The History of Appalachia & Its People

Appalachia is a unique region in the Eastern United States with a distinct culture and history dating back thousands of years.

Oct 17, 2023By Madison Whipple, BA History w/ Spanish minor
history of appalachia and its people


The Appalachian Mountains formed roughly 480 million years ago in what is now the Eastern United States. They stood as tall as the Alps at one time until they naturally eroded into the rolling hills of today. The people who inhabit the slopes of the Appalachians have been there for at least 200 years, depending on the origin of their ancestors. It is well-known for its natural terrain and its peculiar people, but how did Appalachia come to be this way? This is the story of Appalachia and its people.


Pre-European Settlements in Appalachia

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A woodcut of what the Hopewell Mound Group may have looked like, via the National Park Service


At least as early as the Archaic Period some 8,000 years ago, Native Americans inhabited Appalachia. Several networks of caves from this period show that rather sizable populations of Native Americans lived in areas of Kentucky and Alabama from at least 6000 BCE on. The most complete Native American society, however, came during the Woodland Period, when, between 900 BCE and 1300 CE, mound-building cultures thrived.


The most famous of the mound-builders in Appalachia was of the Hopewell culture, who lived in Southern Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Tennessee. The Hopewell influence was widespread, and their trade networks stretched from Michigan to Florida, but they declined around 1300 CE for reasons relatively unknown. It seems that raids and warfare may have hastened the decline, giving way to the rise in prominence of the later Mississippian cultures of the southern Appalachians.


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Etowah Mounds, an ancient tribal center for the Southern Appalachian Mississippian culture, located in present-day Georgia, via Heritage Daily


The Southern Appalachian Mississippian culture, as they have been termed, was a culture that differed from other Mississippian mound-builders, such as the Cahokia in the Midwest, due to the flat top structure of their mounds. This culture gave rise to the Cherokee, whose origins can be traced back to around 1000 CE. By the mid-17th century, the Cherokee controlled the majority of southern Appalachia and had become an economic powerhouse in the region, all while being surrounded by enemy tribes, such as the Creek, Catawba, and Chickasaw.

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While the Cherokee had established power in the south, the northern part of the Appalachian region was largely controlled by Algonquin tribes and the Iroquois Confederacy, a conglomeration of Iroquoian-speaking tribes who controlled much of southern New York with a strong political and military structure. The Algonquian tribes, namely the Delaware, Shawnee, and Conestoga, roamed around the areas of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. The Iroquois and Algonquian tribes, unlike the Cherokee, had taken relatively little from the Mississippian period and instead followed the older Woodland Tradition.


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Leaders from five Iroquois nations (Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca) assembled around Dekanawidah c. 1570, French engraving, early 18th century, via Encyclopedia Britannica


Both the Iroquois and the Cherokee had matrilineal societies, where women were in charge of farming and other activities on the homefront, while politics, hunting, and warfare fell to the men. They had functioning and efficient agriculture and plentiful hunting and fishing ground within the mountains. It is thought that the tribes of the Appalachians thrived as such because the altitude of their homes allowed them to avoid illness and disease that came from the lands of tribes closer to sea level.


This complex and efficient system of control on the part of the Cherokee, Iroquois, and Algonquin fostered a combined population of around 60,000 until European settlement came to the mountains and interrupted the way of life of those who had inhabited the region for hundreds of years.


Early European Settlers

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Appalachian Mountain detail from Gerardus Mercator’s World Map, 1569, via International Appalachian Trail


The Spanish, moving northward from Florida, first explored the vast expanse of Appalachia in the 16th century, where they found complex societies of Native Americans and introduced the tribes to trade with the continent but never settled. This incursion allowed Native Americans in the area to do business with Europeans, relying on the rich natural resources (namely furs) of the region but also allowed them to keep their homelands.


Soon after, though, European migration began encroaching on Appalachia in the mid-18th century. These settlers, who came mostly from the British Isles and Germany, were those who fared poorly during the tumultuous political goings-on of the 17th century. The majority of those who came from Britain came from the northernmost areas of England, Lowland Scotland, and Ulster (modern-day Northern Ireland), where many Scots had already relocated. They were tired of a homeland that had been under dispute for several hundred years and wanted to live somewhere where they could establish small, independent farms and own tracts of land undisturbed by military incursion.


Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in the late 18th century, founded by German immigrants to the region, via the Library of Congress


This was the case with displaced German immigrants as well, who wanted to be free to own land, but also to practice religion (mostly of the Anabaptist persuasion) as they saw fit. The warfare in Germany’s Palatine region created a beaten-down peasantry that sought to better their lives in the English colonies of North America.


