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In delineating a strange race we are prone to disregard what is common in our own experience and observe sharply what is odd. The oddities we sketch and remember and tell about. But there is little danger of misrepresenting the physical features and mental traits of the hill people, because among them there is one definite type that greatly predominates. This is not to be wondered at when we remember that fully three-fourths of our highlanders are practically of the same descent, have lived the same kind of life for generations, and have intermarried to a degree unknown in other parts of America.

Our average mountaineer is lean, inquisitive, shrewd. If that be what constitutes a Yankee, as is popularly supposed outside of New England, then this Yankee of the South is as true to type as the conventional Uncle Sam himself.

A fat mountaineer is a curiosity. The hill folk even seem to affect a slender type of comeliness. In Alice MacGowan’s Judith of the Cumberlands, old Jepthah Turrentine says of one of his sons: “I named that boy after the finest man that ever walked God’s green earth — and then the fool had to go and git fat on me! Think of me with a fat son! I allers did hold that a fat woman was bad enough, but a fat man ort p’intedly to be led out and killed!”

Spartan diet does not put on flesh. Still, it should be noted that long legs, baggy clothing, and scantiness or lack of underwear make people seem thinner than they really are. Our highlanders are conspicuously a tall race. Out of seventy-six men that I have listed just as they occurred to me, but four are below average American height and only two are fat. About two-thirds of them are brawny or sinewy fellows of great endurance. The others generally are slab-sided, stoop-shouldered, but withey. The townsfolk and the valley farmers, being better nourished and more observant of the prime laws of wholesome living, are noticeably superior in appearance but not in stamina.

Nearly all males of the back country have a grave and deliberate bearing. They travel with the long, sure-footed stride of the born woodsman, not graceful and lithe like a moccasined Indian (their coarse brogans forbid it), but shambling as if every joint had too much play. There is nothing about them to suggest the Swiss or Tyrolean mountaineers; rather they resemble the gillies of the Scotch Highlands. Generally they are lean-faced, sallow, level-browed, with rather high cheek-bones. Gray eyes predominate, sometimes vacuous, but oftener hard, searching, crafty — the feral eye of primitive man.

From infancy these people have been schooled to dissimulate and hide emotion, and ordinarily their faces are as opaque as those of veteran poker players. Many wear habitually a sullen scowl, hateful and suspicious, which in men of combative age, and often in the old women, is sinister and vindictive. The smile of comfortable assurance, the frank eye of good-fellowship, are rare indeed. Nearly all of the young people and many of the adults plant themselves before a stranger and regard him with a fixed stare, peculiarly annoying until one realizes that they have no thought of impertinence.

Many of the women are pretty in youth; but hard toil in house and field, early marriage, frequent child-bearing with shockingly poor attention, and ignorance or defiance of the plainest necessities of hygiene, soon warp and age them. At thirty or thirty-five a mountain woman is apt to have a worn and faded look, with form prematurely bent — and what wonder? Always bending over the hoe in the cornfield, or bending over the hearth as she cooks by an open fire, or bending over her baby, or bending to pick up, for the thousandth time, the wet duds that her lord flings on the floor as he enters from the woods — what wonder that she soon grows short-waisted and round-shouldered?

The voices of the highland women, low toned by habit, often are singularly sweet, being pitched in a sad, musical, minor key. With strangers, the women are wont to be shy, but speculative rather than timid, as they glance betimes with “a slow, long look of mild inquiry, or of general listlessness, or of unconscious and unaccountable melancholy.” Many, however, scrutinize a visitor calmly for minutes at a time or frankly measure him with the gipsy eye of Carmen.

Outsiders, judging from the fruits of labor in more favored lands, have charged the mountaineers with indolence. It is the wrong word. Shiftless many of them are — afflicted with that malady which Barrie calls “acute disinclination to work” — but that is not so much in their physical nature as in their economic outlook. Rarely do we find mountaineers who loaf all day on the floor or the doorstep like so many of the poor whites of the lowlands. If not laboring, they at least must be doing something, be it no more than walking ten miles to shoot a squirrel or visit a crony.

As a class, they have great and restless physical energy. Considering the quantity and quality of what they eat there is no people who can beat them in endurance of strain and privation. They are great walkers and carriers of burdens. Before there was a tub-mill in our settlement one of my neighbors used to go, every other week, thirteen miles to mill, carrying a two-bushel sack of corn (112 pounds) and returning with his meal on the following day. This was done without any pack-strap but simply shifting the load from one shoulder to the other, betimes.

