A Mixed Multitude of all Classes and Complexions


Since the late nineteenth century, when local-color writers first popularized many of the common stereotypes now associated with the southern mountains, Appalachia has been perceived as an isolated and backward place that retained old-fashioned customs and lagged behind mainstream America.  In 1899, however, Berea College president William Goodell Frost portrayed the southern mountains more favorably, as “one of God’s grand divisions.”  In an appeal to Northern donors and philanthropists, he described the “highland stock” of eastern Kentucky as predominantly English and Scottish, but also “Scotch-Irish.” Frost characterized these “mountain whites” as patriotic “Sons and Daughters of the Revolution” who had been isolated for generations in a “Rip Van Winkle sleep.” Unlike the flood of immigrants who were arriving from Southern and Eastern Europe at that time, these supposedly racially pure, “native born” “mountain Americans” had preserved the Anglo-Saxon heritage of “our pioneer ancestors.” In his mind, they were conservators of true “American” culture, and they clearly deserved an education at Berea College.

Echoing Frost, American geographer Ellen Churchill Semple, in 1901, likewise portrayed the people who lived in “isolated communities” in the mountains of eastern Kentucky as “the purest Anglo-Saxon stock in all the United States.” She described these “chiefly English and Scotch-Irish” people as “direct descendants of the early Virginia and North Carolina immigrants…. kept free from the tide of foreign immigrants which has been pouring in recent years into the United States.” 

This characterization of the southern mountaineers as a homogeneous population of racially pure Anglo-Saxons, however, is a myth.  The population of the Southern backcountry, in fact, was a diverse mix of Europeans, African Americans, and indigenous Native Americans.  Charles Woodmason, an itinerant Angelican preacher based in the Piedmont of South Carolina between 1766 and 1772, characterized it as a “mixed Multitude of all Classes and Complexions.”  Neither ethnically, racially, economically, nor culturally homogeneous, the region was home to wealthy landowners, poor tenants, farmers and sharecroppers, well-to-do merchants, and isolated subsistence farmers, as well as enslaved African Americans. 

In addition to the English and Scots-Irish, those of European descent included Germans and smaller numbers of Scots, Welsh, and French Huguenots.  Some were recent arrivals; others were second- or third-generation European Americans.  The Scots-Irish (and not the English), however, made up the single largest group among the early settlers.  These people, also known as Scotch-Irish or Ulster-Scots, were primarily Presbyterians from northern Ireland whose ancestors had come from the lowlands of Scotland and northern Ireland  whose ancestors had come from the lowlands of Scotland and northern England in the 1600s.  Charles Woodmanson encountered many of these “Northern Scotch Irish” settlers in the foothills of the Blue RIdge Mountains.  Venturing as far west as the Cherokee towns beyond the Saluda River, he noted their fondness for fiddling and “frolicking”: “If You want to hire a fellow to Work, You’l not raise one for Money–But make a Dance, or a Frolic–and You’l see an hundred turn out.”  On one occasion, he wrote: “Married a Couple, who imprudently (or impudently) left the Service and staid not to Sermon, carrying with them ½ the Congregation to frolic and dance.”  Woodmason was appalled by the “Revelling Drinking Singing Dancing and Whoring” of these “poor wretches,” whom he dismissed as “ignorant, mean, worthless, beggarly Irish Presbyterians, the Scum of the Earth, and the Refuse of Mankind.” 

Although Frost portrayed the Appalachian people as “mountain whites,” and Semple claimed that the region “Excluded the negroes,” there have been people of African descent in the southern mountains since the time of the earliest explorers and settlers.  African slaves accompanied Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto when he passed through western North Carolina in search of gold in 1540, and during the 1700s slaves and indentured servants arrived with the early white settlers.  By the time of the first U.S. Census in 1790, there were many thousands of slaves as well as free blacks in the southern mountains.  In 1800, at the new settlement of Asheville in western North Carolina, one-third of the population was black–twenty-five free persons and thirteen slaves.  

The Appalachian backcountry was a fertile “cultural contact zone” that fostered interactions and cultural exchange between Native Americans, African Americans, and European American.  Thomas Ashe, an Englishman who traveled down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers from Pittsburgh to New Orleans in 1806, experience this blending of traditions one evening while staying at an inn in Wheeling, [West] Virginia : “I entered the ball-room, which was filled with persons at cards, drinking, smoking, dancing, &c. The ‘music’ consisted of two banjies, played by negroes nearly in a state of nudity, and a [flute], through which a Chickesaw breathed with much occasional exertion and violent gesticulations.  The dancing accorded with the harmony of these instruments.” Ashe was appalled by this crude “music” [Ashe’s quotes]  and dancing, which he characterized as “a violent vulgar uproar.” This raucous frolic, which was accompanied by African-derived banjos and a Native American flute, was no doubt quite different from the sophisticated, genteel music and dances of the European ballrooms with which he was familiar.  

Though not as pervasive in the mountains as in the Deep South, salvery played a significant role in the development of the region, and it was important to the Appalachian antebellum economy.  Prior to the Civil War, approximately 10 percent of white Appalachian households owned slaves (through typically fewer than five per household). Slave labor was used to clear timber and for agricultural work; slaves were also crucial to the efficient transportation of goods (as livestock drovers and riverboat laborers), in gold mining and lumbering, in the ironworks, saltworks, brickyards, in carpentry as well as in travel and tourism, where slaves worked as stage drivers and hotel workers.  Anne Royall, who traveled throughout the southern mountains in the early 1820s, observed blacks hard at work in all of these various occupations.  At that time, African Americans (mostly slaves) accounted for close to 12 percent of the total populations of Appalachia.  They were, however, not uniformly distributed. Black populations in some counties exceeded 30 percent, while elsewhere the proportion was less than 1 percent. By 1860 more than 175,000 free and enslaved blacks lived in Appalachia, and slavery existed in every county, even on the Cherokee-owned plantation of East Tennessee, northeast Alabama, and north Georgia. 

Close to half of the households in the southern mountains were made up of poor white tenant farmers and shrecroppers who worked alongside slaves at corn husking and other work parties. Danial Hundley, who grew up in a slaveholding family in northern Alabama, wrote in 1860 of the music that was shared by these “industrious poor whites” and slaves who worked side by side: “And when the long winter evenings have come, you will see blacks and whites sing, and shout, and husk in company, to the music of Ole Virginny feels played on a greasy fiddle with some aged Uncle Edward, whose frosty pow proclaims that he is no longer fit for any more active duty, and whose long skiny fingers are only useful now to put life and mettle into the fingers of the youngers huskers, by the help of de fiddle and de bow.”  Such racially integrated labor forces no doubt provided opportunities for interaction between mountain blacks and the white majority. 

Following the Civil War, the African American population of Appalachia became more concentrated in the urban centers and less apparent in the rural communities, so that even though their numbers exceeded 274,000 by the end of the 1800s–many had come to the coalfields form the Deep South–the proportion of blacks in the overall population had declined.  By the start of the twentieth century, blacks made up less than 3 percent of the population of the mountain counties of eastern Kentucky–down from a high of 7 percent in 1850–and this may have led Semple to believe that “our Kentucky mountaineers” had had “no intimate knowledge of the negro.”  From the time of the earliest settlers, however, the population of Appalachia was a “mix Multitude of all Classes and Complexions,” and the shared southern mountain culture that developed was a blend of the European, African, and Native American traditions.

From Hoedowns, Frolics, and Reels: Roots and Branches of Southern Appalachian Dance. University of Illinois Press.

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