I think that one thing about Americans that puzzles people elsewhere is the Appalachian region of the country. The mountains cover about 200,000 square miles, running northeast more than a thousand miles from north Alabama and north Georgia up through western South and North Carolina, east Tennessee, eastern Kentucky, western Virginia, all of West Virginia, southeast Ohio, much of Pennsylvania and on up into New York. Those names have resonance for Americans and perhaps no one else. It’s the most prominent geographical feature of the US east of the Mississippi.
It is the homeland of Appalachian Americans, who are largely descendants of the Scotch Irish and Germans who settled in the mountains in the later 1700s. They have become one of the most coherent regional populations in the country, with families often rooted in specific places for 250 years.
That’s unusual in the US, where the average family is nuclear and moves every seven years or so are normal.
The Appalachians are a very old range. Once they were as high as the Alps or Rockies, but they have been worn down. The highest peak is a bit over 6,000 feet (roughly 2,000 m). Most of the area is quite rugged with ridges and valleys alternating. Many rural people live up what are sometimes called “hollows.” Agriculture was difficult, but there are thousands of streams and creeks and they usually had small flood plains that were called “bottom lands,” flat and fertile. The region remains largely rural, with a few medium-sized cities and a number of university towns. The terrain is extremely rugged.
The names of some of the areas gives you an idea of the place. The Smokey Mountains are called that because of a smoke-like atmosphere that makes the mountains seem blue grey from a distance (it’s thought that pines in the mountains are responsible for the haze). The Blue Ridge are
called that because from a distance, the colors fade to a bluish green. They are surpassingly beautiful.
The Appalachian region is rich in timber and coal. The southern Appalachians once had plenty of gold, and were the scene of one of the first gold rushes in the U.S. The gold brought in thousands of
prospectors, and was one of the reasons the Cherokee people was dispossessed of their homeland and forced west on the Trail of Tears.
The abundant coal was good for American industrialization, particularly for the steel industry, but it was terrible for Appalachia. Conditions in the coal fields were often unsafe, and until safety regulations were imposed in the Progressive era, hundreds of miners died each year. Wages were low,
and attempts to unionize were literally fought off. There were riots, murders and some extremely violent labor disputes.
Much more recently, a new mining technique removes the tops of mountains to get at the coal. This mountaintop mining is far safer for miners, but scars the land and is extremely polluting.
People who live in Appalachia were extremely isolated after the Civil War (1861-65). They came to be regarded as primitive people, as in-bred simpletons. In reality, large areas were simply impoverished, and local government was not much interested in paying for schools. In several areas, notably eastern Kentucky, some hatreds from the Civil War lasted for decades, and resulted in several famous feuds, notably the legendary Hatfield-McCoy feud.
During the Prohibition era (1920-33) when the U.S. banned the manufacture, possession or use of alcohol, the rural and isolated region was the heartland of the manufacture of illegal alcohol, generically called “moonshine.”
I’m fascinated by the area. Half my family is from an extremely rural place in the Virginiamountains. They were variously Scotch Irish and German, and settled there in the 1770s and 1780s. The originator of the family was born in Germany in 1725, was taken to the colonies in 1732, and died in Bath County in 1813, having in the meantime raised up a big family and fought in the French and Indian War. The old family graveyard dates to the 1790s. There’s a space there reserved for me. Which is both loving and a little scary.
People with some roots in Appalachia very often have a powerful emotional connection. I have that, although it has been many years since I was there. It’s not simply the beauty of the place, there are many areas in the U.S. just as beautiful. Much of the region remains impoverished, and there are few jobs, so the young people leave—and then come back to be buried.
Currently, the region has a high rate of alcoholism and thousands of drug overdose deaths a year. The beauty does not help when poverty
produces feelings of helplessness and despair.
From my family graveyard, there’s a view of ridges and mountains fading away in the distance. The forest edge is close by. The place is on the slope of a ridge. The flatter land below runs to the Jackson River, clear and fast-running, and my feet remember a half mile of it, from childhood fishing there. The flatter portion is currently being used as grazing for sheep. There are a couple of houses in the distance.
In the summer, it is full of the flowers known as Queen Anne’s Lace, daisies, black-eyed susans, Joe Pye weed and goldenrod. The owls and crickets and cicadas and whip-poor-wills call on summer nights.
I guess the easiest way to describe it is that’s where my heart is anchored.
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