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Among the many letters that come to me from men who think of touring or camping in Highland Dixie there are few but ask, “How are strangers treated?”

This question, natural and prudent though it be, never fails to make me smile, for I know so well the thoughts that lie back of it: “Suppose one should blunder innocently upon a moonshine still — what would happen? If a feud were raging in the land, how would a stranger fare? If one goes alone into the mountains, does he run any risk of being robbed?”

Before I left the tame West and came into this wild East, I would have asked a few questions myself, if I had known anyone to answer them. As it was, I turned up rather abruptly in a backwoods settlement where the “furriner” was more than a nine-days wonder. I bore no credentials; and it was quite as well. If I had presented a letter from some clergyman or from the President of the United States it would have been — just what I was myself — a curiosity: as when the puppy discovers some weird and marvelous new bug.

Everyone greeted me politely but with unfeigned interest. I was welcome to sup and bed wherever I went. Moonshiners and man-slayers were as affable as common folks. I dwelt alone for a long time, first in open camp, afterwards in a secluded hut. Then I boarded with a native family. Often I left my belongings to look out for themselves whilst I went away on expeditions of days or weeks at a time. And nobody ever stole from me so much as a fish-hook or a brass cartridge. So, in the retrospect, I smile.

Does this mean, then, that Poe’s characterization of the mountaineers is out of date? Not at all. They are the same “fierce and uncouth race of men” to-day that they were in his time. Homicide is so prevalent in the districts that I personally am acquainted with that nearly every adult citizen has been directly interested in some murder case, either as principal, officer, witness, kinsman, or friend.

This grewsome subject I shall treat elsewhere, in detail. It is introduced here only to emphasize a fact pertinent to the present topic, namely: that the private wars of the highlanders are limited to their own people. In our corner of  North Carolina no traveler from the outside ever has been a victim, nor do I know of any such case in the whole Appalachian region.

 And here is another significant fact: as regards personal property I do not know any race in the world that is more honest than our backwoodsmen of the southern mountains. As soon as you leave the railroad you enter a land where sneak-thieves are rare and burglars almost unheard of. In my own county and all those adjoining it there has been only one case of highway robbery and only one of murder for money, so far as I can learn, in the past forty years.

The mountain code of conduct is a curious mixture of savagery and civility. One man will kill another over a pig or a panel of fence (not for the property’s sake, but because of hot words ensuing) and he will “come clear” in court because every fellow on the jury feels he would have done the same thing himself under similar provocation; yet these very men, vengeful and cruel though they are, regard hospitality as a sacred duty toward wayfarers of any degree, and the bare idea of stealing from a stranger would excite their instant loathing or white-hot scorn.

Anyone of tact and common sense can go as he pleases through the darkest corner of Appalachia without being molested. Tact, however, implies the will and the insight to put yourself truly in the other man’s place. Imagine yourself born, bred, circumstanced like him. It implies, also, the courtesy of doing as you would be done by if you were in that fellow’s shoes. No arrogance, no condescension, but man to man on a footing of equal manliness.


Many of the homes have but one window


And there are “manners” in the rudest community: customs and rules of conduct that it is well to learn before one goes far afield. For example, when you stop at a mountain cabin, if no dogs sound an alarm, do not walk up to the door and knock. You are expected to call out Hello! until someone comes to inspect you. None but the most intimate neighbors neglect this usage and there is mighty good reason back of it in a land where the path to one’s door may be a warpath.

If you are armed, as a hunter, do not fail to remove the cartridges from the gun, in your host’s presence, before you set foot on his porch. Then give him the weapon or stand it in a corner or hang it up in plain view. Even our sheriff, when he stopped with us, would lay his revolver on the mantel-shelf and leave it there until he went his way. If you think a moment you can see the courtesy of such an act. It proves that the guest puts implicit trust in the honor of his host and in his ability to protect all within his house. There never has been a case in which such trust was violated.

I knew a traveler who, spending the night in a one-room cabin, was fool enough (I can use no milder term) to thrust a loaded revolver under his pillow when he went to bed. In the morning his weapon was still there, but empty, and its cartridges lay conspicuously on a table across the room. Nobody said a word about the incident: the hint was left to soak in.

