region. But consider that human patterns in tandem with landscapes create lived experience. People change their boundaries, migrate to escape drought or cold, and enlarge their presence through trade and conflict. We could construct a region entirely from the mental maps of its inhabitants, keyed to seasonal work or the burial grounds of ancestors. If this is right, then a region is a set of defining events, process unfolding in place. Every region is based on a theory.

There are plenty of theories. In the nineteenth century, geographers began to think of regions as clusters of interactions within spatial limits. In particular, they asked how markets located in cities changed surrounding landscapes. A German named Johann Heinrich von Thünen came up with a model in which a town at the center of a uniform agricultural plain influenced what farmers planted over the entire territory. He expected to find perishable products close to market and hardier ones farther away because strawberries, unlike wheat, would not survive days in transit. For Thünen, city and country worked together to create a geographical division of labor in which both merchants and farmers benefited. Every exchange took place between equals and every outcome served the greater good, without a hint of class conflict or asymmetric power. He assumed the universality of capitalist rationality, in which everyone acted to maximize profit.

A century later, historians, anthropologists, geographers, and political economists rejected most of Thünen’s ahistorical and socially simplistic model. They asked different questions. How did the financial power emanating from cities reorganize people and environments in its image? What happened to households and communities, as well as the landscapes they depended on, when everything took on monetary values? Have different forms of economy—peasant and capitalist—existed together at the same time? How can we use these relationships to understand the capitalist world? And instead of thinking only in terms of city and country, they broadened their thinking to include the various ways networks of capital allied with governments dominate resource peripheries and frontiers. In other words, rather than limit themselves to regions and nations, they saw the world itself as a division of labor, in which regions and nations created certain commodities. Rather than imagine exchanges between individuals on an equal footing, they discovered political power operating within and between markets.5

But while these ideas are good to think with, I don’t hold them too close. They aren’t flexible enough to absorb the depth and detail of actual people in actual places. Exactly when the southern mountains became a resource periphery is not entirely clear and not very important. Was it when the first colonial governor of Virginia granted the first tract of mountain land or when the first joint-stock corporation opened the first coal mine?

Yet grand theories offer us something worth carrying into the following pages. They construct the world historically. New geographical entities emerge from corporate strategies, leaps in transportation infrastructure, and other events that change the relationship between people and environments. All of which has helped me to understand a region called Appalachia. The southern mountains are half a billion years old, but Appalachia did not exist before the industrial invasion of those uplands during the nineteenth century. It appeared as a location within the capitalist world when its coal and labor ignited the American Industrial Revolution. It was created and constantly re-created by hunters and farmers of every ethnicity who employed the landscape for subsistence and exchange; by land-engrossing colonial elites; by corporate attorneys scheming to get hold of deeds; by investors wielding cadastral maps; by coal miners resisting company managers and starving on strike; by the social engineers of the New Deal; by the Appalachian Regional Commission; and by brokenhearted citizens watching beloved hollows buried by mountaintop-removal mining. Appalachia consists of these contextual identities and events and their continuing fallout between the Blue Ridge and the Ohio River.6

This book is about the ordeal of greater West Virginia, regarding that state as exemplary for the region as a whole. It takes place in the Pennsylvania counties that gave rise to the Whiskey Rebellion; in Scotts Run, a long industrial hollow near Morgantown; and in the coalfields near Flat Top Mountain, up against Kentucky and Virginia. It is predicated on the collision between two forms of economy: one represented by corporations, the other manifested in families and farms and as old as agriculture itself, if not older.

* * *

WE KNOW THE PEOPLE who lived in the mountains by various names: highlanders, mountaineers, or settlers of the backwoods. We also know them as individual frontiersmen, soldiers, and statesmen. William Henry Harrison led Kentuckians into the Old Northwest against forces commanded by the Shawnee brothers Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa. Andrew Jackson’s parents arrived in the mountains of South Carolina from Ireland in 1765. By 1814, Jackson had turned from fighting the British to fighting the Red-Stick Creeks. Two soldiers who would become backwoods legends served in Jackson’s Tennessee militia at Horseshoe Bend: Sam Houston (born on Timber Ridge in the Shenandoah Valley and reared in Tennessee) and David Crockett (born in Greene County, Tennessee). The Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson grew up west of the Blue Ridge. Abraham Lincoln came from the same people, from Sinking Spring Farm in Hardin County, Kentucky. In 1832, in his first political address, Lincoln said, “I was born and have ever remained in the most humble walks of life.”7

No other son of the southern mountains commanded more cultural gravity than Daniel Boone. He was born in 1734 on the Pennsylvania frontier, soldiered for the British Empire during the French and Indian War, and arrived in Kentucky in 1767. He moved in and out of the region over the next decade, hunting and trapping for a living, fighting and negotiating with Shawnee and Delaware. In 1775, a North Carolina judge and merchant hired Boone to blaze a trail through the Cumberland Gap and northward into central Kentucky. It became known as the Wilderness Road. Boone established Boonesborough at its northern terminus on the Kentucky River and brought his family there.8

Boone became famous during his lifetime, but few among the eastern elite spoke a good word about anyone else who lived in the same places and in the same way he did. John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, the last British governor of Virginia, considered mountain people dangerous to administrative order. “They acquire no attachment to Place … wandering about seems engrafted in their Nature.” A group of squatters went so far as to promulgate their own laws, sneered Dunmore, nearly declaring themselves “a separate State … distinct from and independent of his majesty’s authority.” In October 1780, Major Patrick Ferguson terrified his loyalist militia with this description: “Unless you wish to be eaten up by an inundation of barbarians … if you wish or deserve to live and bear the name of men, grasp your arms in a moment and run to camp … The Back-water men have crossed the mountains.” Ferguson reported that these vipers had cut up a boy in front of his father. Days later, backwater men killed Ferguson and 150 of his soldiers in the Battle of Kings Mountain.9

“The first settler in the woods is generally a man who has outlived his credit or fortune in the cultivated parts of the State,” claimed the Philadelphia doctor and essayist Benjamin Rush. He said that every pioneer lives in filth and rags, enduring privation and hunger. He lives and thinks like an Indian. Most of all, he hates “the operation of laws.” At best, thought Rush, these reckless and irredeemable people prepared the way for husbandmen who paid taxes and furnished the cities with food. Whether wilderness outliers would ever submit to constitutional authority remained the greatest question. They were, wrote J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, “a kind of forlorn hope.” The French-born author of Letters from an American Farmer scorned if he did not outright fear them. Along “our extended line of frontiers … many families exhibit the most hideous parts of our society.” In this view, no one who preferred hunting to farming could be relied upon as a civilizing force.10

