Title Reviewed:
A History of Appalachia

Author Reviewed:
Richard B. Drake

Thomas Kiffmeyer


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 99, Issue 2, pp 183-186

Article Type:
Book Review

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A History of Appalachia. By Richard B. Drake. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001. Pp. xi, 292. Maps, illustrations, sources, index. $29.95.)

Appalachia has long mystified America. Despite efforts to refute it, the ubiquitous description of the region as a "strange land" inhabited by "peculiar people," first coined by Will Harney in 1873, has retained a prominent place in the minds of many Americans, as witnessed by Robert Schenken's 1992 Pulitzer prize-winning play, The Kentucky Cycle. This should not come as a surprise, however, as scholars continue to debate the riddles posed by the southern mountains. Some, such as Henry Shapiro and Allen Batteau, see the region as the product, the creation, of the imaginations of urban "flatlanders." Others, including Altina Waller and Ron Eller, focus on those who manipulated the people and resources of the region for their own gain and who thus precipitated the problems, such as poverty and illiteracy, that many see as endemic and systemic among the people of Appalachia. A History of Appalachia attempts to synthesize and interpret this complex body of Appalachian scholarship for the casual reader and offers the uninitiated a glimpse into the "mysteries" of the region.

Significantly more than the product of fertile imaginations, Drake's Appalachia is a distinct geographic entity, stretching from southern New York to northern Alabama, inhabited by people who adhere to a "yeomanesque mentality" that treats the land as a resource for family sustenance rather than a marketable commodity. This culture, moreover, values simplicity and self-reliance and precludes the accumulation of wealth and the desire for material comfort. Part of the first white settlers' European heritage, this attitude has survived and shaped Appalachian responses to war, industrialization, and the "postmodern" world. Notwithstanding its limitations, Drake contends that this lifestyle is a realistic option for "those unwilling or unable to join the mainstream's affluence" (p. 246). Drake certainly believes that his readers will, and should, see this "yeoman" existence as positively as he does, but, ironically, this assertion reinforces that same "strange and peculiar" stereotype that Appalachian scholars have refuted for decades.

Following a brief discussion of the region's original inhabitants, Drake quickly moves to the focus of his study, the influx of "cottagers" from peripheral regions of Britain and Germany. Driven from their homes by economic, religious, and political difficulties in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and lured by the promise of readily available land, these displaced migrants settled in the newly opened lands of Appalachia. Already different from the older tidewater colonists, this latter wave of "pioneer-settlers" first occupied the fertile fringe areas of the mountains and its larger interior valleys. Here they established their yeoman society amid the pressures from hostile Native Americans still in the region on one hand and a land-speculating, lowland-based, market-oriented elite on the other. In short, Drake's migration story, in terms of both culture and geography, is one from a European to an American periphery.

Precipitated by this "distance" was a "backwoods" or "Cohee" society. Jealous of challenges to their personal autonomy and property, these Cohees led the North Carolina Regulators of the late eighteenth century, the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania, and by the middle of the nineteenth century, through the efforts of individuals such as John G. Fee and institutions including the Presbyterian Church, offered a southern alternative to the capitalist, slaveholding South. In the discussion of the antebellum period, however, Drake illustrates the problems inherent in trying to label the region, for tucked in-between the ridges and mountains were areas, such as the Shenandoah and Tennessee valleys, where slavery was firmly entrenched. Moreover, a number of elite mountain families not only owned bondsmen, but had family, business, and strong political connections with lowland masters.

It was not until the post-Civil War years that the "mysteries" of Appalachia—those same mysteries that puzzle modern Americans—took shape. During this period urban, county-seat elites, local color writers, missionaries, and business promoters created the image of Appalachian residents as "branchwater" mountaineers—an image designed to satisfy their political, social, and economic agendas. While the color writers sought unique stories for their urban audience and missionaries used the image of the isolated mountaineer to garner financial support for their cause, the business sector most fully exploited the stereotype. By depicting mountaineers as "cultureless," coal and timber operators rationalized their assault on the region by claiming that industry brought civilization to the hills. Though reflecting only a minority of the region's population, this picture fascinated Americans and provided them with what is now the prevailing image of all Appalachia.

Fully cognizant of the devastating impact of extractive industry on the region, Drake traces the development of a "coal town culture" in the company towns that dotted Appalachia by the early twentieth century. Markedly different from the prevailing yeoman lifestyle, this new culture resulted from the concomitant development of Appalachian "corporate feudalism" and mountain proletarianism. Nevertheless, the yeoman mind survived and resisted movements such as Populism and the War on Poverty that sought to employ an activist government in combating the industrial plutocracy.

Modern, post-World War II Appalachia presented even more dilemmas. As the coal industry mechanized, for example, well-paying but relatively fewer jobs remained. This, coupled with pro-business federal policies and tax breaks for energy conglomerates, resulted in massive unemployment and the reassertion of corporate control. As jobless Appalachians fled to northern cities in search of work, the federal government responded to the crisis by funneling finds through organizations such as the Appalachian Regional Commission into "growth centers." Unfortunately, most of these centers were those mountain areas that already were the most developed. Due to this migration, modern Appalachia is demographically larger. Installations such as the atomic facility at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, have made it technologically advanced. Yet it is, in Drake's interpretation, still a region that desperately hangs onto its traditions.

Though this study moves too quickly, lacks the depth needed to address the issues fully, and itself creates a "peculiar, yeoman" image, it does introduce readers unfamiliar with the region to the conundrum that is Appalachia. Just as important, it will serve as a clarion call for students of the subject to begin thinking of the mountain region as a whole rather than just its component parts.

THOMAS KIFFMEYER, assistant professor of history at Morehead State University, Morehead, Kentucky, is the author of "From Self-Help to Sedition: The Appalachian Volunteers in Eastern Kentucky, 1964–1970," in the Journal of Southern History (February 1998) and of "Ideology Portrayed: The Theater, Popular Culture, Politics, and the Conscious Language of Jacksonian Lexington", forthcoming in the Register of the Kentucky Historical Society.

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.