The only real danger that one may encounter from the native people, so long as he behaves himself, is when he comes upon a man who is wild with liquor and cannot sidestep him. In such case, give him the glad word and move on at once. I have had a drunken “ball-hooter” (log-roller) from the lumber camps fire five shots around my head as a feu-de-joie, and then stand tantalizingly, with hammer cocked over the sixth cartridge, to see what I would do about it. As it chanced, I did not mind his fireworks, for my head was a-swim with the rising fever of erysipelas and I had come dragging my heels many an irk mile down from the mountains to find a doctor. So I merely smiled at the fellow and asked if he was having a good time. He grinned sheepishly and let me pass unharmed.

The chief drawback to travel in this region, aside from the roads, is not the character of the people, but the quality of bed and board. Of course there are good hotels at most of the summer resorts, but these are few and scattering, at present, for a territory so immense. In most regions where there is noble scenery, unspoiled forest, and good fishing, the accommodations are extremely rude. Many of the village inns are dirty, and their tables a shock and a despair to the hungry pilgrim. There are blessed exceptions, to be sure, but on the other hand the traveler sometimes will encounter a cuisine that is neither edible nor speakable, and will be shown to a bed wherein it needs no Sherlock Holmes to detect that the previous biped retired with his boots on, or at least with much realty attached to his person. Such places often are like that unpronounceable town in Russia of which Paragot said: “The bugs are the most companionable creatures in it, and they are the cleanest.”

If one be of the same mind as the plain-spoken Dr. Samuel Johnson, that “the finest landscape in the world is not worth a damn without a cozy inn in the foreground,” he should keep to the stock show-places of our highlands or seek other playgrounds.

By far the most comfortable way to stay in the back country at present is in a camp of one’s own where he can keep things tidy and have food to suit him. If you be, though, of stout stomach and wishful to get true insight into mountain ways and character you can find some sort of boarding-place almost anywhere. In such case go first to the sheriff of the county (in person, not by letter). This officer is a walking bureau of information and dispenses it freely to any stranger. He knows almost every man in the county, his character and his circumstances. He may be depended upon to direct you to the best stopping-places, will tell you how to get hunting and fishing privileges, and will recommend a good packer or teamster if such help is wanted.

Along the railways and main county roads the farmers show a well-justified mistrust about admitting company for the night. But in the back districts the latch-string generally is out to all comers. “If you-uns can stand what we-uns has ter, w’y come right in and set you a cheer.”

If the man of the house has misgivings as to the state of the larder, he will say: “I’ll ax the woman gin she can git ye a bite.” Seldom does the wife demur, though sometimes her patience is sorely tried.

A stranger whose calked boots betrayed his calling stopped at Uncle Mark’s to inquire, “Can I git to stay all night?” Aunt Nance, peeping through a crack, warned her man in a whisper: “Them loggers jest louzes up folkses houses.” Whereat Mark answered the lumberjack: “We don’t ginerally foller takin’ in strangers.”

Jack glanced significantly at the lowering clouds, and grunted: “Uh — looks like I could stand hitched all night!”

This was too much for Mark. “Well!” he exclaimed, “mebbe we-uns can find ye a pallet — I’ll try to enjoy ye somehow.” Which, being interpreted, means, “I’ll entertain you as best I can.”

The hospitality of the backwoods knows no bounds short of sickness in the family or downright destitution. Travelers often innocently impose on poor people, and even criticise the scanty fare, when they may be getting a lion’s share of the last loaf in the house. And few of them realize the actual cost of entertaining company in a home that is long mountain miles from any market. Fancy yourself making a twenty-mile round trip over awful roads to carry back a sack of flour on your shoulder and a can of oil in your hand; then figure what the transportation is worth.

