Appalachia: A History

Article excerpt

Appalachia: A History. By John Alexander Williams. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. Pp. xviii, 473. Acknowledgments, abbreviations, illustrations, maps, tables, introduction, notes, bibliography, index. $49.95, cloth; $19.95, paper.)

The motorist who follows the Mountain Parkway east out of Lexington, Kentucky, finds the going easy, if expensive, across the Bluegrass country until 100 miles from Lexington, where the parkway ends in a maze of valleys followed by winding roads. The one thing he cannot do is go straight. He has arrived in Appalachia. As the name suggests, Appalachia is a physical region-that area of the United States within which the Appalachian system dictates surface, structure, and resources. The system extends all the way into northeastern Canada, but it is to the part that lies west and south of the Hudson and Mohawk valleys that the term Appalachian is generally applied. It includes the Cumberland and Allegheny plateaus, the Ridge and Valley province, the Blue Ridge province, and, on the eastern flank, the Piedmont. These physical features alone do not account for Appalachia's familiarity to Americans over the past half-century. Appalachia is a well-known region because it carries cultural and political significance.

Melding geographic, social, political, economic, and popular history, the author chronicles four and a half centuries of human experience in the Appalachians. After describing Appalachia's long-contested boundaries, he selects the boundaries set by the Appalachian Regional Commission as the geographical limits of the book. The narrative of Appalachia is both sympathetic and analytical as he illuminates the often contradictory images that have shaped perceptions of the region as both the epitome of America and a place apart. Williams writes with a clarity and authority drawn from years of competent research on the region.

The chronicle of Appalachia begins with the colonial period and the half-century of bloody warfare during which the Native American inhabitants yielded their pristine forests and hunting grounds to migrants from Europe and their descendants. The exploration and settlement of the linear mountains, intervening valleys, and trackless plateau country are described through the experiences of English, Protestant Irish, German, and many other ethnic groups that entered the mountains mainly by way of river routes. The Great Valley, the foremost migration route, was washed over by repeated waves of immigrants. The conversion of a backwoods farm-and-forest society had hardly begun when Appalachia was torn apart by the Civil War with its horrendous battles and even more debilitating guerrilla activity, which featured all the hardships and atrocities with which irregular warfare has always been associated. Following the war, a new industrial order arose in areas that were fortunate enough to obtain railroads and, later, roads. Towns were founded, and extractive industries penetrated deeper and deeper into the mountains and plateaus. As in most mountain districts, lumber mills and mines were the foundation industries. In particular, vast coal fields provided resources for subsidiary and linked industries and attracted many mountain workers seeking cash wages as a way out of a subsistence lifestyle. Poor working conditions and the efforts to establish bargaining unions in the latter half of the nineteenth century brought labor conflicts that led to strikes, assassinations, and warlike conditions which shaped politics and became a noteworthy part of Appalachian history. …