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Our Southern Highlanders
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The southern mountaineers are pre-eminently a rural folk. When the twentieth century opened, only four per cent. of them dwelt in cities of 8,000 inhabitants and upwards. There were but seven such cities in all Appalachia — a region larger than England and Scotland combined — and these owed their development to outside influences. Only 77 out of 186 mountain counties had towns of 1,000 and upwards.

Our highlanders are the most homogeneous people in the United States. In 1900, out of a total population of 3,039,835, there were only 18,617 of foreign birth. This includes the cities and industrial camps. Back in the mountains, a man using any other tongue than English, or speaking broken English, was regarded as a freak. Nine mountain counties of Virginia, four of West Virginia, fifteen of Kentucky, ten of Tennessee, nine of North Carolina, eight of Georgia, two of Alabama, and one of South Carolina had less than ten foreign-born residents each. Three of them had none at all.

Compare the North Atlantic states. In this same census year, 57 per cent. of their people lived in cities of 8,000 and upwards. As for foreigners — the one city of Fall River, Mass., with 104,863 inhabitants, had 50,042 of foreign birth.

The mountains proper are free not only from foreigners but from negroes as well. There are many blacks in the larger valleys and towns, but throughout most of Appalachia the population is almost exclusively white. In 1900, Jackson County, Ky. (the same that sent every one of its sons into the Union army who could bear arms), had only nineteen negroes among 10,542 whites; Johnson County, Ky., only one black resident among 13,729 whites; Dickenson County, Va., not a single negro within its borders.

In many mountain settlements negroes are not allowed to tarry. It has been assumed that this prejudice against colored folk had its origin far back in the time when “poor whites” found themselves thrust aside by competition with slave labor. This is an error. Our mountaineers never had to compete with slavery. Few of them knew anything about it except from hearsay. Their dislike of negroes is simply an instinctive racial antipathy, plus a contempt for anyone who submits to servile conditions. A neighbor in the Smokies said to me: “I b’lieve in treatin’ niggers squar. The Bible says they’re human — leastways some says it does — and so there’d orter be a place for them. But it’s some place else — not around me!” That is the whole thing in a nutshell.

Here, then, is Appalachia: one of the great land-locked areas of the globe, more English in speech than Britain itself, more American by blood than any other part of America, encompassed by a high-tensioned civilization, yet less affected to-day by modern ideas, less cognizant of modern progress, than any other part of the English-speaking world.

Of course, such an anomaly cannot continue. Commercialism has discovered the mountains at last, and no sentiment, however honest, however hallowed, can keep it out. The transformation is swift. Suddenly the mountaineer is awakened from his eighteenth-century bed by the blare of steam whistles and the boom of dynamite. He sees his forests leveled and whisked away; his rivers dammed by concrete walls and shot into turbines that outpower all the horses in Appalachia. He is dazed by electric lights, nonplussed by speaking wires, awed by vast transfers of property, incensed by rude demands. Aroused, now, and wide-eyed, he realizes with sinking heart that here is a sudden end of that Old Dispensation under which he and his ancestors were born, the beginning of a New Order that heeds him and his neighbors not a whit.

All this insults his conservatism. The old way was the established order of the universe: to change it is fairly impious. What is the good of all this fuss and fury? That fifty-story building they tell about, in their big city — what is it but another Tower of Babel? And these silly, stuck-up strangers who brag and brag about “modern improvements” — what are they, under their fine manners and fine clothes? Hirelings all. Shrewdly he observes them in their relations to each other. — 

“Each man is some man’s servant; every soul
     Is by some other’s presence quite discrowned.”

Proudly he contrasts his ragged self: he who never has acknowledged a superior, never has taken an order from living man, save as a patriot in time of war. And he turns upon his heel.

Yet, before he can fairly credit it as a reality, the lands around his own home are bought up by corporations. All about him, slash, crash, go the devastating forces. His old neighbors vanish. New and unwelcome ones swarm in. He is crowded, but ignored. His hard-earned patrimony is robbed of all that made it precious: its home-like seclusion, independence, dignity. He sells out, and moves away to some uninvaded place where he “will not be bothered.”

“I don’t like these improvements,” said an old mountaineer to me. “Some calls them ‘progress,’ and says they put money to circulatin’. So they do; but who gits it?”

There is a class of highlanders more sanguine, more adaptable, that welcomes all outsiders who come with skill and capital to develop their country. Many of these are shrewd traders in merchandise or in real estate, or they are capable foremen who can handle native labor much better than any strangers could. Such men naturally profit by the change.

