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Appalachia - People

Appalachia and Ozarks Settlers did not push through the Blue Ridge into the Appalachian Highlands until late in the colonial period, 150 years after initial occupation of America's East Coast. The easiest and first-used passageway into the Great Valley and the mountains beyond was in southeast Pennsylvania, where the Blue Ridge is little more than a range of hills. Many Pennsylvanians found the mountain lands to the north and west inhospitable. Consequently, they gradually spread their settlement down the valley into Virginia. They were soon joined by others moving inland from the southern lowlands.

Then, late in the 18th century, people began settling the valleys and coves of the surrounding highlands. The land they chose was poor in comparison with areas farther west. Its ruggedness, coupled with the cool upland climate, rendered most of the region unacceptable for the plantation economy. Only in some of the broader lowlands did a few sizable plantations develop.

When American settlers came to this area in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the region provided adequate settlement potential for smaller farms. About 10 to 20 hectares of cleared land was all a farmer could handle. Such plots were available in the stream valleys. The forests teemed with game, wood was plentiful, and animals could graze in the woods and mountain pastures. By the standards of the time, this was reasonably good land, and a farming population soon occupied the mountains.

Much of the region gradually grew more isolated and separate from other areas. As flatter, richer agricultural land to the west was opened and grain production was mechanized, the small Appalachian farm became increasingly marginal economically. Even famous pathways through the region, such as the Cumberland Gap at the western tip of Virginia and the Wilderness Road from there to the Bluegrass Basin of Kentucky, were, in fact, winding and difficult.

East-west travel between the northeastern seaboard and the Great Lakes area followed the route of the Mohawk Corridor and the flat lakeshore of Lake Ontario, thus avoiding the northern Appalachian uplands. There was no easy passage at all across the southern Appalachians. Major railroad lines skirted the area.

Appalachia, particularly southern Appalachia, was slow to develop any substantial urban pattern. In part, it shared with the rest of the South an emphasis on agriculture that continued well after other regions of the country had begun their rush toward manufacturing and urban living. Also, the products of Appalachia were few, and the demand for the goods and services of cities was limited. Added to this was the paucity of transportation.

One major result of the lack of both plantations and urban development was that few new migrants were added to the early settlers. These people tended to stay where they were, and, as time passed, their attachment to family, community, and land grew. This regional immobility led to the development of a cultural distinctiveness uncommon in the rest of the United States. Appalachia became increasingly unusual by simply remaining the same.

Appalachia's people are poor. In some areas, especially eastern Kentucky, Appalachia's major coal-producing area, much of the blame for the area's poverty can be attributed to a great decline in the regional demand for labor as coal mining was mechanized in the 1940s.

The region's people are conservative in attitude. Many of America's most conservative Protestant churches trace their roots to Appalachia. Others are found where mountain people have moved and taken their religion with them. Politically, most elected officials are decidedly conservative, although strands of rural populism are found. The area's provincialism is bred of the strong bonds of family and community formed in relative isolation, which tie their members together and lessen their association with others.

The southern portion of the area is the most clearly Appalachian, and the one that most Americans recognize as Appalachia. But much of what has been said here about the region's residents fits the Ozarks and the Appalachian region to the north as well.

The northern Appalachians are far less clearly associated with the broader region. Certainly they share the mountainous topography, and some of the early developmental problems created by steep slopes were also common. But poverty is far less evident than it is farther south. Also, more recent immigrants followed the early northwestern European settlers into the area. This is especially true in Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia, where coal mining attracted many East European migrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Many cultural patterns in the northern Appalachians, with religion a notable example, are not at all the same as those of the southern highlands. Fundamentalist churches are less common; in many counties, especially in Pennsylvania, Catholics and members of various Eastern Orthodox churches are in the majority.

Transportation within the northern Appalachians soon became far better than that in the southern Appalachians, in part because the mountains were less continuous and lower and, thus, more easily breached. Also, as the upper Midwest boomed, the northern Appalachians became the center of the continent's major belt of commercial and manufacturing growth. Transport lines connecting the eastern and western portions of the manufacturing core region soon ribboned through the mountains. The economic consequence of this was far more development within the northern Appalachian area, especially in central and western Pennsylvania and New York, as compared to the southern Appalachians.

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Page last modified: 01-11-2017 19:24:07 ZULU