Castoffs living in anarchy haunted the Federalists who came to power during the 1780s, but a different kind of migration brought the southern mountains into the Atlantic World. By grant and purchase, the Revolutionary elite came into millions of acres. None of the owners moved to western Virginia or eastern Kentucky. Properties the size of major watersheds belonged to men who would know them only as metes and bounds described on parchment. Most of the land was too steep to be cultivated in cotton or tobacco and too far from cities to have any other commercial use. Owners filed their deeds and forgot about them, unaware that a frontier society took shape on their property. The first census of the United States revealed that 56,000 whites, blacks, and Indians inhabited the area that became West Virginia, a density of 2.3 per square mile. Each household tended to claim around four hundred acres by squatting or “tomahawk right,” but others claimed much more, with the expectation that Virginia or Kentucky would acknowledge their titles. A two-tiered land system took shape. The first consisted of state-endorsed absentee ownership. The second appeared when cabin-building, cattle-grazing, bear-hunting households moved in.11

By the end of the Revolution, fear of the woodsmen at higher elevations had given way to a kind of admiration. To some, they exemplified national independence more vividly than planters or merchants or the farmers of New England. In 1805, a theater in Charleston, South Carolina, staged a performance of Independence; or Which Do You like Best, the Peer, or the Farmer? In the play, Lord Fanfare attempts to re-create an English manor in the mountains. There he encounters Mr. Woodville, a perplexing commoner who refuses to play the part of serf or servant.

LAWYER WITTINGTON: That beautiful, romantic farm of the valley, is situated in the very centre of your lordship’s estate, and no sum whatever could tempt the now proprietor, Mr. Woodville, to part with it. He is one of the queerest animals I ever came across—an eccentric, by this light; celebrated for glorying in, and boasting of, his INDEPENDENCE, and declaring, that an honest farmer knows of no dependence, except on heaven … I had a presentiment ’twould be agreeable to you to possess Mr. Independence’s farm, so offered him three thousand pounds for it, on your lordship’s account; but he told me, by way of answer, he intended, God willing, to live fifty years, and would, in the course of that term, make five times the sum I proffered him, off of it—Ergo, ’twould be bad policy in him to sell it.

LORD FANFARE: Why didn’t you make the plebeian acquainted with my rank and fortune? He certainly would not have dar’d refuse to accommodate a peer of the realm!

LAWYER WITTINGTON: I did, my lord, I did, tell him, what a monstrous great man you were; and he then, strutted about, like a beau ’fore a church porch, or a monkey, with the king’s evil, and swore, by the dignity of a man, he would not sell a single furrow! No, not a pound of earth; to gratify the caprice of any mortal; be him peer of the realm, or peddler of the highway, and that he would retain his to be envied INDEPENDENCE, pure and unsullied, in spite of you and all the peers and aristocrats in Christendom.

Woodville mocks Fanfare and outwits Wittington. The conflict between aristocratic rank and the anarchy of the backwoods is funny because Fanfare doesn’t understand that Woodville is not his subject. The audience recognized the misplaced lord. But Wittington introduces Woodville as “one of the queerest animals I ever came across.” The key to Woodville’s political and economic independence is his ability to seize land and subsist without regard to Fanfare. And while Fanfare represents feudal rules and obligations, Woodville is free in a way almost unintelligible to the aristocrat. He is disdainful of and unaccountable to power, more of a trickster than a clown.12

Politicians of the 1830s and 1840s praised these pioneers—a word that originally referred to an advance infantry of laborers who prepared for the regular army by digging fortifications and repairing roads. Representative Charles Faulkner of western Virginia promoted them: “Our native, substantial, independent yeomanry, constitute our pride, efficiency and strength; they are our defense in war, our ornaments in peace; and no population, I will venture to affirm, upon the face of the globe, is more distinguished for an elevated love of freedom—for morality, virtue, frugality and independence, than the Virginia peasantry west of the Blue Ridge.” Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri spoke of them in world-historical terms. To him, they were the vanguard of a racially defined society. In 1846, Benton recalled the Proclamation Line established by Great Britain after the French and Indian War to keep colonists out of the backcountry. “Where is that boundary now? The van of the Caucasian race now top the Rocky Mountains, and spread down to the shores of the Pacific … Civilization, or extinction, has been the fate of all people who have found themselves in the track of the advancing Whites.”13

Faulkner and Benton celebrated a mountain folk who crossed borders with little regard for those who governed from afar. As long as political elites pretended not to see the flaunting of private property and constitutional authority, they could continue to believe that the interests of the backwoods aligned with those of the nation-state. For a time, their interests did align. In every skirmish with Shawnee, in every frontier battle, the pioneers made visceral claims to territory. By defending and dying for their own homes, they fought the wars of the American Empire. In fact, the specific pioneers whom Benton exalted were not in Tennessee or Kentucky. They were a few miles from the Pacific Ocean, in territory disputed between Britain and the United States, where they founded the Provisional Government of Oregon. Senator Levi Woodbury of New Hampshire demanded forts and supply lines to protect them from Indians and Redcoats. He called the Oregon settlers defenseless, by which he meant stateless. “But they are American citizens no less than we—they are on American soil no less than we.” This is how a fierce and mobile people served the interests of the United States. Their unsanctioned seizure of a contested frontier justified the expansion of American authority.14

Washington Irving turned to the backwoods for a relevant symbol of national identity. In 1839, the lifelong New Yorker searched for a more rational nomenclature of citizenship than the one he had inherited. “United States citizen” seemed to him “a clumsy, lumbering title.” An American? “There are two Americas, each subdivided into various empires.” Irving found a new term in “one of the grand and eternal features of our country … I allude to the Appalachian or Alleghany mountains.” This grand feature stood in the middle of everything, separating the northern farm from the southern plantation, the Atlantic Seaboard from the Mississippi River Valley. Thus he announced the “United States of Appalachia.”15

Twenty years later, the relentless expansion of the United States had left the southern mountains behind. Texas had exploded into national politics, first as a borderland of cotton and slavery, then as a republic after its war of independence with Mexico. Its admission to the Union as the twenty-eighth state set off the Mexican–American War, in which the United States seized 529,000 square miles of arid territory. The California Gold Rush of 1849 and the discovery of the Comstock Lode in 1859 ignited emigration to the Far West. A political crisis ensued. Congress, riven by conflict over slavery, found it impossible to integrate the Mexican Cession as well as the unorganized remnants of the Louisiana Purchase. When the locus of territorial struggle shifted, expansionists no longer recognized their own aspirations for control of the continent in the settlers of western Virginia. The admiration of mountaineers marked a particular geopolitical moment. By 1860, that moment had ended.

The pioneers went from the present to the past. One way to explain how their fortunes changed is to look at one of the first biographies of Daniel Boone, published by a Connecticut journalist named George Canning Hill in 1859. What makes Boone’s story (in Hill’s telling) so important for understanding the fate of Appalachia in the nineteenth century is that Boone’s life did not conform to that of other mythic heroes. He didn’t die in a ritualistic battle between good and evil. He never made it back home. Between the American Revolution and his death in 1820, Boone endured a tangle of financial missteps and hardships having to do with land. All this matters because what happened to Boone mirrors what was happening in Appalachia. Hill’s story displays nearly every aspect of the declining cultural significance of the southern mountains.

