The Myth of Appalachian Isolation & The Back Door to Appalachia


The Myth of Appalachian Isolation

The local-color writers of the nineteenth century portrayed Appalachia as a remote and isolated place, and Frost and Semple, who suggested that the retention of eighteenth-century British culture in the mountains was due to the lack of contact with the modern world, perpetuated this idea. Semple claimed (in 1901) that the southern mountaineers’ “Speech and ideas” reveal their ancestry “as plainly as if they had disembarked from their eighteenth-century vessel but yesterday.” While some parts of Appalachia are certainly remote and relatively isolated, the region as a whole has never been completely cut off from the outside world. By the early 1700s, the southern backcountry was tied to the world economy through the fur trade with Europe.  In the early 1800s, drovers routinely herded thousands of hogs, cattle, turkeys, and other livestock along the early roads that led from the mountains of western North Carolina to the markets in Charleston and Savannah, and ginseng was shipped all the way to China by way of Philadelphia. In her description of the “western country,” Anne Royall listed some of the commodities that were exported from East Tennessee, including flour, corn, potatoes, whiskey, bacon, cider, apples, hemp, tobacco, beef, butter, cheese, beeswax, lard, feathers, onions, lumber, and timber.  These goods were sent down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, where they were exchanged for cotton in New Orleans.  Cotton was in turn exchanged for merchandise that was hauled down the Great Wagon Road from Philadelphia in heavily loaded wagons. Royall encountered a number of these wagons every day in her travels.  The United States Mail also arrived three times each week.  Lamenting the effects of consumerism in western Virginia in 1823, Royall wrote, “[The] taste they have for dress, foreign manufacturers, coffee, tea, &c. will prove their ruin. I passed through this country about thirty years since, when the people hardly knew what coffee or tea was; in fact many of them did not; and now there is no family but what uses coffee and tea…. At that time nothing but domestic cloth was worn, and now every one in one hundred men… which I counted to-day at preaching, were clothed in foreign manufacturers.”

Other commodities supplied to the nation by Appalachia included gold, salt, and iron, and with the coming of the railroad in the 1870s and 1880s, the region was opened up for the extraction of coal.  Black laborers, who built the railroads, introduced new musical styles—the blues in particular—to the southern mountains, and the railroads brought in manufactured goods from the outside, including mail-order guitars and other musical instruments.  In her autobiography, Singing Family of the Cumberlands, ballad singer Jean Ritchie (b. 1922) relates the story of her father and uncle making an eighty-mile round trip on foot from their home in easter Kentucky to purchase a “talking machine” around 1905.  As a result, Jean and her siblings in an “isolated” holler of eastern Kentucky grew up listening to cylinder recordings of minstrel songs, including “Whistlin’ Rufus” and “Little Lizy Jane.” By the early twentieth century these and other popular nineteenth-century songs, as well as blues, had become part of the Appalachian musical tradition, taking their place alongside the older British and American ballads and folk songs.

The Back Door to Appalachia

The majority of the early settlers who came to the southern mountains ( the “Western Country”) followed the Great Wagon Road (what is now more or less Interstate 81) from Pennsylvania southwest through the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.  This was the main route for trade and transportation, providing a link between the southern mountains and the northeastern states.  Other settlers arrived from the East– from Tidewater Virginia and Charleston, South Carolina.  

Beyond the Eastern Continental Divide, however, the Ohio River provided a crucial conduit to the outside world.  Flowing past West Virginia and Kentucky and eventually joining the Mississippi River, the Ohio River facilitated transportation and commerce all the way from Pittsburgh to New Orleans.  As many as fifty Appalachian counties (in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee) were accessible by the navigable tributaries of the Ohio River, and every year countless flatboats (some more than one hundred feet long), keelboats, and barges loaded with goods descended these rivers. 