Once when I was trying a short-cut through the forest by following vague directions I swerved to the wrong trail. Sunset found me on the summit of an unfamiliar mountain, with cold rain setting in, and below me lay the impenetrable laurel of Huggins’s Hell. I turned back to the head of the nearest water course, not knowing whither it led, fought my way through thicket and darkness to the nearest house, and asked for lodging. The man was just coming in from work. He betrayed some anxiety but admitted me with grave politeness. Then he departed on an errand, leaving his wife to hear the story of my wanderings.

I was eager for supper; but madame made no move toward the kitchen. An hour passed. A little child whimpered with hunger. The mother, flushing, soothed it on her breast.

It was well on in the night when her husband returned, bearing a little “poke” of cornmeal. Then the woman flew to her post. Soon we had hot bread, three or four slices of pork, and black coffee unsweetened — all there was in the house.

It developed that when I arrived there was barely enough meal for the family’s supper and breakfast. My host had to shell some corn, go in almost pitch darkness, without a lantern, to a tub-mill far down the branch, wait while it ground out a few spoonfuls to the minute and bring the meal back.

Next morning, when I offered pay for my entertainment, he waved it aside. “I ain’t never tuk money from company,” he said, “and this ain’t no time to begin.”

Laughing, I slipped some silver into the hand of the eldest child. “This is not pay; it’s a present.” The girl was awed into speechlessness at sight of money of her own, and the parents did not know how to thank me for her, but bade me “Stay on, stranger; pore folks has a pore way, but you’re welcome to what we got.”

This incident is a little out of the common, nowadays; but it is typical of what was customary until lumbering and other industrial works began to invade the solitudes. To-day it is the rule to charge twenty-five cents a meal and the same for lodging, regardless of what the fare and the bed may be. When you think of it, this is right, for “the porer folks is the harder it is to git things.”

The mountaineers always are eager for news. In the drab monotony of their shut-in lives the coming of an unknown traveler is an event that will set the whole neighborhood gossiping. Every word and action of his will be discussed for weeks after he has gone his way. This, of course, is a trait of rural people everywhere; but imagine, if you can, how it may be intensified where there are no newspapers, few visitors, and where the average man gets maybe two or three letters a year!

Riding up a branch road, you come upon a white-bearded patriarch who halts you with a wave of the hand.

“Stranger — meanin’ no harm — whar are you gwine?”

You tell him.

“What did you say your name was?”

You had not mentioned it; but you do so now.

“What mought you-uns foller for a living?”

It is wise to humor the old man, and tell him frankly what is your business “up this ’way-off branch.”

Half a mile farther you espy a girl coming toward you. She stops like a startled fawn, wide-eyed with amazement. Then, at a bound, she dodges into a thicket, doubles on her course and runs back as fast as her nimble bare legs can carry her to report that “Some-body ’s comin’!”

At the next house, stopping for a drink of water, you chat a few moments. High up the opposite hill is a half-hidden cabin from which keen eyes scrutinize your every move, and a woman cries to her boy: “Run, Kit, down to Mederses, and ax who is he!”

As you approach a cross-roads store every idler pricks up to instant attention. Your presence is detected from every neighboring cabin and cornfield. Long John quits his plowing, Red John drops his axe, Sick John (“who’s allers ailin’, to hear him tell”) pops out of bed, and Lyin’ John (whose “mouth ain’t no praar-book, if it does open and shet”) grabs his hat, with “I jes’ got ter know who that feller is!” Then all Johns descend their several paths, to congregate at the store and estimate the stranger as though he were so many board-feet of lumber in the tree or so many pounds of beef on the hoof.

In every settlement there is somebody who makes a pleasure of gathering and spreading news. Such a one we had — a happy-go-lucky fellow from whom, they said, “you can hear the news jinglin’ afore he comes within gunshot.” It amused me to record the many ways he had of announcing his mission by indirection. Here is the list:

“I’m jes’ broguin’ about.”

“Yes, I’m jest cooterin’ around.”

“I’m santerin’ about.”

“Oh, I’m jes’ prodjectin’ around.”

“Jist traffickin’ about.”

“No, I ain’t workin’ none — jest spuddin’ around.”

“Me? I’m jes’ shacklin’ around.”

“Yea, la! I’m jist loaferin’ about.”