After the Revolution, the Commonwealth of Virginia granted millions of acres in its far-distant counties to soldiers, politicians, and financiers. The owners often turned around and sold their holdings, setting off a frenzy. The thought that wilderness land might be valuable sent all sorts of people into the mountains to grab it up. Kentucky was part of Virginia until 1792, and Boone joined in the rush. He bought and sold warrants, which conferred the right to make a claim that might result in title (meaning ownership). But if another claimant proved that he had made the first survey or demonstrated a superior right in some other way, all competing warrants became void. This made buying a warrant like placing a bet. The process required tenacity, a touch of mendacity, and a smattering of legal knowledge. Between the early 1780s and the early 1790s, Boone bought warrants to at least thirty-nine thousand acres, resulting in about twelve thousand acres in his name.

Soon after, Boone lost almost all of it, leading his biographer to write about the wealthy men who bought the ground from under him.

How was he doomed to the bitterest of disappointments! The title, however it might have been concocted, was put before the occupancy! The speculator could drive out the brave and self-sacrificing pioneer!… And this the law permitted. There seemed to be no help for it. The authority of the original pioneer and discoverer was not accounted equal to that of the man who held cunningly drafted instruments in his hand, and could quote nice technicalities in his favor … Boone was turned out of his home, and his farm became the property of another!

Hill’s morality tale is much simplified, but it isn’t wrong. Boone loaned money without security. He sold to people who never paid him. He bought land for his children at significant cost. To raise money, he sold pieces of his holdings at a discount, then invested in additional warrants that never turned into titled property. Plaintiffs sued him, called him a liar, and won judgments against him. He stopped defending himself and failed to show up in court. In 1798, a judge ordered him taken into custody, but the pioneer of Kentucky had fled to Missouri. The mythic journey of the most American of all American heroes began in wilderness and ended in petty lawsuits over real estate.16

The frontier hero plays a distinctive historical role. He might be born in the woods, but he dedicates his life to the destruction of the very forces that create him as a hero. The first cut for civilization requires a touch of savagery. Only Boone’s colossal moral strength allows him to maintain his mission, though he is continually exposed to moral danger. But the schemers finally get him. In Hill’s account, they defeat the hunter without the blade-and-gunpowder contest he always won. Title overcomes occupancy; technicalities undercut self-sacrifice. Most of all, there seemed to be no help for it. Cunningly drafted instruments represent the way of the world. They indicate that Boone has lost his grip on the times. “Settling up a new country is not civilizing it.” Boone knows how to find a path through the woods and seize territory—not how to develop it into governed, productive space.17

Hill wrote about Boone’s ineptitude and bankruptcy at the very moment that the plain folk of the southern mountains had entered their own eclipse. Hill’s interpretation of Boone has nothing to do with what actually happened in the mountains or how the people who lived there responded to change. Instead, it reflects a shifting mood. In 1860, approximately 150,000 households lived in the American highlands. Members of Congress no longer celebrated them. Charles Faulkner, who had wrapped them in poetry in 1832, spoke of them obliquely in 1876: “Ours is a mountain country. Its population is thinly scattered through its hills and valleys.” He told the House of Representatives that West Virginia might overtake Britain in coal and iron production but not if its treasures remained “unused in the bowels of the earth.” The best that Faulkner could say about the peasantry he once called Virginia’s pride and strength was that they posed no impediment to what was coming.18

The cultural slide seemed to pause during the Civil War. Northerners praised those southerners who fought on their side. West Virginia seceded from Virginia during the war and joined the Union. Kentucky also refused to join the Confederacy. To northerners, loyal mountaineers seemed to prove the justness of their cause. A writer for the Saint Paul Press compared the cotton-bound coastal plain to an infested swamp. But liberty lived in the mountains. “Freedom has always loved the air of mountains … The skypiercing peaks of the continents are bulwarks against oppression: and from mountain valleys has often swept most fearful retribution to tyrants.” The New York Times consistently looked upon them favorably, as “loyal mountaineers,” “simple-hearted and faithful mountaineers,” and “brave mountaineers who have trusty rifles, and, if attacked, there will be some rebel blood left there to pollute the mountain soil.” But this esteem did not outlast the war. The ongoing struggle for control of the continent changed locations and took a different form in the 1870s. The conflict shifted to the Great Plains, where the Union fought the Sioux. Investors created wheat fields the size of counties, harvested them with steam engines, and employed armies of immigrants. The locomotive overtook the frontiersman as the paramount symbol of progress.19

Before outright disdain came fascination. Edward Pollard, a Baltimore attorney born in Virginia, took a jaunt into the mountains in 1869. No one told him it had been done before. “The Author comes before the public … bearing what may be described to many readers in America as the discoveries or revelations of a New World!” He described the inhabitants as the sturdy poor: “There is nothing of the squalor or wretchedness of poverty in the mountains,” chirped Pollard. “The poverty of the mountain is picturesque; it is hardy, healthful; it is a school of rude but independent manners.” The giddy sophisticate went cabin to cabin in search of some kind of aesthetic sublime. What, exactly, did he mean by a “delicious sensation, with contrasts in it of bodily discomfort only sharp enough to increase the zest”?

Pollard jumped up and down and clapped his hands at the rustic interiors. One evening after watching as his host (a stoic dude in homemade clothing) filled pipe after pipe for an hour, Pollard cleared his throat. “Look here … old man … why do you smoke so much?” Stoic dude responded, “Well, sir, I live here … I has my pleasure in whatsoever I is at for de time I am at it.” This only deepened the mystery. Another highlander seemed “a splendid specimen of his class—a stalwart son of the forest, of Herculean stature.” Pollard also noticed the landscape. Tazewell County (soon to become McDowell County) offered crystal springs and romantic views, ideal sites for spas and hotels. He advertised the place: “At present we are firmly persuaded that there is no field of investment in Virginia that presents such opportunities as does the already awakened improvement of springs property.” He found sulfur springs pouring with cool tonic water and had a gallon of it analyzed. Perfect for invalids!20

Travelers continued to emphasize local color, but others wrote in a more menacing voice. An article appeared in Lippincott’s Magazine that seemed to mark a new conception of the region and its people. Its opening is benign. “We were journeying over the mountains in the autumn of 1869. Our camp was pitched in a valley of the ascending ridges of the Cumberland range, on the south-east border of Kentucky.” The author arrives at a cabin door. An African-American woman answers, revealing “the sordid interior … sickly with the smell of half-eaten food and unwashed dishes; the central figure a poor, helpless old man sitting on a stool.” The man was white, and the author supposes him a deposed slaveholder, rotting in some unspecified immorality among his former property.