One of our women, known as “Long Goody” (I measured her; six feet three inches she stood) walked eighteen miles across the Smokies into Tennessee, crossing at an elevation of 5,000 feet, merely to shop more advantageously than she could at home. The next day she shouldered fifty pounds of flour and some other groceries, and bore them home before nightfall. Uncle Jimmy Crawford, in his seventy-second year came to join a party of us on a bear hunt. He walked twelve miles across the mountain, carrying his equipment and four days’ rations for himself and dogs. Finding that we had gone on ahead of him he followed to our camp on Siler’s Bald, twelve more miles, climbing another 3,000 feet, much of it by bad trail, finished the twenty-four-mile trip in seven hours — and then wanted to turn in and help cut the night-wood. Young mountaineers afoot easily outstrip a horse on a day’s journey by road and trail.


“At thirty a mountain woman is apt to
have a worn and faded look”

In a climate where it showers about two days out of three through spring and summer the women go about, like the men, unshielded from the wet. If you expostulate, one will laugh and reply: “I ain’t sugar, nor salt, nor nobody’s honey.” Slickers are worn only on horseback — and two-thirds of our people had no horses. A man who was so eccentric as to carry an umbrella is known to this day as “Umbrell’” John Walker.

In winter, one sometimes may see adults and children going barefoot in snow that is ankle deep. It used to be customary in our settlement to do the morning chores barefooted in the snow. “Then,” said one, “our feet ’d tingle and burn, so ’t they wouldn’t git a bit cold all day when we put our shoes on.” I knew a family whose children had no shoes all one winter, and occasionally we had zero weather.

It seems to have been common, in earlier times, to go barefooted all the year. Frederick Law Olmsted, a noted writer of the Civil War period, was told by a squire of the Tennessee hills that “a majority of the folks went barefoot all winter, though they had snow much of the time four or five inches deep; and the man said he didn’t think most of the men about here had more than one coat, and they never wore one in winter except on holidays. ‘That was the healthiest way,’ he reckoned, ‘just to toughen yourself and not wear no coat.’ No matter how cold it was, he ‘didn’t wear no coat.’” One of my own neighbors in the Smokies never owned a coat until after his marriage, when a friend of mine gave him one.

It is the usual thing for men and boys to wade cold trout streams all day, come in at sunset, disrobe to shirt and trousers, and then sit in the piercing drafts of an open cabin drying out before the fire, though the night be so cool that a stranger beside them shivers in his dry flannels. After supper, the women, if they have been wearing shoes, will remove them to ease their feet, no matter if it be freezing cold — and the cracks in the floor may be an inch wide.

In bear hunting, our parties usually camped at about 5,000 feet above sea level. At this elevation, in the long nights before Christmas, the cold often was bitter and the wind might blow a gale. Sometimes the native hunters would lie out in the open all night without a sign of a blanket or an axe. They would say: “La! many’s the night I’ve been out when the frost was spewed up so high [measuring three or four inches with the hand], and that right around the fire, too.” Cattle hunters in the mountains never carry a blanket or a shelter-cloth, and they sleep out wherever night finds them, often in pouring rain or flying snow. On their arduous trips they find it burden enough to carry the salt for their cattle, with a frying-pan, cup, corn pone, coffee, and “sow-belly,” all in a grain sack strapped to the man’s back.

Such nurture, from childhood, makes white men as indifferent to the elements as Fuegians. And it makes them anything but comfortable companions for one who has been differently reared. During “court week” when the hotels at the county-seat are overcrowded with countrymen, the luckless drummers who happen to be there have continuous exercise in closing doors. No mountaineer closes a door behind him. Winter or summer, doors are to be shut only when folks go to bed. That is what they are for. After close study of mountain speech I have failed to discern that the word draft is understood, except in parts of the Virginia and Kentucky mountains, where it means a brook. One is reminded of the colonial, who, visiting England, remarked of the British people: “It is a survival of the fittest — the fittest to exist in fog.” Here, it is the fittest to survive cold, and wet, and drafts.

Running barefooted in the snow is exceptional nowadays; but it is by no means the limit of hardiness or callosity that some of these people display. It is not so long ago that I passed an open lean-to of chestnut bark far back in the wilderness, wherein a family of Tennesseans was spending the year. There were three children, the eldest a lad of twelve. The entire worldly possessions of this family could easily be packed around on their backs. Poverty, however, does not account for such manner of living. There is none so poor in the mountains that he need rear his children in a bark shed. It is all a matter of taste.