Others, deluded by what seems easy money, sell their little homesteads for just enough cash to set them up as laborers in town or camp. Being untrained to any trade, they can get only the lowest wages, which are quickly dissipated in rent and in foods that formerly they raised for themselves. Unused to continuous labor, they irk under its discipline, drop out, and fall into desultory habits. Meantime false ambitions arise, especially among the womenfolk. Store credit soon runs such a family in debt.

“When I was a young man,” said one of my neighbors, “the traders never thought of bringin’ meal in here. If a man run out of meal, why, he was out, and he had to live on ’taters or somethin’ else. Nowadays we dress better, and live better, but some other feller allers has his hands in our pockets.”

Then it is “good-by” to the old independence that made such characters manly. Enmeshed in obligations that they cannot meet, they struggle vainly, brood hopelessly, and lose that dearest of all possessions, their self-respect. Servility is literal hell to a mountaineer, and when it is forced upon him he turns into a mean, underhanded, slinking fellow, easily tempted into crime.

The curse of our invading civilization is that its vanguard is composed of men who care nothing for the welfare of the people they dispossess. A northern lumberman admitted to me, with frankness unusual in his class, that “All we want here is to get the most we can out of this country, as quick as we can, and then get out.” This is all we can expect of those who exploit raw materials, or of manufactures that employ only cheap labor. Until we have industries that demand skilled workmen, and until manual training schools are established in the mountains, we may look for deterioration, rather than betterment, of those highlanders who leave their farms.

All who know the mountaineers intimately have observed that the sudden inroad of commercialism has a bad effect upon them. As President Frost says, “Ruthless change is knocking at the door of every mountain cabin. The jackals of civilization have already abused the confidence of many a highland home. The lumber, coal, and mineral wealth of the mountains is to be possessed, and the unprincipled vanguard of commercialism can easily debauch a simple people. The question is whether the mountain people can be enlightened and guided so that they can have a part in the development of their own country, or whether they must give place to foreigners and melt away like so many Indians.”

It is easy to say that the fittest will survive. But the fittest for what? Miss Miles answers: “I have heard it said that civilization, when it touches the people of the backwoods, acts as a useful precipitant in thus sending the dregs to the bottom. As a matter of fact, it is only the shrewder and more determined, not the truly fit, that survive the struggle. Among these very submerged ones, reduced to dependence on an alien people, there are thousands who inherit the skill of their forefathers who fashioned their own locks, musical instruments, and guns. And these very women who are breaking their health and spirit over a thankless tub of suds ought surely to turn their talents to better account, ought to be designing and weaving coverlets and Roman-striped rugs, or ‘piecing’ the quilt patterns now so popular. Need these razors be used to cut grindstones? Must this free folk who are in many ways the truest Americans of America be brought under the yoke of caste division, to the degradation of all their finer qualities, merely for lack of the right work to do?”

There are some who would have it so; who would calmly write for these our own kindred, as for the Indians, fuerunt — their day is past. In a History of Southern Literature, written not long ago by a professor in the University of Virginia, a sketch of Miss Murfree’s work closes with these words: “There [at Beersheba Springs, Tenn.] it was that she first studied the curious type of humanity, the Tennessee mountaineer, a people so ignorant, so superstitious, so far behind the world of to-day as to excite wonder and even pity in all who see them....  [She] is telling the story of a people who, in these opening years of the 20th century, wander on through their limited range of life much as their ancestors for generations have wandered. They, too, will some time vanish — the sooner the better.”

One cannot read such a sentiment without wonder and even pity for the ignorance of history and of human nature that it discloses. Is the case of our mountaineers so much worse than that of the Scotch highlanders of two centuries ago? We know that those Scotchmen did not “vanish — the quicker the better.” What were they before civilization reached them? Let us open the ready pages of Macaulay. — 

“It is not easy for a modern Englishman ... to believe that, in the time of his great-grandfathers, Saint James’s Street had as little connection with the Grampians as with the Andes. Yet so it was. In the south of our island scarcely anything was known about the Celtic part of Scotland; and what was known excited no feeling but contempt and loathing....

“It is not strange that the Wild Scotch, as they were sometimes called, should, in the 17th century, have been considered by the Saxons as mere savages. But it is surely strange that, considered as savages, they should not have been objects of interest and curiosity. The English were then abundantly inquisitive about the manners of rude nations separated from our island by great continents and oceans. Numerous books were printed describing the laws, the superstitions, the cabins, the repasts, the dresses, the marriages, the funerals of Laplanders and Hottentots, Mohawks and Malays. The plays and poems of that age are full of allusions to the usages of the black men of Africa and the red men of America. The only barbarian about whom there was no wish to have any information was the Highlander....