For the author, that moment set off a torrent of scorn against the poor whites of the mountains, some of it strange and shocking. “The natives of this region are characterized by marked peculiarities of the anatomical frame. The elongation of the bones, the contour of the facial angle, the relative proportion or disproportion of the extremities, the loose muscular attachment of the ligatures.” This racialized condemnation, perhaps more than any other insult and degradation they received, most indicates the extent to which they had fallen down a cultural gradient, from the formidable owners of their material world to curiosities—at best the makers of homely quilts and rough-hewn furniture, at worst moonshine-distilling insurgents and violent slackers against the social order. The disparaging writing about the poor whites of the southern mountains tends to assert or imply their incapacity for historical change. It accuses them of stagnation amid opportunities for wealth. Rather than admit that they did not understand the people they confronted, the journalists, social scientists, and tourists who produced this writing often castigated and dismissed them.21

The writers expressed three attitudes, sometimes in combination. Some, like Pollard, delighted in cultural difference. They regarded the mountaineers as the survivors of a pure Anglo-Saxon culture that should be preserved. Others diagnosed degeneracy. In this view, the descendants of the bold pioneers became wretched in isolation and failed to live up to their supposed Anglo-Saxon potential. Another group held either of the first two views and also tried to figure out where the mountaineers had come from as a way of diagnosing their problem. This last group is the most interesting, since they claimed to be doing social science.

Nineteenth-century social science came into being in order to categorize so-called backward and changeless people. “Let students of sociology leave their books,” advised one authority, “and at first hand in the Cumberlands deal with the phenomena of a social order arrested at a relatively early stage of evolution.” The historian Frederick Jackson Turner made a similar pronouncement in 1893. “Among isolated coves … the frontier has survived, like a fossil, in a more recent social formation.” Two broad explanations emerged, one environmental, the other racial. Some theorized that geology and geography influence certain qualities or characteristics. In other words, the left-behind posterity of the first settlers eventually succumbed to isolation; they became stunted by the hollows. Another line of investigation attempted to trace the mountaineers to an originating ethnic group. In this view, degeneracy could be passed from generation to generation as an inherited trait.22

Several of these ideas appear in the writings of William Goodell Frost and Ellen Churchill Semple. Born in Buffalo, New York, the son and grandson of New England missionaries and abolitionists, Frost presided over Berea College in Madison County, Kentucky, for almost thirty years. He believed that the highlanders composed a forgotten colony of Anglo-Saxons, unchanged by the times, like air bubbles trapped in Arctic ice. “The mountaineer is to be regarded as a survival,” wrote Frost in 1898. “In his speech you will soon detect the flavor of Chaucer; in his home you shall see the fireside industries of past ages … in a word, he is our contemporary ancestor!” Frost’s oxymoron contains a theory of regionalism. He defined Appalachia as the place where physical isolation preserved the cultural traits of a frontier society.

Frost also expressed an environmental theory of cultural formation, an idea popular among the northeastern elite. Along with Theodore Roosevelt and Frederick Jackson Turner, Frost believed that the struggle and strain of frontier life provided an experience of conquest that produced the American character. According to Turner, the end of the frontier as a place of conflict and a process of state formation marked the end of an epoch. Appalachians stood apart from the relentless technological change of the late nineteenth century, and for Frost, Turner, and Roosevelt that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. With other metropolitans they certainly advocated for locomotives and electricity, but they also thought that white mountaineers represented certain barbarian virtues worth preserving. The highlanders’ steadiness offered a polestar—“a fixed point which enables us to measure the progress of the moving world.” How or whether these noble savages in their redoubts would withstand industrial capitalism no one could say.23

To the geographer Ellen Churchill Semple, the wayward mountaineers composed a seed bank, the stored germ plasm of Anglo-Saxon Puritans, “as if they had disembarked from their eighteenth-century vessel but yesterday.” She knew that just yesterday the reeking scum of Europe had disembarked from their nineteenth-century vessel. Irishmen patrolled the streets of New York City and Boston. By the 1880s, their political machines had supplanted the genteel influence of the Astors and the Lowells. The ongoing invasion of Italians and Jews sent the guardians of Anglo-Saxon culture into anxious fits of racial conservation. They invented eugenics, spread chapters of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and gated Plymouth Rock. The people of upland Kentucky gave Semple strange solace. They had been tainted by a smidgeon of French and German but were otherwise pure. “The stock has been kept free from the tide of foreign immigrants.” But what proof did she have for the pure blood of the hollow folk?24

Frost and Semple both believed that they heard Elizabethan English spoken in West Virginia and Kentucky. Words like afeared, and learn (for teach, as in “Learn me how to lose a winning match,” from Romeo and Juliet) are among the few cited as evidence. But there is no evidence. These words were common all over the South. They did not “survive” in the mountains. It isn’t clear why mountaineers would speak like Shakespeare anyway, given that they had stronger ties to Scotland and Ireland than to England. Neither Frost nor Semple knew of the Swedish and Finnish origins of the backwoods settlement culture or that the ancestors of the log-cabin folk had spent the seventeenth century at or near the seaboard, mixing with Delaware Indians. The contention that Appalachian dialect originated in early-modern England, writes the linguist Michael Montgomery, “cannot withstand even a little objective scrutiny.”

What Frost and Semple thought they knew turns out to be less important than what they assumed. They believed that certain people created culture; others received it. In this view, Appalachians exhibited inherited traits, having invented nothing themselves. Other examples of the same thinking also involve mountain dwellers. In northern Luzon, the largest island of the Philippines, smallholders cultivate wet rice in terraces. Anthropologists once believed that the practice of terrace construction had arrived from China in about 1500 B.C. False. Recent studies show that the terraces date only to the seventeenth century, when lowland farmers sought refuge at higher elevations from the Spanish colonial military. Within a relatively short time, in other words, highland Filipinos developed practices that observers could not conceive of as having come from them.25

It isn’t the falseness of these ideas that makes them interesting but the problems they appeared to solve. A few old English words here and there, a comforting assertion about elevation and culture, simplified matters too complex for the prevailing models of reality. Some of the same geographers who invented Appalachia advocated environmental determinism, or the idea that climate and geography generate human differences and drive history. Ellsworth Huntington, the best-known determinist of the twentieth century, claimed to have cut a clarifying path through the messiness of human events. “Maps of what we may call climatic energy are practically identical with maps of health, crop yields, transportation, income, wages, education, and a host of other economic and social conditions … Therefore the only logical conclusion is that the main geographical pattern is set by climate.” Huntington invented “climate energy” out of thin air and then confused correlation with causation. He didn’t really practice social science at all. Climate didn’t pose questions for his investigation. Instead, it provided simple answers to historical problems he did not understand.26

The two broad explanations of highland degeneracy often appeared in the same works. The basic premise was that a class of northern Europeans (either sturdy Anglo-Saxon pioneers or Scots-Irish criminals) found their way into the mountains and became trapped by topography, stagnating in their remoteness and turning into the grotesque mountaineers of the 1890s. It should be clear that none of this came from what we would recognize as ethnographic fieldwork. Frost, Semple, and Huntington made what they wanted of their subjects. No one asked them to justify their faulty methods because their so-called findings reinforced the Atlantic elite’s most versatile sociological category: race.