There is a wealthy man known to everyone around Waynesville, who, being asked where he resided, as a witness in court, answered: “Three, four miles up and down Jonathan Creek.” The judge was about to fine him for contempt, when it developed that the witness spoke literal truth. He lives neither in house nor camp, but perambulates his large estate and when night comes lies down wherever he may happen to be. In winter he has been known to go where some of his pigs bedded in the woods, usurp the middle for himself, and borrow comfort from their bodily heat.

This man is worth over a hundred thousand dollars. He visited the world’s fairs at Chicago and St. Louis, wearing the old long coat that serves him also as blanket, and carrying his rations in a sack. Far from being demented, he is notoriously so shrewd on the stand and so learned in the law that he is formidable to every attorney who cross-questions him.

I cite these last two instances not merely as eccentricities of character, but as really typical of the bodily stamina that most of the mountaineers can display if they want to. Their smiling endurance of cold and wet and privation would have endeared them to the first Napoleon, who declared that those soldiers were the best who bivouacked shelterless throughout the year.

In spite of such apparent “toughness,” the mountaineers are not a notably healthy people. The man who exposes himself wantonly year after year must pay the piper. Sooner or later he “adopts a rheumatiz,” and the adoption lasts till he dies. So also in dietary matters. The backwoodsmen through ruthless weeding-out of the normally sensitive have acquired a wonderful tolerance of swimming grease, doughy bread and half-fried cabbage; but, even so, they are gnawed by dyspepsia. This accounts in great measure for the “glunch o’ sour disdain” that mars so many countenances. A neighbor said to me of another: “He has a gredge agin all creation, and glories in human misery.” So would anyone else who ate at the same table. Many a homicide in the mountains can be traced directly to bad food and the raw whiskey taken to appease a soured stomach.

Every stranger in Appalachia is quick to note the high percentage of defectives among the people. However, we should bear in mind that in the mountains proper there are few, if any, public refuges for this class, and that home ties are so powerful that mountaineers never send their “fitified folks” or “half-wits,” or other unfortunates, to any institution in the lowlands, so long as it is bearable to have them around. Such poor creatures as would be segregated in more advanced communities, far from the public eye, here go at large and reproduce their kind.

Extremely early marriages are tolerated, as among all primitive people. I knew a hobbledehoy of sixteen who married a frail, tuberculous girl of twelve, and in the same small settlement another lad of sixteen who wedded a girl of thirteen. In both cases the result was wretched beyond description.

The evil consequences of inbreeding of persons closely akin are well known to the mountaineers; but here knowledge is no deterrent, since whole districts are interrelated to start with. Owing to the isolation of the clans, and their extremely limited travels, there are abundant cases like those caustically mentioned in King Spruce: “All Skeets and Bushees, and married back and forth and crossways and upside down till ev’ry man is his own grandmother, if he only knew enough to figger relationship.”

The mountaineers are touchy on these topics and it is but natural that they should be so. Nevertheless it is the plain duty of society to study such conditions and apply the remedy. There was a time when the Scotch people (to cite only one instance out of many) were in still worse case, threatened with race degeneration; but improved economic conditions, followed by education, made them over into one of the most vigorous of modern peoples.

When I lived up in the Smokies there was no doctor within sixteen miles (and then, none who ever had attended a medical school). It was inevitable that my first-aid kit and limited knowledge of medicine should be requisitioned until I became a sort of “doctor to the settlement.” 8

 My services, being free, at once became popular, and there was no escape; for, if I treated the Smiths, let us say, and ignored a call from the Robinsons, the slight would be resented by all Robinson connections throughout the land. So my normal occupations often were interrupted by such calls as these:

“John’s Lize Ann she ain’t much; cain’t you-uns give her some easin’-powder for that hurtin’ in her chist?”

“Old Uncle Bobby Tuttle’s got a pone come up on his side; looks like he mought drap off, him bein’ weak and right narvish and sick with a head-swimmin’.”

“Ike Morgan Pringle’s a-been horse-throwed down the clift, and he’s in a manner stone dead.”

“Right sensibly atween the shoulders I’ve got a pain; somethin’ ’s gone wrong with my stummick; I don’t ’pear to have no stren’th left; and sometimes I’m nigh sifflicated. Whut you reckon ails me?”

“Come right over to Mis’ Fullwiler’s, quick; she’s fell down and busted a rib inside o’ her!”

On these errands of mercy I soon picked up some rules of practice that are not laid down in the books. I learned to carry not only my own bandages but my own towels and utensils for washing and sterilizing. I kept my mouth shut about germ theories of disease, having no troops to enforce orders and finding that mere advice incited downright perversity. I administered potent drugs in person and left nothing to be taken according to direction except placebos.

