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Our Southern Highlanders
“SOMETHING HIDDEN; GO AND FIND IT”
In one of Poe’s minor tales, written in 1845, there is a vague allusion to wild mountains in western Virginia “tenanted by fierce and uncouth races of men.” This, so far as I know, was the first reference in literature to our Southern mountaineers, and it stood as their only characterization until Miss Murfree (“Charles Egbert Craddock”) began her stories of the Cumberland hills.
Time and retouching have done little to soften our Highlander’s portrait. Among reading people generally, South as well as North, to name him is to conjure up a tall, slouching figure in homespun, who carries a rifle as habitually as he does his hat, and who may tilt its muzzle toward a stranger before addressing him, the form of salutation being:
“Stop thar! Whut’s you-unses name? Whar’s you-uns a-goin’ ter?”
Let us admit that there is just enough truth in this caricature to give it a point that will stick. Our typical mountaineer is lank, he is always unkempt, he is fond of toting a gun on his shoulder, and his curiosity about a stranger’s name and business is promptly, though politely, outspoken. For the rest, he is a man of mystery. The great world outside his mountains knows almost as little about him as he does of it; and that is little indeed. News in order to reach him must be of such widespread interest as fairly to fall from heaven; correspondingly, scarce any incidents of mountain life will leak out unless they be of sensational nature, such as the shooting of a revenue officer in Carolina, the massacre of a Virginia court, or the outbreak of another feud in “bloody Breathitt.” And so, from the grim sameness of such reports, the world infers that battle, murder, and sudden death are commonplaces in Appalachia.
To be sure, in Miss Murfree’s novels, as in those of John Fox, Jr., and of Alice MacGowan, we do meet characters more genial than feudists and illicit distillers; none the less, when we have closed the book, who is it that stands out clearest as type and pattern of the mountaineer? Is it not he of the long rifle and peremptory challenge? And whether this be because he gets most of the limelight, or because we have a furtive liking for that sort of thing (on paper), or whether the armed outlaw be indeed a genuine protagonist — in any case, the Appalachian people remain in public estimation to-day, as Poe judged them, an uncouth and fierce race of men, inhabiting a wild mountain region little known.
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? Quaintly there came to mind those lines familiar to my boyhood: “Get you up this way southward, and go up into the mountain; and see the land, what it is; and the people that dwelleth therein, whether they be strong or weak, few or many; and what the land is that they dwell in, whether it be good or bad; and what cities they be that they dwell in, whether in tents, or in strongholds; and what the land is, whether it be fat or lean, whether there be wood therein or not.”
In that dustiest room of a great library where “pub. docs.” are stored, I unearthed a government report on forestry that gave, at last, a clear idea of the lay of the land. And here was news. We are wont to think of the South as a low country with sultry climate; yet its mountain chains stretch uninterruptedly southwestward from Virginia to Alabama, 650 miles in an air line. They spread over parts of eight contiguous States, and cover an area somewhat larger than England and Scotland, or about the same as that of the Alps. In short, the greatest mountain system of eastern America is massed in our Southland. In its upper zone one sleeps under blankets the year round.
In all the region north of Virginia and east of the Black Hills of Dakota there is but one summit (Mount Washington, in New Hampshire) that reaches 6,000 feet above sea level, and there are only a dozen others that exceed 5,000 feet. By contrast, south of the Potomac there are forty-six peaks, and forty-one miles of dividing ridges, that rise above 6,000 feet, besides 288 mountains and some 300 miles of divide that stand more than 5,000 feet above the sea. In North Carolina alone the mountains cover 6,000 square miles, with an average elevation of 2,700 feet, and with twenty-one peaks that overtop Mount Washington.
I repeated to myself: “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. It is true that summer tourists flock to Asheville and Toxaway, Linville and Highlands, passing their time at modern hotels and motoring along a few macadamed roads, but what do they see of the billowy wilderness that conceals most of the native homes? Glimpses from afar. What do they learn of the real mountaineer? Hearsay. 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.