Race emerged as the self-serving ideology at the center of social science. It’s a spectacular fabrication in which one group collects the qualities of another group (speech, skin color, geography, social status, or foodways) and casts them as inferior under an inviolate authority (God, Nature, or Progress). As the historian Jacqueline Jones argues, “Race signifies neither a biological fact, nor a primal prejudice, and it lacks the coherence of a robust political ideology; rather, it is a collection of fluid, contingent mythologies borne of (among other imperatives) fighting a war, assembling a labor force, advancing the designs of demagogues, organizing a labor union, and preserving voting and public schooling as privileges reserved for some, rather than as rights shared by all.” We know that white slaveholders began to prefer African to English indentures for a variety of reasons and only later justified African slavery on the basis of skin color. Once black became synonymous with slave in the Atlantic World, planters could deploy a circular argument for bondage, torture, and rape.27

Poor whites also became a despised race defined by their own circular argument. Descriptions of mountaineers emphasize their supposed degeneracy and grotesqueness, which came from their isolation, causing moral depravity, resulting in … degeneracy and grotesqueness. Once a racial type is in place, any worsening of a subject people’s condition reinforces the type, providing proof after proof. Racialization has often gone along with ejectment and enclosure, offering an intellectual tool for taking resources away from people said to be incapable of progress or change. This is what we find in the southern mountains. The knowledge that wood, coal, and other minerals existed there came first, soon followed by the technical capability and political organization necessary to extract them. Between the 1860s and 1900, metropolitans accused struggling households, many in tenuous legal possession of the land they farmed, of unfitness for the modern world. The writer James Lane Allen fired a shot for speculators and shareholders. “For, within a hundred years, the only thing to take possession of it, slowly, sluggishly overspreading the region of its foot-hills, its vales and fertile slopes—the only thing to take possession of it and to claim it has been a race of mountaineers, an idle, shiftless, ignorant, lawless population.” Aspersions of stupidity, backwardness, primitivism, and volatility coincided with the seizure of the environment.

Inventing a race of people and depriving them of land not only required the force of law, it required a story. The writer Allen told it dramatically. Once upon a time mountaineers lived in high-and-away Kentucky, “a zone of almost inaccessible hills with steep slopes, forests difficult to penetrate, and narrow jagged gorges … a virgin wilderness, a vast isolating and isolated barrier.” The author lived to see the fortress of the Cumberlands fall before the world-historical movement of extractive industry, “bringing into it the new, and letting the old be scattered until it is lost.” The people, like the landscape, are redeemed to a higher purpose. “Old manners and customs, old types of character and ideals of life, old virtues and graces as well as old vices and horrors,” are obliterated.

Isolation appears often in these stories. No one who lived in Kentucky thought that they lived behind “inaccessible hills … a vast isolating and isolated barrier,” as Allen called it. Merchants and farmers there sold cattle to Baltimore, floated logs to Ohio, and shipped whiskey down to New Orleans. They acquired consumer products from all over. And yet, the slant of the ranges favored commerce in certain directions and not others, northeasterly in the Blue Ridge, northwesterly on the Plateau. Getting around wasn’t like galloping through Kansas over a hundred miles of good road. The mountains made travel difficult much of the year and at times impossible. But industry had no trouble finding what it wanted and removing it. Corporations lay track into thousands of hollows and pulled billions of dollars in lumber and coal from the region over the following century. Still, those searching for the causes of poverty in Appalachia—throughout the twentieth century and even today—blame its isolation.

As recently as 2007, the Appalachian Regional Commission used a boilerplate that could have been written a century earlier. “These … mountains have stood throughout history as nearly impenetrable barriers to socioeconomic interaction, commerce, and prosperity … Appalachia is a place apart, a place where people have long-suffered the chronic economic consequences of physical isolation.” Isolation, as it is used in this sense, doesn’t really describe location. It describes an unholy remove from civil society, an outlier status. Like race, it doesn’t really exist, but the story requires it. It defines the thing to be overcome.28

For foresters, missionaries, and businessmen, the thing to be overcome was the very cultural distinctiveness that travelers and geographers admired. When they said that mountaineers were different from other white citizens of the United States, they meant that highlanders wasted the resources under their control. They meant that older ways of being and doing things would never blend with twentieth-century needs and opportunities. They meant that folk religion deviated from institutional Protestantism. They meant that a people who used common lands for common uses lived within a deviant economic culture. By the late nineteenth century, they meant that industrial agriculture would not work in Appalachia. Sloping, rocky, narrow, inaccessible fields could not be modernized. A vast monoculture for export would never be planted there. Credit from financial institutions would never flow there.29

Racialized qualities and geographical theories culminated in a single sentence. In 1900, a journalist for the New York Journal described a person he had never seen before. “A Hill-Billie is a free and untrammeled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him.” Hill-Billie was threatening for being free from hierarchy and unassimilated into Atlantic capitalism. But we cannot understand Billie without his historical setting. The mountains at that time were under full-scale assault. The landscape that sustained him by providing him with food at all seasons and commodities for exchange was vanishing. Writing in 1904, an engineer condemned highlanders with unusual ferocity. He called them “forlorn and miserable in appearance and behavior; but, never having known or dreamed of anything better than the wretched surroundings of their everyday life, they are supremely unconscious of their own misery.” The engineer mistook Hill-Billie’s condition for the historical process that had created him as poor and cast it back upon him.

This is how a story that begins with Daniel Boone arrives at Hill-Billie, how admiration for frontier independence and tenacity turned into racialized condemnation and hatred within twenty or thirty years. The period of admiration might have been the exception. Plenty of people distrusted backwoods people before Boone’s career. It appears to have coincided with a certain moment in which settlement did not violate administrative authority but furthered American expansion. Nonetheless, it’s still remarkable how quickly the shift happened. The chapters that follow explain the events and methods that resulted in an astonishing process of dispossession, as well as the changes from within mountain ecology and economy that played a part in it.30

And yet, some of the people most involved in extractive industry had another way of talking. They used a romantic language of light pathos and wistful regret. The president of the West Virginia Coal Mining Institute addressed assembled executives in 1912. He recalled his early career as a “mineral man,” climbing into hollows looking for coal. “I count it as a bit of rare good fortune that professional duties called me into the mountains while the men and women there were still natural, the spinning wheel in use, handmade rifles in service, good old sorghum served in coffee.” One night at twilight, “traveling a strange trail in a strange land,” he heard cowbells in the woods and smelled bacon from a nearby cabin. The inhabitants welcomed him in for “a long hour’s talk before a big log fire with all the family present.” The speaker did not wish to see those “natural” men and women again in possession of the mountains. In his mind, they now belonged to memory. And though he himself contributed to the demise of their way of life, he implies that a transcendent force of progress controlled events. Yet something else is striking about the speaker’s description of “natural” men and women, their homely ways, and their inevitable and necessary downfall. He could have been talking about American Indians.31

* * *

NO TWO DISPOSSESSIONS are the same. The white settler culture of the southern mountains did not share the same fate as the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, and Creek. The compulsory removal of these five nations in 1838, known in Cherokee as the Trail of Tears, would seem to have no connection to the coming of corporations to West Virginia. Still, these events bear a resemblance. They rhyme. In both instances, a privileged commercial class depicted the members of a target group as a despised race before taking their land.