“While the old Gaelic institutions were in full vigor, no account of them was given by any observer qualified to judge of them fairly. Had such an observer studied the character of the Highlanders, he would doubtless have found in it closely intermingled the good and the bad qualities of an uncivilised nation. He would have found that the people had no love for their country or for their king, that they had no attachment to any commonwealth larger than the clan, or to any magistrate superior to the chief. He would have found that life was governed by a code of morality and honor widely different from that which is established in peaceful and prosperous societies. He would have learned that a stab in the back, or a shot from behind a fragment of rock, were approved modes of taking satisfaction for insults. He would have heard men relate boastfully how they or their fathers had wracked on hereditary enemies in a neighboring valley such vengeance as would have made old soldiers of the Thirty Years’ War shudder.

“He would have found that robbery was held to be a calling not merely innocent but honorable. He would have seen, wherever he turned, that dislike of steady industry, and that disposition to throw on the weaker sex the heaviest part of manual labor, which are characteristic of savages. He would have been struck by the spectacle of athletic men basking in the sun, angling for salmon, or taking aim at grouse, while their aged mothers, their pregnant wives, their tender daughters, were reaping the scanty harvest of oats. Nor did the women repine at their hard lot. In their view it was quite fit that a man, especially if he assumed the aristocratic title of Duinhe Wassel and adorned his bonnet with the eagle’s feather, should take his ease, except when he was fighting, hunting, or marauding. To mention the name of such a man in connection with commerce or with any mechanical art was an insult. Agriculture was indeed less despised. Yet a highborn warrior was much more becomingly employed in plundering the land of others than in tilling his own.

“The religion of the greater part of the Highlands was a rude mixture of Popery and Paganism. The symbol of redemption was associated with heathen sacrifices and incantations. Baptised men poured libations of ale on one Dæmon, and set out drink offerings of milk for another. Seers wrapped themselves up in bulls’ hides, and awaited, in that vesture, the inspiration which was to reveal the future. Even among those minstrels and genealogists whose hereditary vocation was to preserve the memory of past events, an enquirer would have found very few who could read. In truth, he might easily have journeyed from sea to sea without discovering a page of Gaelic printed or written.

“The price which he would have had to pay for his knowledge of the country would have been heavy. He would have had to endure hardships as great as if he had sojourned among the Esquimaux or the Samoyeds. Here and there, indeed, at the castle of some great lord who had a seat in the Parliament and Privy Council, and who was accustomed to pass a large part of his life in the cities of the South, might have been found wigs and embroidered coats, plate and fine linen, lace and jewels, French dishes and French wines. But, in general, the traveler would have been forced to content himself with very different quarters. In many dwellings the furniture, the food, the clothing, nay, the very hair and skin of his hosts, would have put his philosophy to the proof. His lodging would sometimes have been in a hut of which every nook would have swarmed with vermin. He would have inhaled an atmosphere thick with peat smoke, and foul with a hundred exhalations. At supper grain fit only for horses would have been set before him, accompanied with a cake of blood drawn from living cows. Some of the company with whom he would have feasted would have been covered with cutaneous eruptions, and others would have been smeared with tar like sheep. His couch would have been the bare earth, dry or wet as the weather might be; and from that couch he would have risen half poisoned with stench, half blind with the reek of turf, and half mad with the itch.

“This is not an attractive picture. And yet an enlightened and dispassionate observer would have found in the character and manners of this rude people something which might well excite admiration and a good hope. Their courage was what great exploits achieved in all the four quarters of the globe have since proved it to be. Their intense attachment to their own tribe and to their own patriarch, though politically a great evil, partook of the nature of virtue. The sentiment was misdirected and ill regulated; but still it was heroic. There must be some elevation of soul in a man who loves the society of which he is a member and the leader whom he follows with a love stronger than the love of life. It was true that the Highlander had few scruples about shedding the blood of an enemy; but it was not less true that he had high notions of the duty of observing faith to allies and hospitality to guests. It was true that his predatory habits were most pernicious to the commonwealth. Yet those erred greatly who imagined that he bore any resemblance to villains who, in rich and well governed communities, live by stealing. When he drove before him the herds of Lowland farmers up the pass which led to his native glen, he no more considered himself as a thief than the Raleighs and Drakes considered themselves as thieves when they divided the cargoes of Spanish galleons. He was a warrior seizing lawful prize of war, of war never once intermitted during the thirty-five generations which had passed away since the Teutonic invaders had driven the children of the soil to the mountains....