And yet one hears that our mountaineers have a limited vocabulary!

Although this is no place to discuss the mountain dialect, I must explain that to “brogue” means to go about in brogues (brogans nowadays). A “cooter” is a box-tortoise, and the noun is turned into a verb with an ease characteristic of the mountaineers. “Spuddin’ around” means toddling or jolting along. To “shummick” (also “shammick”) is to shuffle about, idly nosing into things, as a bear does when there is nothing serious in view. And “shacklin’ around” pictures a shackly, loose-jointed way of walking, expressive of the idle vagabond.

A stranger takes the mountaineers for simple characters that can be gauged at a glance. This illusion — for it is an illusion — comes from the childlike directness with which they ask him the most intimate questions about himself, from the genuine good-will with which they admit him to their homes, and from the stark openness of their domestic affairs in houses where no privacy can possibly exist.

In so far as simplicity means only a shrewd regard for essentials, a rigid exclusion of whatever can be done without, perhaps no white race is nearer a state of nature than these highlanders of ours. Yet this relates only to the externals of life. Diogenes sat in a tub, but his thoughts were deep as the sea. And whoever estimates our mountaineers as a shallow-minded or open-minded people has much to learn.

When Long John asks, “What you aimin’ to do up hyur? How much money do you make? Whar’s your old woman?” he does not really expect sincere answers. Certainly he will take them with more than a grain of salt. Conversation, with him, is a game. In quizzing you, the interests that he is actually curious about lie hidden in the back of his head, and he will proceed toward them by cunning circumventions, seeking to entrap you into telling the truth by accident. Being himself born to intrigue and skilled in dodging the leading question, he assumes that you have had equal advantages.

When you discuss with him any business of serious concern, if you should go straight to the point, and open your mind frankly, he would be nonplussed.

The fact is that our highlanders are a sly, suspicious, and secretive folk. That, too, is a state of nature. Primitive society is by no means a Utopia or a Garden of Eden. In wilderness life the feral arts of concealment, spying, false “leads,” and doubling on trails, are the arts self-preservative. The native backwoodsman practices them as instinctively and with as little compunction upon his own species as upon the deer and the wolf from whom he learned them.

As a friend, no one will spring quicker to your aid, reckless of consequences, and fight with you to the last ditch; but fear of betrayal lies at the very bottom of his nature. His sleepless suspicion of ulterior motives is no more, no less, than a feral trait, inherited from a long line of forebears whose isolated lives were preserved only by incessant vigilance against enemies that stalked by night and struck without warning.

Casual visitors learn nothing about the true character of the mountaineers. I am not speaking of personal but of race character — type. No outsider can discern and measure those powerful but obscure motives, those rooted prejudices, that constitute their real difference from other men, until he has lived with the people a long time on terms of intimacy. Nor can anyone be trusted to portray them if he holds a brief either for or against this people. The fluttering tourist marks only the oddities he sees, without knowing the reason for them. On the other hand, a misguided champion flies to arms at first mention of an unpleasant fact, and either denies it, clamoring for legal proof, or tries to befog the whole subject and run it on the rocks of altercation.

The mountaineers are high-strung and sensitive to criticism. No one has less use for “that worst scourge of avenging heaven, the candid friend.” Of late years they are growing conscious of their own belatedness, and that touches a tender spot. “Hit don’t take a big seed to hurt a sore tooth.” Since they do not see how anyone can find beauty or historic interest in ways of life that the rest of the world has cast aside, so they resent every exposure of their peculiarities as if that were holding them up to ridicule or blame.

Strange to say, it provokes them to be called mountaineers, that being a “furrin word” which they take as a term of reproach. They call themselves mountain people, or citizens; sometimes humorously “mountain boomers,” the word boomer being their name for the common red squirrel which is found here only in the upper zones of the mountains. Backwoodsman is another term that they deem opprobrious. Among themselves the backwoods are called “the sticks.” Hillsman and highlander are strange words to them — and anything that is strange is suspicious. Hence it is next to impossible for anyone to write much about these people without offending them or else falling into singsong repetition of the same old terms.