These first settlers were inherently distrustful of large governments; as such, monarchies and noble classes had persecuted them for hundreds of years. This was the impetus for their push into the backwoods, where they would be able to create self-sustaining lives for themselves so as not to rely on landed aristocrats for governance.


It was these settlers who encroached on Native American land and began to trade with the local tribes. However, they also brought enslaved Africans with them, though in smaller numbers than in the Deep South. The Africans who came to Appalachia did so unwillingly and were sold to landowners to sustain the small farms they worked on. By 1860, as much as ten percent of the Appalachian population was Black, many of whom were still enslaved.


The Foundation of the United States & the Appalachian Identity

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Boone’s First View of Kentucky by William Tylee Ranney, 1849, via the Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa


After European settlers had established themselves in the “backcountry,” as it was known then, they began building an identity centered around a sense of place and independence within the mountains. The Appalachian people, men specifically, became figures of romanticism to the colonists of North America. Rugged explorers like Daniel Boone were seen as the ideal symbol of a man who could make his way in the world. The stereotypical image of the Appalachian explorer was that of a man with a coon skin hat, buckskin coat, and a long rifle. He ventured into the woods and staked his claim without contest, able to survive self-sufficiently, in contrast to the more urban coastal elite.


The reality of Appalachia before the American Revolution, however, was not based solely on adventure. The immigrants who settled in the backcountry were poorer than those who settled on the coast, and many had only booked passage as servants of the coastal elite. Once they served out their indentured period and moved to the mountains, they encountered an unforgiving terrain, a meager livelihood, and the constant threat of attack by the tribes who controlled the area. In-fighting was common before the Revolutionary War, usually over taxation and land rights. Those who lived in the mountains were involved in several conflicts, including Bacon’s Rebellion, the Regulator Movement, and Culpepper’s Rebellion.


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Gathering of the Overmountain Men at Sycamore Shoals by Lloyd Branson, which depicts the Tennessee militia company of Overmountain men during the Revolutionary War, via the Tennessee State Museum, Nashville


After the Revolutionary War, however, people fled in the thousands to Appalachia, high on the air of freedom that came with the independent United States. Veterans were given plots of land and joined the already self-sufficient European immigrants in the backwoods. Of course, this influx of population was largely due to the removal of Native Americans; whether they had fled west because of war or were violently removed by the Washington administration, the threat of attack was much lower for the settlers. Even those tribes who remained were greatly outnumbered by 1790 when the first census showed that the region’s white population numbered over 180,000 people, while the Cherokee barely maintained a population of 50,000.


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Gateway to the West – Daniel Boone Leading the Settlers through the Cumberland Gap, 1775 by H. David Wright, c. 2000, via the National Park Service


The yeoman identity of the Appalachian people began to form with distinct characteristics. They called themselves the Cohee society to differentiate themselves from the coastal elite, whom they called the Tuckahoes. Cohee society was mainly based on ranching and yeoman farming, as well as fur trading. They were also, for the most part, staunchly opposed to the Federalist Party and its figurehead Alexander Hamilton. Cohee society was mostly egalitarian, with work split between men and women fairly. The language of the Cohee was largely dependent on Scotch-Irish accent and vocabulary, and their religions varied, following the yeoman ideology of self-sufficiency.


The Cohee identity that emerged soon after the United States’ independence was the basis for modern Appalachian identity and regional boundaries. The Cohee culture in Virginia, Ohio, Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Georgia served as a focal point for the population when, throughout history, new problems and facets of society would arise.


The 19th Century in Appalachia

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Cherokee Trail of Tears by Robert Lindneux, 1942, via New Georgia Encyclopedia


Following Cohee growth, the Cherokee experienced growth after the American Revolution as well. Before the 1820s, Cherokee society came to resemble the United States in many ways, with a constitution and centers of education that served to “civilize” (assimilate) the tribe into modern American culture. However, treaties between the sovereign tribe and the United States were not honored on the part of the American government, and although the Cherokee had done everything “right” – in other words, assimilated into the white culture – they were still forcibly removed. Appalachia became known as a region of mostly white people as the Cherokee were forced to walk from their homeland to Oklahoma on what is today known as the Trail of Tears.


This was complicated by the contrarian attitudes of the Appalachian people toward slavery. It is untrue that slavery was “not as bad” in Appalachia as it was in the Deep South. Large plantations had been built throughout the lower-altitude areas of the region, especially in Georgia, Virginia, and North Carolina, where hundreds of enslaved people per plantation were forced to work. Opinions on slavery varied greatly throughout the region, but the treatment, sale, and workload of the enslaved in Appalachia were, in general, no different than in the rest of the South.