We read more and talk more
about the Filipinos, see more of the Chinese and the Syrians, than of these
three million next-door Americans who are of colonial ancestry and mostly of
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
it is all one; we are “different,” we are “quar,” to the mountaineer. He knows
he is an American; but his conception of the metes and bounds of
A Family of Pioneers in the Twentieth Century
No one can understand the
attitude of our highlanders toward the rest of the earth until he realizes
their amazing isolation from all that lies beyond the blue, hazy skyline of
their mountains. Conceive a shipload of emigrants cast away on some unknown
island, far from the regular track of vessels, and left there for five or six
generations, unaided and untroubled by the growth of civilization. Among the
descendants of such a company we would expect to find customs
and ideas unaltered from the time of their forefathers. And that is just what
we do find to-day among our castaways in the sea of mountains. Time has
Our backwoodsmen of the
But, first, how comes it that the mountain folk have been so long detached from the life and movement of their times? Why are they so foreign to present-day Americanism that they innocently call all the rest of us foreigners?
The answer lies on the map. They are creatures of environment, enmeshed in a labyrinth that has deflected and repelled the march of our nation for three hundred years.
In 1728, when Colonel
William Byrd, of Westover, was running the boundary line between
A hundred and thirty years later, the same thing could have been said of these same mountains; for the “fierce and uncouth races of men” that Poe faintly heard of remained practically undiscovered until they startled the nation on the scene of our Civil War, by sending 180,000 of their riflemen into the Union Army.
If a corps of surveyors
to-day should be engaged to run a line due west from eastern
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. There are few “leads” rising gradually to their crests. Each and every one of these ridges is a Chinese wall magnified to altitudes of from a thousand to two thousand feet, and covered with thicket. The hollows between them are merely deep troughs.
In the next thirty miles we
come upon novel topography. Instead of wave
following wave in orderly procession, we find here a choppy sea of small
mountains, with hollows running toward all points of the compass. Instead of
Chinese walls, we now have Chinese puzzles. The innate perversity of such
configuration grows more and more exasperating as we toil westward. In the two
hundred miles from the Greenbrier to the
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.”
James Lane Allen was not
writing fiction when he said of the far-famed
Wilderness Road into Kentucky: “Despite all that has been done to civilize it
since Boone traced its course in 1790, this honored historic thoroughfare
remains to-day as it was in the beginning, with all its sloughs and sands, its
mud and holes, and jutting ledges of rock and loose boulders, and twists and
turns, and general total depravity.... One such road was enough. They are said
to have been notorious for profanity, those who came into
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 the
Geographical Journal, of
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 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. The first time that a party of these people went to the railroad, they were uneasy and suspicious. Nearing the way-station, a girl in advance came upon the first negro she ever saw in her life, and ran screaming back: “My goddamighty, Mam, thar’s the boogerman — I done seed him!”
But before discussing the
mountain people and their problems, let us take an imaginary balloon voyage
over their vast domain. South of the Potomac the Blue Ridge is a narrow rampart
rising abruptly from the east, one or two thousand feet above its base, and
descending sharply to the
Photo by U. S. Forest Service
“The very cliffs are sheathed with trees and shrubs” —
The walls of one gorge are from 500 to 2,000 feet high.
As a rule, the links in
each chain can be passed by following small gaps; but often one must make very
wide detours. For example,
The Alleghanies together
have a width of from forty to sixty miles. Westward of them, for a couple of
hundred miles, are the labyrinthine roughs of
In southwestern Virginia
the Blue Ridge and the Alleghanies coalesce, but soon spread apart again, the
Blue Ridge retaining its name, as well as its general character, although much
loftier and more massive than in the north. The southeast front of the
The northwestern range,
which corresponds to the Alleghanies of Virginia, now assumes a character
entirely different from them. Instead of parallel chains of low ridges, we have
here, on the border of
Connecting the Unaka chain with the Blue Ridge are several transverse ranges, the Stone, Beech, Roan, Yellow, Black, Newfound, Pisgah, Balsam, Cowee, Nantahala, Tusquitee, and a few minor mountains, which as a whole are much higher than the Blue Ridge, 156 summits rising over 5,000 feet, and thirty-six over 6,000 feet above sea-level.
The Cumberland Plateau is
not attached to either of these mountain systems, but is rather a prolongation
of the roughs of eastern
Most of the literature
about our Southern mountaineers refers only to the inhabitants of the
comparatively meagre hills of eastern