Forty years before, the United States favored a policy of assimilation. When Georgia planters and speculators tried to sway George Washington to help them eject the Creek from their homeland, the president snubbed them. If Creek men and women dressed, spoke, farmed, and worshipped like white southerners, Washington would commit the United States to protecting them. In the summer of 1790, he invited a Creek delegation to New York City. It was the beginning of an unprecedented pact with their vibrant leader, Alexander McGillivray. The son of a Scottish trader and a Creek mother, McGillivray had been commissioned a British colonel during the Revolution. He wanted to bridge the two worlds and the two peoples to whom he belonged. Weeks of negotiation and heavy drinking resulted in a treaty that established permanent borders to be enforced by the United States.

On the twentieth of July, McGillivray and Washington stood at 39 Broadway. Said Washington, “I am glad you have come, Colonel. I have long felt that we had much in common.” Responded McGillivray, “I cannot flatter myself that much, Mr. President, but it has long been my ambition to shake your hand in friendship.” Their meeting held the promise of territorial sovereignty and Indian citizenship. Under the terms of the treaty, McGillivray became a brigadier general, suggesting a place for him within the nation-state. Over the following twenty years, many members of the five southern nations accepted certain aspects of white American culture. They became Christians and planted cotton. Some owned slaves. The Cherokee published a newspaper in their own language and ratified a constitution in accordance with the Constitution of the United States.

None of these concessions or adaptations, however, made them more secure. Washington never enforced the treaty with McGillivray. The army never arrived to protect the Creek against speculators who instigated confrontation by fraudulently offering Creek land for sale. McGillivray repudiated the treaty in 1792 and died the next year. The electoral defeat of the Federalists in 1800 left Indians subject to Thomas Jefferson, an expansionist with little commitment to tribal sovereignty. Instead, Jefferson thought up ways of dispossessing the Chickasaw by predatory lending and foreclosure. Let the Indians come and trade, he said, and the army would furnish them “with all the necessaries and comforts they may wish,” encouraging them “to run in debt for these beyond their individual means of paying.” Once the scam was running, “they will always cede lands to rid themselves of debt.” A general sense that Indian claims throughout the South would soon be open to whites inspired a popular ditty: “All I ask in this creation / Is a pretty little wife and a big plantation / Way up yonder in the Cherokee Nation.”

With the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828, planters and speculators believed that they had accumulated the political influence necessary to eject every last Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, and Creek and send them to the far side of the Mississippi River. Georgia’s political leadership declared the Cherokee Constitution null and void (though its legislature and governor had no authority to do so) and passed a series of laws asserting their rights over the Cherokee homeland. The Supreme Court seemed to come to the defense of the Cherokee by ruling that no state could claim jurisdiction over any Indian nation. The Court affirmed, however, that the United States did possess that authority. In other words, the Court threw the entire question into national politics. The same forces and interests so intent on puncturing Cherokee autonomy immediately appealed to Jackson. He responded by giving them everything they ever wanted.

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 authorized the president to make some unnamed location available for those Indians “as may choose to exchange the lands where they now reside, and remove there.” But no offer ever conveyed a more blatant threat. Nothing prevented Jackson from using extralegal means to enforce this “exchange,” which really required people to leave the only home they had ever known for one they never wanted. But what makes the lead-up to the Trail of Tears so important is that justification for this policy of dispossession required public argument. It called for definitions and explanations from every branch of government.

Removal began with an intellectual process, a rhetorical attack intended to erase the long-standing relationship between the nations and the United States. Representative Lewis Cass of Michigan, a former governor of the Michigan Territory, attempted to undermine any notion that Indians and whites could share the same social space. He said that missionaries had tried for decades to teach Christian morality to the Cherokee, “but there seems to be some insurmountable obstacle in the habits and temperament of the Indians.” As for the assertion that many among the Cherokee had conformed to the expectations of whites, Cass lied that only “half-breeds” did. Instead, “the great body of the people are in a state of helpless and hopeless poverty,” improvident and indolent. “We doubt whether there is, upon the face of the globe, a more wretched race than the Cherokees.” Cass recast their desperate attempt to find stability and gain acceptance as shallow mimicry.32

Andrew Jackson dismissed the Cherokee as a failed race. He expressed a mystical ideology of white supremacy, in which the white settlement of North America necessarily supplanted Indians. Addressing a delegation in 1835, Jackson revealed the sham of a voluntary exchange. “Listen to me … while I tell you that you cannot remain where you now are. Circumstances that cannot be controlled, and which are beyond the reach of human laws, render it impossible that you can flourish in the midst of a civilized community.” Some Cherokee fled to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) in advance of the policy. Some hid high in the mountains and evaded expulsion. But sixteen thousand found no way to hold out, part of an estimated sixty thousand Indians throughout the South who were ripped from their farms by marshals and made into refugees. Jackson promised to ameliorate any suffering that might ensue during the forced migration, but in December 1838 he did nothing while four thousand died of starvation, hypothermia, and sickness.33

This forced exile differed entirely from the departures of the Scots-Irish from their homes in the hollows. Even under similar aspersions of degeneracy, mountain whites had a different relationship with those in power. Unlike the Creek and Cherokee, the Scots-Irish did not claim a collective identity in a sovereign territory. The five nations had engaged in treaty negotiation with the United States as nations since the end of the Revolution. Then, when the United States extinguished that sovereignty, it ejected the Indians as Indians. This collective ethnic identification made the Removal Act and the Trail of Tears different from the slow violence that brought an end to agrarian autonomy in places like West Virginia. No act of Congress or appeal to the Supreme Court or disavowal of treaties characterized the industrial invasion of Appalachia.34

But the similarities also matter. Both groups were cast as degenerate races with no capacity for historical progress. Neither Scots-Irish cattle herders nor Chickasaw maize gardeners could be brought into the circulation of capital without shedding their rootedness in locality and their household sufficiency. Indian territorial sovereignty conflicted with the expansion of cotton and slavery. Mountaineer kinship made some of the same kinds of claims on the landscape as homeplace. Neither group made much sense to an emerging conception of land as commodity. Most of all, perhaps, both underwent an intellectual dispossession that preceded the one that actually took away their land. “Assaults on a nation’s environmental resources frequently entail not just the physical displacement of local communities, but their imaginative displacement as well,” writes the scholar Rob Nixon. By the time marshals arrested those Cherokee who refused to go peacefully, the five nations had already become notional refugees, “uncoupled from the idea of both a national future and a national memory.” Mountain whites lost their land under the same assumptions, if not the same tactics, deployed against Indians. Neither vanished, but rather they resisted and endured. They shared one other thing in common: their displacements made them poor.35

* * *

ALL AGRARIANS PRACTICE SOME VERSION of the same kind of economy. Anthropologists call it the household mode of production. It describes people who grow their own food and the ways they organize themselves to do so. A mode of production is not a particular way of making something. It is the making of something within all its social, environmental, and historical relationships. Think of someone working a plow. Is it an English peasant behind a horse, c. 1200? Or is it a worker under the direction of a district manager riding a tractor, c. 2000? Looked at one way, all plowing is the same. It opens the earth for planting. But to think of farmers in all places and times as doing the very same thing is a mistake. The peasant sustains his village and his lord, to whom he owes rent. He lives within webs of local obligation and religious devotion. The manager lives in a suburban community and regards agriculture as a source of income. He produces commodities for a remote corporation and is paid for his time. Each operates under differing conceptions of his place in the world. A mode of production describes the entire context of making something, including cultural cues and forms of authority. Thinking this way leads us to ask who benefits by any new tool and who doesn’t.