Once, in forgetfulness, I left a tablet of corrosive sublimate on the mantel after dressing a wound, and the man of the house told me next day that he had “’lowed to swaller it’ and see if it wouldn’t ease his headache!” A geologist and I, exploring the hills with a mountaineer, fell into discussion of filth diseases and germs, not realizing that we were overheard. Happening to pass an ant-hill, Frank remarked to me that formic acid was supposed to be antagonistic to the germ of laziness. Instantly we heard a growl from our woodsman: “By God, I was expectin’ to hear the like o’ that!”

Ordinarily wounds are stanched with dusty cobwebs and bound up in any old rag. If infection ensues, Providence has to take the blame. A woman gashed her foot badly with an axe; I asked her what she did for it; disdainfully she answered, “Tied it up in sut and a rag, and went to hoein’ corn.”

An injured person gets scant sympathy, if any. So far as outward demeanor goes, and public comment, the witnesses are utterly callous. The same indifference is shown in the face of impending death. People crowd around with no other motive, seemingly, than morbid curiosity to see a person die. I asked our local preacher what the folks would do if a man broke his thigh so that the bone protruded. He merely elevated his eyebrows and replied: “We’d set around and sing until he died.”

The mountaineers’ fortitude under severe pain is heroic, though often needless. For all minor operations and frequently for major ones they obstinately refuse to take an anesthetic, being perversely suspicious of everything that they do not understand. Their own minor surgery and obstetric practice is barbarous. A large proportion of the mountain doctors know less about human anatomy than a butcher does about a pig’s. Sometimes this ignorance passes below ordinary common sense. There is a “doctor” still practicing who, after a case of confinement, sits beside the patient and presses hard upon the hips for half an hour, explaining that it is to “push the bones back into place; don’t you know they allers comes uncoupled in the socket?” This, I suppose, is the limit; but there are very many practicing physicians in the back country who could not name or locate the arteries of either foot or hand to save their lives.

It was here I first heard of “tooth-jumping.” Let one of my old neighbors tell it in his own way:

“You take a cut nail (not one o’ those round wire nails) and place its squar p’int agin the ridge of the tooth, jest under the edge of the gum. Then jump the tooth out with a hammer. A man who knows how can jump a tooth without it hurtin’ half as bad as pullin’. But old Uncle Neddy Cyarter went to jump one of his own teeth out, one time, and missed the nail and mashed his nose with the hammer. He had the weak trembles.”

“I have heard of tooth-jumping,” said I, “and reported it to dentists back home, but they laughed at me.”

“Well, they needn’t laugh; for it’s so. Some men git to be as experienced at it as tooth-dentists are at pullin’. They cut around the gum, and then put the nail at jest sich an angle, slantin’ downward for an upper tooth, or upwards for a lower one, and hit one lick.”

“Will the tooth come at the first lick?”

“Ginerally. If it didn’t, you might as well stick your head in a swarm o’ bees and fergit who you are.”

“Are back teeth extracted in that way?”

“Yes, sir; any kind of a tooth. I’ve burnt my holler teeth out with a red-hot wire.”

“Good God!”

“Hit’s so. The wire’d sizzle like fryin’.”

“Kill the nerve?”

“No; but it’d sear the mar so it wouldn’t be so sensitive.”

“Didn’t hurt, eh?”

“Hurt like hell for a moment. I held the wire one time for Jim Bob Jimwright, who couldn’t reach the spot for hisself. I told him to hold his tongue back; but when I touched the holler he jumped and wropped his tongue agin the wire. The words that man used ain’t fitty to tell.”

Some of the ailments common in the mountains were new to me. For instance, “dew pizen,” presumably the poison of some weed, which, dissolved in dew, enters the blood through a scratch or abrasion. As a woman described it, “Dew pizen comes like a risin’, and laws-a-marcy how it does hurt! I stove a brier in my heel wunst, and then had to hunt cows every morning in the dew. My leg swelled up black to clar above the knee, and Dr. Stinchcomb lanced the place seven times. I lay on a pallet on the floor for over a month. My leg like to killed me. I’ve seed persons jest a lot o’ sores all over, as big as my hand, from dew pizen.”

