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Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia

An excerpt from Steven Stoll’s latest book

Excerpted from Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia by Steven Stoll, to be published in November 2017 by Hill and Wang, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Steven Stoll. All rights reserved.

Contemporary Ancestors From Daniel Boone to Hill-Billy

In all societies there are off-casts. This impure part serves as our precursors or pioneers.

— J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer,
Letter III (1782)

This is an ordinary map of southern West Virginia, adorned with shapes representing private property. Some of the shapes adhere to watercourses. Others run ruler straight, throwing squares and trapezoids across innumerable hills and hollows. Distant investors consulted the Title Map of the Coal Field of the Great Kanawha Valley for its cross section diagrams, which reveal the depths and strata of bituminous minerals. They learned the exact distances by river and railroad from these deposits to factories in Cincinnati, Richmond, and New York City.  But their two dimensional aspirations did not match three dimensional reality. Thousands of people hunted and gathered, planted beans and maize, and raised livestock beneath the ownerships of the men whose names mark each survey. Looked at in this way, a mundane illustration of cadastral boundaries, “fixed by litigation or otherwise,” posed a threat in cartographic form, a lit fuse in an ongoing war over the control of subsistence in the southern mountains.

There are many other maps like this one, each a fragment of a region known better by myth and legend than by history. The named investors believed that the best use of the Kanawha Valley was to remove its trees and dig its coal. They believed that these commodities enriched not only them but West Virginia, the United States, and even the world — that imposing private property over these mountains enlisted a neglected land and a forgotten people in an inevitable movement. They also believed that nothing stood in their way. As they saw it, the Kanawha Valley lay within a propitious region where wealth multiplied without social or environmental obstacles. For their part, the people on the ground had never paid much attention to lines demarcating private property or to landowners who often lived far from the mountains. Together, the investors and residents created a region, not by cooperating or by participating as equals in a political process but by the outcome of their conflict. We know the geo graphical location of this region as the southern extent of the Appalachian Mountains. The industrial invasion that took place there gave it another name: Appalachia.

Where is Appalachia? Is it a province of eastern North America, locatable on any map? Or is it a set of cultural characteristics, not entirely limited to elevation or topography? West of Washington, D.C., the traveler makes a gradual ascent, rising 328 feet in forty miles to the undulating plain of the Piedmont. The Blue Ridge comes into view, topping off at 1,100 feet outside of Harpers Ferry. The landscape then slopes into the northernmost point of the Shenandoah Valley. The Civil War battlefield Antietam lies on the eastern bank of the Shenandoah River. On the other side begins a physiographic formation known as Ridge and Valley, including Spruce Mountain (4,863 feet), Cheat Mountain (4,848 feet), and Back Allegheny Mountain (4,843), features of an escarpment called the Allegheny Front. Crossing over, the countryside extends west and south as the broad, highly eroded Appalachian Plateau. A forester writing in the 1880s described rivers with myriad tributaries, each opening to still smaller forks and branches. “What renders the topography of this region most remarkable is the extraordinary narrowness of its numberless watersheds, the different creeks and brooks taking rise in the immediate neighborhood of each other.”

We could just leave the question there and say that Appalachia consists of these uplands, including southwestern Pennsylvania, a sliver of Virginia, all of West Virginia, the eastern thirds of Kentucky and Tennessee, and the elevated counties of Georgia and the Carolinas. But physical features are not always enough to define a place as distinctive. One government report concluded that the various counties and corners often referred to as Appalachia “have only one feature in common — an elevation higher than that of the surrounding country.” There is also a wider conception that draws in all of western Pennsylvania, the bottom tier of counties in New York, parts of Ohio, a third of Alabama, and a bite of Mississippi. Not all of these areas are particularly elevated. The first use of the name Appalachia offers no clarity. While wandering in what is now northern Florida, the survivors of a disastrous Spanish expedition heard the name of a village as Apalachen. A map from 1562 has the word hovering over a vague northern territory.

