All of his life, Zebulon Baird Vance thought of himself as a mountaineer. It was his often expressed wish to be buried in the midst of the high peaks where he was born and reared. The meaning of Vance's highland heritage, however, has become clouded by the popular stereotypes associated with the term Appalachia. Starting in the 1870s, local color writers began drawing on stereotypes to create an enduring caricature of Southern mountain life that has appeared with regularity in novels, movies, and television programs ever since.1 They depicted the Southern mountain region in the period before the Civil War as a heavily wooded area inhabited by pioneer farmers of small means. Travel in the region was difficult, and the inhabitants crude, parochial, and ignorant. Their social relations were said to be characterized by traditional neighborliness mixed with unpredictable outbreaks of violence. While Vance would occasionally act self-consciously in a manner that fit this stereotype, the fictionalized description of Southern mountain life sheds no light on his identity or career.
Fortunately, a much clearer picture of life in western North Carolina before the Civil War has emerged. Until 1776, North Carolina west of the Blue Ridge was the undisputed territory of the Cherokee Indians. In that year, an expeditionary force of 2,400 men under the leadership of General Griffith Rutherford destroyed dozens of Cherokee villages, farms, and orchards. While some warriors continued to resist, most members of the tribe accepted their political inclusion in the new American nation. With the end of the Revolutionary War, the state government of North Carolina awarded lands in the western part of the state to veterans of the conflict. Many of the grants were made in what would become the state of Tennessee. Disputes between the settlers and the Cherokees over boundaries escalated into violence on a number of occasions. In an attempt to resolve these difficulties, the federal government and the Cherokee Nation signed the Treaty of Holston in 1791. This agreement opened up western North Carolina to white settlement to the French Broad River. Zebulon Vance's grandparents moved into this region around the time of the treaty. Subse