The region commonly referred to today as Appalachia has long been misunderstood. The distorted reality produced through popular films and stereotypical depictions of the people of the region have led to many believing Appalachians to be less educated and more prone to violence. These unfair summaries have long held back the rich history and culture of this special place and the people who inhabit the locations we know as the Appalachians.
Early Appalachian History
Various Native American groups have inhabited the region known as Appalachia beginning around 16,000 years ago. By the time Spanish explorers encounter the native tribal groups in the mid-16th century the explorers note that the native groups are mostly Muskogean-speaking tribes. Later, by the 17th century English explorers write that Algonquin speaking tribes (primarily the Shawnee and the Cherokee) are also present in the region.
European settlers move into the region beginning in the 18th century. The region is largely referred to as the "back country" and these early European settlers are mostly Scott Irish (originally Ulster Scotts) with some German and English settlement occurring during this period. Scott Irish settlers migrated to the region in an effort to escape various forms of persecution at the hands of the Quakers in Pennsylvania.
Overall, migration continued into the mountainous regions following the resolution of conflicts and wars. Negotiations with Native American tribes (such as the Cherokee) also opened up land in other regions that would have previously been dangerous and untenable for European settlers. While settlers moved into the region the Native tribes were decimated by disease and conflict -- ultimately culminating in a multitude of atrocities, including the Trail of Tears.
Early History of Appalachia - VIDEO
A New Frontier
Early Appalachian settlement required several key traits that might or might not lead a settler toward success. Appalachian frontiersman are often thought of today as extremely tough and determined -- traits which continue to be true today of modern Appalachians.
In the early days of settlement the Appalachian landscape was full of trees and wild lands referred to as the backcountry. Being that early frontiersmen encroached and claimed Native American land for their own use there were often conflicts between tribal members and the frontiersmen who settled here. Attacks on settlers remained an issue until the early-19th century in Appalachian region.
Of the earliest settlers the most famous (or infamous depending on who you talk to) was Daniel Boone (1734-1820). Boone's image (the coonskin cap and buckskin clothing) is still to this day seen as an image unique to Appalachia. Boone's story also follows along with the stories of the early European settlers -- unhappy with the Quaker population in Pennsylvania he moves to North Carolina and eventually settles in what today would be Kentucky. His son Nathan Boone is the first known white man to be born in Kentucky. The tough and determined nature of frontiersmen is present in the story of Boone and the Boone family who suffered hardship and yet continued to forge ahead in the settlement of Kentucky.
The Story of Daniel Boone
Appalachia Then and Now
From the pictures above you can get an understanding of the conditions and will of the Appalachian people who have long struggled to live in the backcountry territory now called the Appalachians. Previously discussed conflicts with Native Americans and internal struggles were responsible for many Appalachians not making it to see their dreams become a reality. The images above are taken from glass negatives shot during a visit to the Appalachian mountains in the early 1900's. (Digital Library of Appalachia)
In the early-19th century the Appalachian region is mostly known for the timber and coal industries; however, textiles, chemicals, and manufacturing industries were also commonplace throughout the region.
Coal Mining was, and continues to be, a very dangerous yet important industry for many Appalachian states. Miners in early mines worked in very difficult and dangerous conditions.
Miners who were killed in industrial accidents received little to no support from the mining companies who would move very quickly to evict the family of the deceased miner from company held property without compensation. This mistreatment led to unionization efforts throughout the region and ultimately led to situations like the West Virginia Mining Wars, which lasted from around 1912-1921 when the Wagner Act provided protections to those who wished to unionize. Eventually, these new protections provided relief for the miners themselves and their families who had long suffered under the oppression of the mining companies and their external security forces from the Baldwin-Felts agency.
Mine Wars Documentary
The Mine Wars were significant to the region and the documentary above shows how the union movement begins and the hardships faced by miners as they struggled for employment protections we now see as commonplace.
Map of the Appalachian Region
Strong women are a constant force in Appalachian life from the earliest frontier days through the present day. Women were tough as nails and did just about everything around the home and on the property while the men worked in mines or the timber industry.
Industrial accidents and the results on the men in these women's lives would leave women in charge of all aspects of the home. The image collection above shows an early woman in the Appalachian mountains armed with a long gun presumably protecting the homestead or property rights of her family.
Appalachian women are complex characters and literary representations in many seminal works by Appalachian writers and artists explore the complex makeup of the Appalachian frontierswoman.
Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. Rail tracks within 1,500 feet of underground passages at the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine, a restored mine once operated by the Phillips Family in the late 1800s in what is now owned by the City of Beckley, West Virginia and located in the city's New River Park. -10-20, 2015. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress,
The story of modern Appalachia is still being written. Big changes in the makeup of industries that were once commonplace in the Appalachian region have led to increasingly tough times for the people of Appalachia. Poverty is a major issue in many areas of the Appalachians.
While there are many challenges to the future of the people of Appalachia we might want to look to history to determine what may happen next. Historically, the Appalachian people have overcome many obstacles to call these Misty Mountains their homes. From the collapse of the original conflict with Native Americans, the oppression of industries on Appalachian families, to the recession of the 21st century one thing remains constant -- the Appalachian people keep fighting for their slice of the pie. The historic struggles may be the thing that keeps the Appalachian people on track toward a new revival, but either way they'll survive.
Blood on the Mountain Trailer
Mountaintop removal and other ecological disasters are major issues impacting the future of the Appalachian region. Political corruption, business interests, and the importance of employment to the people have made this a very complex issue. You can read much more on the issues surrounding reclamation, restoration, and mountaintop removal here.