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A photograph by George Harper Houghton showing an enslaved family on the plantation of Dr. William F. Gaines, Hanover County, Virginia, via the Library of Congress


Political opinions on slavery throughout the 19th century in Appalachia were divided. Though some 1,100 anti-slavery societies were founded in the southern mountain region, almost every town’s elite enslaved at least one person. Anti-slavery became the issue that divided the elite from the yeoman farmers in the region. With secession becoming a reality in 1861, the mountain region was distinctly divided. Poorer independent farmers were largely pro-Union, while the mountain elite, those who lived in valleys large enough for plantations, were largely pro-Confederacy.


The states of Appalachia were so divided that Virginia broke into two states, with Virginia and its planter elite joining the Confederacy and the newly formed West Virginia joining the Union in 1863. The region of Appalachia hosted a war that was truly the definition of a Civil War during the years between 1861 and 1865. Neighbors, brothers, and colleagues fought against one another, largely through guerilla violence.


After the Civil War, many pro-Union politicians had to be installed in the formerly Confederate states, many of whom were from Appalachia. It made sense that those who lived in pro-Union areas would steer the rest of their states toward Unionism again, and this worked, albeit on a smaller state level. However, the path of destruction wrought by the Civil War in the mountains was heavily felt, and the Cohee society that had once thrived was no more. The people of Appalachia had to fight to stay afloat, looking for economic interests anywhere they could. This facilitated the rise of industry, which would play a large part in the Appalachian economy for the next century and a half.


hatfields feud 1800s appalachia
William Anderson Hatfield, known as Devil Anse, sits cross-legged with his rifle across his lap. He poses for a traveling photographer alongside members of his family and local workers, c.1880-1890s, via PBS


While the Civil War had officially ended, the aftermath caused several feuds to crop up after the war. Differing ideologies led to violent clashes between families and bitter clan rivalries. The most famous of these is the Hatfield-McCoy rivalry of Kentucky, mostly because of the drama involved with the skirmishes. The families fought initially over a pig, but with forbidden romances and court disputes coming into play, the rivalry represented the division between commercialist families like the Hatfields and yeoman farmers like the McCoys. The fighting between the families probably led to the deaths of about 20 people and inspired dramatic stories of rivalries in the isolated mountains ever since.


Many formerly enslaved African Americans had to struggle to own land and make their way as yeoman farmers, but the number of Black Appalachians who were able to succeed during Reconstruction was much higher than that of the Southern average. In East Tennessee, 18.1 percent of formerly enslaved Americans owned land, while in the rest of the South, the number was around seven percent.


This small glimpse of relative equality did not last, though, as it did not in most of the South. Democratic “redeemers” swooped in during elections of the late 1870s and early 1880s, taking the South into a period of strict segregation and Black Codes, a Jim Crow precursor that regulated the freedoms given to Black Americans in 1863. In taking back the state governments, these democratic politicians pushed out Appalachian leaders and, effectively, left the southern mountain region out of regional political discussions. The society of Appalachia was forgotten in favor of the New South, which ran wild with revisionist history and simmering pro-Confederate ideology.


The 20th Century in Appalachia: Hardship & Hope

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Child coal miners with mules in Gary, West Virginia in 1908, via Smithsonian Magazine


After the industrial boom instigated by the Civil War in cities like Knoxville and Pittsburgh, railroads opened the rest of Appalachia to the wider reaches of American society. The Appalachians were already a mysterious and seemingly backward people to many Americans. They knew little about the mountain people, other than that they seemed to be poor, drink whiskey, and bear several children. However, as the necessity for coal grew, it was apparent that the people of Appalachia would be important to the country’s economy.


Central Appalachia had vast coalfields, and with open access provided by railways, the industry expanded rapidly throughout the region. The mines soon employed several thousand people and provided, at one time, two-thirds of the nation’s coal supply. The coal industry, however, contributed to several problems in Appalachia during the 20th century. The industry was largely subject to booms and busts depending on the demand for coal. This unreliable nature, coupled with the fact that the mining companies held considerable influence in state and local governments and owned several mining towns, led to considerable poverty in the region.


The worst example of mine-created poverty was during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when mining was not in demand, and wealth controlled by mining companies was held at the top. Families starved, as they were dependent on the mining companies for everything, including supplies and foodstuffs.


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Appalachian Children during the Great Depression, via Peace Works: Century of Action


The mines also caused damage to miners’ bodies, introducing black lung disease and environmental pollution to those who lived near the mines. Though the mining industry had one final boom during World War II when demand soared, during the 1950s, the industry declined due to competition from oil and natural gas and due to the technology to mechanize mining, eliminating the need for human miners.