I have found it beyond me to convince anyone here that my studies of the mountain dialect are made from any better motive than vulgar curiosity. It has been my habit to jot down, on the spot, every dialectical word or variant or idiom that I hear, along with the phrase or sentence in which it occurred; for I never trust memory in such matters. And although I tell frankly what I am about, and why, yet all that the folks can or will see is that — 


A chiel ’s amang ye, takin’ notes,
And, faith, he’ll prent ’em.

Nothing worse than dour looks has yet befallen me, but other scribes have not got off so easy. On more than one occasion newspaper men who went into eastern Kentucky to report feuds were escorted forcibly to the railroad and warned never to return. The feudists are scarce to blame, for the average news story of their wars is neither sacred nor profane history. It is bad enough to be shown up as an assassin; but when one is posed as “cocking the trigger” of a gun, or shooting a “forty-four” bullet from a thirty-caliber “automatic revolver,” who in Kentucky could be expected to stand it?

The novelists have their troubles, too. President Frost relates that when John Fox gave a reading from his Cumberland tales at Berea College “the mountain boys were ready to mob him. They had no comprehension of the nature of fiction. Mr. Fox’s stories were either true or false. If they were true, then he was ‘no gentleman’ for telling all the family affairs of people who had entertained him with their best. If they were not true, then, of course, they were libellous upon the mountain people. Such an attitude may remind us of the general condemnation of fiction by the ‘unco gude’ a generation ago.”


The Schoolhouse


As for settlement workers, let them teach more by example than by precept. Bishop Wilson has given them some advice that cannot be bettered: “It must be said with emphasis that our problem is an exceedingly delicate one. The Highlanders are Scotch-Irish in their high-spiritedness and proud independence. Those who would help them must do so in a perfectly frank and kindly way, showing always genuine interest in them but never a trace of patronizing condescension. As quick as a flash the mountaineer will recognize and resent the intrusion of any such spirit, and will refuse even what he sorely needs if he detects in the accents or the demeanor of the giver any indication of an air of superiority.”

“The worker among the mountaineers,” he continues, “must ‘meet with them on the level and part on the square’ and conquer their oftentimes unreasonable suspicion by genuine brotherly friendship. The less he has to say about the superiority of other sections or of the deficiencies of the mountains, the better for his cause. The fact is that comparatively few workers are at first able to pass muster in this regard under the searching and silent scrutiny of the mountain people.”

Allow me to add that this is no place for the “unco gude” to exercise their talents, but rather for those whose studies and travels have taught them both tolerance and hopefulness. Some well-meaning missionaries are shocked and scandalized at what seems to them incurable perversity and race degeneration. It is nothing of the sort. There are reasons, good reasons, for the worst that we find in any Hell-fer-Sartin or Loafer’s Glory. All that is the inevitable result of isolation and lack of opportunity. It is no more hopeless than the same features of life were in the Scotch highlands two centuries ago.

But it must be known that the future of this really fine race is, at bottom, an economic problem, which must be studied hand-in-hand with the educational one. Civilization only repels the mountaineer until you show him something to gain by it — he knows by instinct what he is bound to lose. There is no use in teaching cleanliness and thrift to serfs or outcasts. The independence of the mountain farm must be preserved, or the fine spirit of the race will vanish and all that is manly in the Highlander will wither to the core.

It is far from my own purpose to preach or advise. “Portray the struggle, and you need write no tract.” Still farther is it from my thought to let characterization degenerate into caricature. Wherever I tell anything that is unusual or below the average of backwoods life, I give fair warning that it is admitted only for spice or contrast, and let it go at that. But even in writing with severe restraint it will be necessary at times to show conditions so rude and antiquated that professional apologists will growl, and many others may find my statements hard to credit as typical of anything at all in our modern America.

So, let me remind the reader again that full three-fourths of our mountaineers still live in the eighteenth century, and that in their far-flung wilderness, away from large rivers and railways, the habits, customs, morals of the people have changed but little from those of our old colonial frontier; in essentials they are closely analogous to what we read of lower-class English and Scottish life in Covenanter and Jacobite times.

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