A more mysterious disease is “milk-sick,” which prevails in certain restricted districts, chiefly where the cattle graze in rich and deeply shaded coves. If not properly treated it is fatal both to the cow and to any human being who drinks her fresh milk or eats her butter. It is not transmitted by sour milk or by buttermilk. There is a characteristic fetor of the breath. It is said that milk from an infected cow will not foam and that silver is turned black by it. Mountaineers are divided in opinion as to whether this disease is of vegetable or of mineral origin; some think it is an efflorescence from gas that settles on plants. This much is certain: that it disappears from “milk-sick coves” when they are cleared of timber and the sunlight let in. The prevalent treatment is an emetic, followed by large doses of apple brandy and honey; then oil to open the bowels. Perhaps the extraordinary distaste for fresh milk and butter, or the universal suspicion of these foods that mountaineers evince in so many localities, may have sprung up from experience with “milk-sick” cows. I have not found this malady mentioned in any treatise on medicine; yet it has been known from our earliest frontier times. Abraham Lincoln’s mother died of it.

That the hill folk remain a rugged and hardy people in spite of unsanitary conditions so gross that I can barely hint at them, is due chiefly to their love of pure air and pure water. No mountain cabin needs a window to ventilate it: there are cracks and cat-holes everywhere, and, as I have said, the doors are always open except at night. “Tight houses,” sheathed or plastered, are universally despised, partly from inherited shiftlessness, partly for less obvious reasons.

One of Miss MacGowan’s characters fairly insulted the neighborhood by building a modern house. “Why lordy! Lookee hyer, Creed,” remonstrated Doss Provine over a question of matching boards and battening joints, “ef you git yo’ pen so almighty tight as that you won’t git no fresh air. Man’s bound to have ventilation. Course you can leave the do’ open all the time like we-all do; but when you’re a-holdin’ co’t and sech-like maybe you’ll want to shet the do’ sometimes — and then whar’ll ye git breath to breathe?... All these here glass winders is blame foolishness to me. Ef ye need light, open the do’. Ef somebody comes that ye don’t want in, you can shet it and put up a bar. But saw the walls full o’ holes an’ set in glass winders, an’ any feller that’s got a mind to can pick ye off with a rifle ball as easy as not whilst ye set by the fire of an evenin’.”

When mountain people move to the lowlands and go to living in tight-framed houses, they soon deteriorate like Indians. It is of no use to teach them to ventilate by lowering windows from the top. That is some more “blame foolishness” — their adherence to old ways is stubborn, sullen, and perverse to a degree that others cannot comprehend. Then, too, in the lowlands, they simply cannot stand the water.

As Emma Miles says: “No other advantages will ever make up for the lack of good water. There is a strong prejudice against pumps; if a well must be dug, it is usually left open to the air, and the water is reached by means of a hooked pole which requires some skillful manipulation to prevent losing the bucket. Cisterns are considered filthy; water that has stood overnight is ‘dead water,’ hardly fit to wash one’s face in. The mountaineer takes the same pride in his water supply as the rich man in his wine cellar, and is in this respect a connoisseur. None but the purest and coldest of freestone will satisfy him.”

Once when I was staying in a lumber camp on the Tennessee side, near the top of Smoky, my friend Bob and I tramped down to the nearest town, ten miles, for supplies. We did not start until after dinner and intended to spend the night at a hotel. It was a sultry day and we arrived very thirsty. Bob took some ice-water into his mouth, and instantly spat it out, exclaiming: “Be damned if I’ll stay here; that ain’t fit to drink; I’m goin’ back.” And back he would have gone, ten miles up a hard grade, at night, if someone had not shown us a spring.


Photo by Arthur Keith
A misty veil of falling water


A little colony of our Hazel Creek people took a notion to try the Georgia cotton mills.  They nearly died there from homesickness, tight houses, and “bad water.” All but one family returned as soon as they possibly could. While trying to save enough money to get away one old man said; “I lied to my God when I left the mountains and kem to these devilish cotton mills. Ef only He’d turn me into a varmint I’d run back to-night! Boys, I dream I’m in torment; an’ when I wake up I lay thar an’ think o’ the spring branch runnin’ over the root o’ that thar poplar; an’ I say, could I git me one drink o’ that water I’d be content to lay me down and die!”

Poor old John! In his country there are a hundred spring branches running over poplar roots; but “that thar poplar”: we knew the very one he meant. It was by the roadside. The brooklet came from a disused still-house hidden in laurel and hemlock so dense that direct sunlight never penetrated the glen. Cold and sparkling and crystal clear, the gushing water enticed every wayfarer to bend and drink, whether he was thirsty or no. John is back in his own land now, and doubtless often goes to drink of that veritable fountain of youth.



8 In mountain dialect such words as settlement, government, studyment (reverie) are accented on the last syllable, or drawled with equal stress throughout.

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