Nor does Appalachia have a specific or unique ethnic identity. Shawnee, Mingo, Delaware, and Cherokee all lived there at different times, but none of them exclusively. Many among the descendants of the white settlers who found their way to the mountains after the American Revolution kept on moving, generation after generation. Before the end of the nineteenth century, they had arrived in the Ozark Mountains, the Illinois prairie, the Great Plains, and the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Whether highland whites composed a separate subculture of the South or a slight variation in the foodways, music, and lore found in the lowlands depends on whether we choose to emphasize minor differences or major similarities. As late as 1900, a Cherokee in northern Georgia, an African-American in North Carolina, and a Hungarian recently arrived in Kentucky would not have thought that they lived in the same region.

There might be no reliable way of defining a cultural region. But consider that human patterns in tandem with landscapes create lived experience. People change their boundaries, migrate to escape drought or cold, and enlarge their presence through trade and conflict. We could construct a region entirely from the mental maps of its inhabitants, keyed to seasonal work or the burial grounds of ancestors. If this is right, then a region is a set of defining events, process unfolding in place. Every region is based on a theory.

There are plenty of theories. In the nineteenth century, geographers began to think of regions as clusters of interactions within spatial limits. In particular, they asked how markets located in cities changed surrounding landscapes. A German named Johann Heinrich von Thünen came up with a model in which a town at the center of a uniform agricultural plain influenced what farmers planted over the entire territory. He expected to find perishable products close to market and hardier ones farther away because strawberries, unlike wheat, would not survive days in transit. For Thünen, city and country worked together to create a geographical division of labor in which both merchants and farmers benefited. Every exchange took place between equals and every outcome served the greater good, without a hint of class conflict or asymmetric power. He assumed the universality of capitalist rationality, in which everyone acted to maximize profit.

A century later, historians, anthropologists, geographers, and political economists rejected most of Thünen’s ahistorical and socially simplistic model. They asked different questions. How did the financial power emanating from cities reorganize people and environments in its image? What happened to house holds and communities, as well as the landscapes they depended on, when everything took on monetary values? Have different forms of economy — peasant and capitalist– existed together at the same time? How can we use these relationships to understand the capitalist world? And instead of thinking only in terms of city and country, they broadened their thinking to include the various ways networks of capital allied with governments dominate resource peripheries and frontiers. In other words, rather than limit themselves to regions and nations, they saw the world itself as a division of labor, in which regions and nations created certain commodities. Rather than imagine exchanges between individuals on an equal footing, they discovered political power operating within and between markets.

But while these ideas are good to think with, I don’t hold them too close. They aren’t flexible enough to absorb the depth and detail of actual people in actual places. Exactly when the southern mountains became a resource periphery is not entirely clear and not very important. Was it when the first colonial governor of Virginia granted the first tract of mountain land or when the first joint-stock corporation opened the first coal mine?

Yet grand theories offer us something worth carrying into the following pages. They construct the world historically. New geographical entities emerge from corporate strategies, leaps in transportation infrastructure, and other events that change the relationship between people and environments. All of which has helped me to understand a region called Appalachia. The southern mountains are half a billion years old, but Appalachia did not exist before the industrial invasion of those uplands during the nineteenth century. It appeared as a location within the capitalist world when its coal and labor ignited the American Industrial Revolution. It was created and constantly re-created by hunters and farmers of every ethnicity who employed the landscape for subsistence and exchange; by land-engrossing colonial elites; by corporate attorneys scheming to get hold of deeds; by investors wielding cadastral maps; by coal miners resisting company managers and starving on strike; by the social engineers of the New Deal; by the Appalachian Regional Commission; and by brokenhearted citizens watching beloved hollows buried by mountaintop-removal mining. Appalachia consists of these contextual identities and events and their continuing fallout between the Blue Ridge and the Ohio River.

This book is about the ordeal of greater West Virginia, regarding that state as exemplary for the region as a whole. It takes place in the Pennsylvania counties that gave rise to the Whiskey Rebellion; in Scotts Run, a long industrial hollow near Morgantown; and in the coalfields near Flat Top Mountain, up against Kentucky and Virginia. It is predicated on the collision between two forms of economy: one represented by corporations, the other manifested in families and farms and as old as agriculture itself, if not older.

Steven Stoll is a professor of history at Fordham University and the author of The Great Delusion (Hill and Wang, 2008) and Larding the Lean Earth (Hill and Wang, 2002).

Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia is available to purchase on Amazon.

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