The lumber industry similarly took advantage of the region’s vast natural resources at the beginning of the 20th century. Virgin forests were cut down at exceedingly fast rates, devastating the region’s landscape. The lumber companies, like the mining companies, were indebted and exploited Appalachian workers until the creation of National Parks and Forests led to the flight of such heavy deforestation.


The effects of these economic booms on Appalachian people, however, were permanent. Those who lived in the mountains were exploited so rampantly that they could do nothing about their situations by the time the companies abandoned them. They were discouraged from civil action, education, and economic independence in favor of mine and lumber work, but as the industries declined, no resources were provided for the people to recover. The Appalachian middle class, those with enough money to seek work elsewhere, left the region, creating an even greater disparity between the urban elite of the outlying regional cities and the impoverished people of the mountains.


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Wildell Lumber Company landing near Wildell, Pocahontas County, West Virginia, c. 1910, via West Virginia Public Broadcasting


Lack of governmental intervention characterized the decline of Appalachian quality of life during the mid-20th century. State and local governments overlooked the poverty of the mountainous region and did not deign to even provide proper infrastructure in the region. Education was not regulated, and without proper roads, the ability to travel elsewhere for work was limited. This created a cycle of poverty that played out from one generation to the next until the 1960s when President John F. Kennedy, upon visiting the region, proposed the formation of the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), which was established by his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, in 1965.


The ARC applied to 420 counties in 13 states in and around Appalachia and sought to ignite the regional economy with a “bottom-up” model. The ARC allocates funds to state and local governments annually, which are distributed to projects that, in theory, are developed on a personalized level that will help boost the region’s economy. Several projects within the ARC are dedicated to creating jobs through public works, infrastructure, and taking advantage of natural resources.


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President Johnson visits Kentucky as a part of his “war on poverty,” via Soapboxie


Though the ARC boosted development significantly throughout Appalachia, at the turn of the 21st century, a quarter of the counties in Appalachia still qualified as “distressed,” the lowest level of development defined by the commission.


Though economic hardships often defined the region and created stereotypes of a region that could not keep up with the rest of the United States filled with “poor whites,” diversity and opportunity reared their head, along with more positive portrayals of the region. While Black Appalachians were persecuted during the era of Jim Crow, in some areas, they were given opportunities to succeed alongside white students, like in West Virginia, which opposed the segregation of schools.


Several Appalachians migrated outside of the region and went on to relative success. In addition, more positive images of Appalachians began to crop up in the 20th century, like in the television show “The Waltons,” which followed a family in the mountains of Virginia during the 1930s and endeared the region to viewers across the country.


The 21st Century in Appalachia

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A hiker looks out over the mountains while on the Appalachian Trail, via Lonely Planet


The 21st century in Appalachia has seen relative growth compared to where it was in the 1950s, with its poverty rates dropping and median income rising. It has also seen growth in education rates and access to basic medical and technological necessities. However, the disparities between Appalachia and the rest of the United States are still oftentimes stark.


The poverty rate in Appalachia, though it fell 1.2 percent between 2009 and 2013, was still 15.8 percent compared to the national 14.1 percent. In addition to this, the median income of Appalachians was 82.5 percent of the national median income. Health disparities are also still rampant, with Central Appalachia alone having a heart disease mortality rate that is 42 percent higher than the national average. Infant mortality rates in the entirety of the region are 16 percent higher than the national average as well.


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Poverty rate map of Appalachia, 2013-2017, via the Appalachian Regional Commission


A lack of access to proper care, education, work, and governmental spending still causes disparities. Outside factors, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the opioid epidemic, have also contributed to the overall disparity in quality of life in recent years.


Though socioeconomic and health disparities certainly exist, Appalachia has experienced somewhat of a cultural Renaissance in the past two decades. The prevalence of tourism in the region is greatly supplemented by the popularity of the National Parks, including Great Smoky Mountain National Park and Mammoth Cave National Park, as well as National Trails like the Appalachian Trail.


Appalachia is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts, and negative stereotypes have begun to be replaced as technology allows outsiders a glimpse into the region like never before. Social media has helped to establish the path forward for several Appalachians, along with interest in podcasts relating to folklore from the region. The future of Appalachia is one being led by its younger generation, who is seeking to uplift and portray a different side of their region, despite the disparities that still exist therein.

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By Madison WhippleBA History w/ Spanish minorMadison is a contributing writer with specialties in American and women’s history. She is especially interested in women’s history in the context of the American Civil War. In her free time, she enjoys going to museums, reading, and jogging.