“His inordinate pride of birth and his contempt for labor and trade were indeed great weaknesses, and had done far more than the inclemency of the air and the sterility of the soil to keep his country poor and rude. Yet even here there was some compensation. It must in fairness be acknowledged that the patrician virtues were not less widely diffused among the population of the Highlands than the patrician vices. As there was no other part of the island where men, sordidly clothed, lodged, and fed, indulged themselves to such a degree in the idle, sauntering habits of an aristocracy, so there was no other part of the island where such men had in such a degree the better qualities of an aristocracy, grace and dignity of manner, self-respect, and that noble sensibility which makes dishonor more terrible than death. A gentleman of Skye or Lochaber, whose clothes were begrimed with the accumulated filth of years, and whose hovel smelt worse than an English hogstye, would often do the honors of that hovel with a lofty courtesy worthy of the splendid circle of Versailles. Though he had as little book-learning as the most stupid ploughboys of England, it would have been a great error to put him in the same intellectual rank with such ploughboys. It is indeed only by reading that men can become profoundly acquainted with any science. But the arts of poetry and rhetoric may be carried near to absolute perfection, and may exercise a mighty influence on the public mind, in an age in which books are wholly or almost wholly unknown.”

So, too, in the rudest communities of Appalachia, among the most trifling and unmoral natives of this region, among the illiterate and hide-bound, there still is much to excite admiration and good hope. I have not shrunk from telling the truth about these people, even when it was far from pleasant; but I would have preserved strict silence had I not seen in the most backward of them certain sterling qualities of manliness that our nation can ill afford to waste. It is a truth as old as the human race that savageries may co-exist with admirable qualities of head and heart. The only people who can consistently despair of the future for even the lowest of our mountaineers are those who deny evolution and who believe, with Archbishop Usher, that man was created perfect at 9 a. m. on the 21st of October, in the year B. C. 4004.

Let us remember, Sir and Madam, that we ourselves are descended from white barbarians. From William the Conqueror, you? Very well; how many other ancestors of yours were walking about England and elsewhere at the time of William? Untold thousands of them were just such people as you can find to-day brawling in some mountain still-house (unless there has been a deal of incest somewhere along your line), and you have infinitely more of their blood in your veins than you have of the Conqueror’s — who, by the way, could he be re-incarnated, would not be tolerated in your drawing-room for half an hour. I may have made the point too brutally plain; but if it sinks through the smug self-complacency of those who “do not belong to the masses,” who act as though civilization and morals and good manners were entailed to them through a mere dozen or so of selected ancestors, I remain unrepentant and unashamed. Let us thank whatever gods there be that it is not merely thou and I, our few friends and next of kin, but all humanity, that scientific faith embraces and will sustain.

“People who have been among the southern mountaineers testify,” says Mr. Fox, “that, as a race, they are proud, sensitive, hospitable, kindly, obliging in an unreckoning way that is almost pathetic, honest, loyal, in spite of their common ignorance, poverty, and isolation; that they are naturally capable, eager to learn, easy to uplift. Americans to the core, they make the southern mountains a storehouse of patriotism; in themselves they are an important offset to the Old World outcasts whom we have welcomed to our shores; and they surely deserve as much consideration from the nation as the negroes, or as the heathen, to whom we give millions.”

President Frost, of Berea College, who has worked among these people for nearly a lifetime, and has helped to educate their young folks by thousands, says: “It does one’s heart good to help a young Lincoln who comes walking in perhaps a three-days’ journey on foot, with a few hard-earned dollars in his pocket and a great eagerness for the education he can so faintly comprehend. (Scores of our young people see their first railroad train at Berea.) And it is a joy to welcome the mountain girl who comes back after having taught her first school, bringing the money to pay her debts and buy her first comfortable outfit — including rubbers and suitable underclothing — and perhaps bringing with her a younger sister. Such a girl exerts a great influence in her school and mountain home. An enthusiastic mountaineer described an example in this wise: ‘I tell yeou hit teks a moughty resolute gal ter do what that thar gal has done. She got, I reckon, about the toughest deestric’ in the ceounty, which is sayin’ a good deal. An’ then fer boardin’-place — well, there warn’t much choice. There was one house, with one room. But she kep right on, an’ yeou would hev thought she was havin’ the finest kind of a time, ter look at her. An’ then the last day, when they was sayin’ their pieces and sich, some sorry fellers come in thar full o’ moonshine an’ shot their revolvers. I’m a-tellin’ ye hit takes a moughty resolute gal.”

The great need of our mountaineers to-day is trained leaders of their own. The future of Appalachia lies mostly in the hands of those resolute native boys and girls who win the education fitting them for such leadership. Here is where the nation at large is summoned by a solemn duty. And it should act quickly, because commercialism exploits and debauches quickly. But the schools needed here are not ordinary graded schools. They should be vocational schools that will turn out good farmers, good mechanics, good housewives. Meantime let a model farm be established in every mountain county showing how to get the most out of mountain land. Such object lessons would speedily work an economic revolution. It is an economic problem, fundamentally, that the mountaineer has to face.  



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