As a mode of production, the household unites Daniel Boone with every African-American slave, each English peasant, and most of the humans who have ever lived. The words I will use to describe this form of economy (and explain later, along with the household itself) are subsistence, makeshift, and self-provisioning. Urbanized people of the twenty-first century tend to know little about the household mode of production, and often approach it with misconceptions and prejudices. Peasants, campesinos, and smallholders provoke two typical responses. They represent either a past of deprivation and suffering from which the people of the industrial world have escaped, or they exemplify lost simplicity, mutuality, and natural community to which we must return. They’re either brutish or noble, stupid or wise. We have seen this in the way outsiders to Appalachia looked at the people who lived there during the nineteenth century (loyal and brave during the Civil War, ignorant and degenerate after). The same thinking is common among whites toward American Indians. Yet neither way of thinking helps us to see people for who they are. It might be that the persistence of peasants and smallholders violates our implicit belief in progress, not the progress that we experience in working toward completing a task but the world-historical progress we think we see in technological innovation.

This sense of progress is embedded in capitalism, a social system that demands constant expansion into new environments, absorbing new people in order to increase its rate of profit. Since expansion brings wealth to those who own and invest in production, they conceive of it as progress in the world-historical sense. Tens of millions of people link their identities, the trajectory and meaning of their lives, to a social system with all sorts of destructive tendencies, associating it with the highest aims of society itself. But if the perpetuation of capital is the same thing as progress, where does that leave smallholders all over the world, up to their shins in muck day in and day out? Though they buy and sell into the global economy (as I will explain), they have a different sense of progress. They thus appear to exist in some other universe, outside the dominant way of seeing and being. As the sociologist Teodor Shanin has written, “The real peasantry does not fit well into any of our concepts of contemporary society.” This is one of the problems at the center of this book.

The peculiar thing about our way of thinking is that it conditions us to see peasants and others who live in “traditional” societies as inherently poor, awaiting the redemption of modernity. We compare their daily labor and stock of food to the abundance we experience on automotive gathering expeditions to the supermarket. Peasants sometimes don’t have enough to eat, though they might work at little else. Periodic shortages of food can happen because of drought, flood, or a fast-growing population. But smallholders with sufficient access to the landscape rarely go hungry. The diversity of their environments and occupations provide safeguards and fallbacks.

Nonetheless, we’ve all seen images of villagers starving, desperate mothers clutching gaunt and listless babies, older children with bellies distended by kwashiorkor.36 Journalists detail the suffering, and we are sometimes left with an impression of perennial misery. One argument of this book is that whenever we see hunger and deprivation among rural people, we need to ask a simple question: What went on just before the crisis that might have caused it? We can escape false assumptions and dichotomies by understanding a people’s history.

An example will make my point. In 1940, an anthropologist named Allan Holmberg spent a number of years in the rainforest of eastern Bolivia studying a people called the Sirionó, in a region known as the Beni. Their culture seemed remarkably simple. They used few words, played no games or music, and seemed to lack mythology, medicine, and rituals. They had almost no tools but their longbows. They feared dogs, built poor shelters, and were strangely unfamiliar with their own environment. Holmberg said that they scrambled for food every waking moment and bickered over what little they found. He declared them among “the most culturally backward peoples of the world,” regarding them as primitives in the earliest stages of social evolution. Holmberg’s report, Nomads of the Longbow (1950), became essential reading for students of anthropology for more than forty years.37

And yet, almost everything Holmberg wrote about the Sirionó turned out to be wrong. He noticed that they planted informal plots, which they abandoned and revisited at harvest. But he didn’t ask why. In addition to their food plants, they grew cotton and tobacco. When did they acquire these seeds and from whom? Why didn’t they garden more and hunt less when game ran short? The answers would have provided clues to their recent experience. By concentrating intently on what the Sirionó lacked and all the ways they failed his test of civilization, Holmberg hardly saw them at all.

Holmberg mistook condition for culture. In fact, the Sirionó lived in close proximity with whites during the end of the nineteenth century. They sometimes raided colonial rubber plantations for metal tools. They had absorbed Africans or African-Americans, as well as individuals from other Indian groups. As late as the beginning of the twentieth century, they lived in grasslands, before being driven out by smallpox and enemies. White ranchers discovered them and tried to coerce them into peonage. Those who evaded capture lived a furtive existence in the rainforest. This might be why Holmberg found them always on the move, never dwelling long enough for seeds to sprout. Perhaps worst of all, though he knew that smallpox had killed many in the late 1920s, reducing the population to 150 individuals by 1945 from perhaps as many as 2,000, Holmberg learned nothing more about the epidemic. Yet this explains their cultural simplicity better than anything else. Toolmakers died before transmitting their skills to the next generation. Elders and ceremonial leaders vanished, making certain rituals impossible to perform. Groups winnowed to small numbers have simplified divisions of labor.38

Like Holmberg, we will fail to ask the right questions if we are deceived into thinking that some people have no history, that their poverty is inherent, its causes self-evident. Without knowing history, we might conclude that the 1 billion people who live in slums have always picked through garbage for food. Seeing the world without the past would be like visiting a city after a devastating hurricane and declaring that the people there have always lived in ruins.

Here is another example. An economics textbook published in 1985 begins a discussion of “late-developing countries” with this statement: “No one has produced a definitive list of causes of the poverty of the LDCs.” The authors have their own list, including “lack of physical capital, rapid growth of populations, lack of education, unemployment,” and so on. This might look like an entirely plausible set of explanations. But a historian sees their list differently—as effects, not causes. European colonizers took over the best farmland, cordoned off forests, and trapped indigenous people in wage dependency or slavery, thus undermining every structure of authority. The end of colonization often left these nations in ecological and financial debt.

Consider Haiti. Once slaves freed themselves and took over the island, their French tormentors threatened to invade with a massive force if the struggling society did not pay for its freedom. France wanted an amount equal to all former plantation property, including the lost value of the people themselves. France enforced this indemnity between 1825 and 2010, declaring it void only after an earthquake killed thousands in Port-au-Prince. The total amount charged against the country would be worth somewhere between $20 and $40 billion today. It sapped Haiti’s national income and stifled its development. The point is that economists rarely consider that poverty on such a scale is only comprehensible historically. Neither the United States nor a single country in Western Europe had to overcome the same obstacles. If poverty on such a scale is so misunderstood, if it appears to have no historical origin, then it can only be cast back upon the poor as their own failure.39

Every resident of every slum (or her parents or grandparents) once lived in an environment that sustained her most of the time. When the government sold off her woods and enclosed her land and relegated her and her family to the worst soil around, when she had nothing to exchange for money and the army arrived in the village, she found it impossible to remain. She saw her village combined into industrial latifundia under government or corporate control. Harvests from these giant fields now travel in containers from trucks to ships to trucks to big-box stores in the United States. As for her, she migrated to informal settlements of extraordinary density where she lives without sewers or clean water. She makes her living by washing car windows or by collecting metal from discarded computer parts or by prostituting herself. This explains the contradiction of more food and more hunger than ever before in human history. But it says something else—that the poverty of so-called underdeveloped countries is of recent origin.40

My purpose is to take a group of people who have been alternately praised and despised and open up their material history. The story of the industrialization of the southern mountains has been told before, but I see it in a wider gaze. Here are a few contentions. The people I am concerned with practiced household food production and vigorous exchange. The form of their economy likens them to peasants in other places and times. They traded close to home and far away, in two transactional realms. They depended on an extensive landscape that sometimes did but often did not belong to them. Governments attempted to capture the value they created through taxation (the United States) and by offering up the landscape to corporations (the state of West Virginia). The takeover of the landscape and the industrial cutting of the forest brought an end to their autonomy. Some semblance of their old economy survived into the twentieth century. It did not disappear when the mountains became real estate in the eighteenth century or when coal mining began in the nineteenth. All of this happened between the 1790s and the 1930s.

Most generally I say that the past occupants of hollows and ridges lived in a manner typical of humans all over the planet. They attained sufficiency, a makeshift existence, not always thriving but rarely starving. Mountain people ran into trouble for their own reasons. Their land use was too extensive to be maintained amid the changes they confronted. They had trouble modifying how they did things to compensate for their own increasing population. But they were never poor until they lost the forest, their ecological base. This is a vast renewable fund of resources that provides spaces for fields, food for gathering, fodder for cattle, and habitat for wild game. The base gives everything but costs nothing. It only needs to be taken care of within its own dynamics. Nothing else compares to the loss of this commons. Without the woods to provide them with commodities for exchange, they depended on wages for the money that connected them to the rest of the world. Yet dependence on wages meant subjecting themselves to corporate authority, the vagaries of coal markets, and other things out of their control. Some pronounce the coming of industrialization as necessary and even inevitable. I reject this mysticism. If we see it from the vantage of the people with the most to lose, it looks different. Nothing about the history of the southern mountains can be explained as social evolution.41

Yet I do not venerate the nineteenth-century social ecology of Appalachia as exemplary for some postcapitalist future. The settler culture and their descendants did not inhabit an Arcadia without conflict or change. Their entire history from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries is one of conflict and change. I am under no illusion that they lived abundantly or easily. They sometimes wrote eloquently about the hardships they faced, but their sense of fairness and justice often did not extend to African-Americans or Native Americans. I do not believe that they always tended their land well or that they could have maintained themselves for another century. But the virtues of their makeshift have been largely erased and the historical causes of their poverty are little known to the reading public. I describe their ecological practices as fragile but legitimate. If I gloss over some of their social problems, it is because I have my eye on other things.42

Readers interested in a global history of the southern mountains might not find it here. It all depends on what global means. Perhaps a global history would trace the capital that launched coal and railroad companies to banks and bankers in Philadelphia, New York, London, and Edinburgh. It would place Appalachia at the center of a transnational migration of dispossessed peoples. If global history consists of this, then the following book is not an example of it. Yet I assume that generating capital requires combinations of labor and environments. Commodities go to sale. The rendered value takes the form of money, drips into distant accounts, and ends up spawning another circuit somewhere else. This book tells of one place where that process touched ground. Appalachia appears to be the epitome of locality, and much of what follows takes place in the folds of the mountains, between households and within counties. But in another sense, Appalachia’s key industrial product was unlike any other. Coal from Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and West Virginia powered the American Industrial Revolution. Almost everything manufactured on the Atlantic Seaboard after 1850—all the steel forged in Pittsburgh, all the cotton milled in North Carolina, all the steam-powered ships carrying all the guns and clocks made in New Haven—required the burning of coal. This is not a global history, but it is a history with global implications.

* * *

PERHAPS NO ONE WHO CONDEMNED mountain people spoke with the authority of Arnold Toynbee, the British historian and diplomat. Toynbee spent the majority of his career as a professor at the London School of Economics, where he wrote one of the most successful books of the century, A Study of History, published in twelve volumes between 1939 and 1961. Toynbee believed in civilization as an intellectual and moral stage. Some people arrive there, he asserted as self-evident; some don’t. “Man achieves civilization, not as a result of superior biological endowment or geographical environment, but as a response to a challenge in a situation of special difficulty which rouses him to make a hitherto unprecedented effort.”43

With these foggy lenses, Toynbee reviled the struggling farmers of the American highlands as “no better than barbarians.” Actually, he considered barbarian too kind a word for them. Toynbee defined Albanians and Kurds as categorical barbarians, ancient holdovers, never roused out of backwardness. People who had never known anything other than mud huts and goat milk didn’t bother him. “The Appalachians,” on the other hand, “present the melancholy spectacle of a people who have acquired civilization and then lost it.” How curious that Toynbee gave no thought to the historical causes for such a precipitous decline. At least it simplified his task. Not all those among the Atlantic elite wrote with Toynbee’s arrogance, but they tended to see the Appalachians the same way he did.44

The people of the southern mountains told their own stories. Emma Bell Miles’s “The Common Lot” (1908), William Zinn’s The Story of Woodbine Farm (1931), Hubert Skidmore’s I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes (1936), G. D. McNeill’s The Last Forest (1940), James Still’s River of Earth (1940), and Florence Cope Bush’s Dorie: Woman of the Mountains (1992) reveal the fierce desire for dignity and stability in circumstances forced upon them. Consider this passage from an obscure chronicle written in 1927 by a West Virginia farmer and civic leader named David Idleman: “We are sometimes conscious that in the past we have … been cheated out of our natural inheritance. It was necessary first for the homemaker to build up a civilization before the natural wealth of our community[,] here in coal and timber[,] could be developed. This being done[,] this wealth in a greater degree should have been the common heritage of our people.” Instead, Idleman lamented, “this great natural wealth went into the hands of syndicates for a nominal sum and [was] lost to the people.” Such eloquence, such historical nuance, surpasses anything that Toynbee wrote. But the categories that Toynbee relied upon are worth thinking about. He filtered everything he learned about cultures and nations through a ready-made set of developmental stages. And although these stages tell us nothing of any value about the history of recent times, to him and others they explained everything.45


Copyright © 2017 by Steven Stoll