The Ohio and other rivers that flowed into the Mississippi River were heavily traveled trade routes–the superhighways of their time.  In 1787 The Pittsburgh Gazette reported more than 120 boats passing by Pittsburg, bound for Kentucky, during a single week.  On board a thirty-six-foot-long flatboat that departed from Pittsburgh on the Ohio River in November 1796 were young Englishman named Francis Baily and a French army general, who played the fiddle “exceedingly well.” The first night out they stayed at a farmhouse: “The general… struck up a tune…and a dance was soon commenced, not much in the style either of Bath or Paris, but sufficiently pleasing to drive away the gloom inspired by the surrounding wilderness, and to banish all idea of separation from civilized society.” Several months later, Bailey and his companion eventually reached New Orleans.  Bailey had hoped to find passage to New York by boat, but none was available.  So instead, like many others who descended these rivers, he returned to the mountains by foot, following the Natchez Trace, a 450-mile path through the wilderness from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashivell, Tennessee, and arriving in Knoxville in two months’ time. 

Francis Baily was just one of the many who arrived in New Orleans from the various tributaries of the Mississippi River.  In 1806 a flatboatman noted as many as one hundred boats lining the banks of the Kentucky River at Frankfort, Kentucky, and the following year more than eighteen hundred boats landed in New Orleans.  The crews of these boats typically included a fiddler hired to provide entertainment over the many days it took to float down the river.  A New Englander who traveled with his family down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers on a keelboat in 1815 recalled the sound of “fiddles scraping continuously” on the floatboats and of the boatmen “dancing to the violin on the deck of their boat.”

One of these many flatboat musicians was Thomas C. Collins (1832-1907), a fiddler and dance caller of Scots-Irish and German descent who worked on the Ohio, Mississippi, and Missouri Rivers in the 1850s.  Collins grew up along the Ohio River in Little Hocking, Ohio (across the river from West Virginia), and in his autobiography he wrote of playing the fiddle for dancers on the deck of the flatboat during the many weeks it took to float downriver to New Orleans. 

By night Collins and other flatboat fiddlers would provide the music for “dances got up at the hovels along shore.” One popular though notorious stop was the Natchez Under-the-Hill district in Mississippi, where the boatmen drank, danced, and caroused with “the refuse of the world.” T.B. Thorpe described the scene in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1855: “With the professional flat-boatment [the Negroes of the Mississippi] are always favorites…at night, when the ‘old ark’ is tied up….On such occasions the master of the instrument will touch off the ‘Arkansas Traveler,’ and then gradually sliding into a ‘Virginia hoe-down,’ he will be accompanied by a genuine darkie keeping time, on the light fantastic heel-and-toe tap.”

In addition to enabling the transportation of goods downriver to market, The Ohio River facilitated the transmission of popular culture throughout the Ohio Valley and up the main tributaries into the southern mountains.  In 1793, while reporting on the occupational prospects for immigrants, Harry Toulmin, a Unitarian minister from England, had noted the great interest in dancing at settlements along the Ohio River in northeastern Kentucky: “A musical professor would not have much chance of succeeding a present, but a dancing master would meet with encouragement.”  By that time a dancing school had already been established (in 1788) in the frontier settlement of Lexionton, Kentucky.  With the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, more dancing masters arrived upriver from New Orleans.  Shortly after arriving by barge in 1805, James Riddle opened a dancing school in Lexington, and the following year another dancing master, Mr. Terrasse from the West Indies, arrived to teach “French language and dancing.” These and other dancing masters popularized the fashionable French quadrilles at settlements along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. 

The advent of the steamboat accelerated the transmission of popular culture in the Ohio Valley. In 1811 the first steamboat traveled from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, and within a few years one managed to make the return trip upriver. By the late 1820s steamboats had reached Knoxville on the upper Tennessee River, and by 1830, others were venturing up the Licking and Big Sandy Rivers in Kentucky and the Kanahwa River in West Virginia.  In 1827 one observer wrote, “ A steamboat, coming from New Orleans, brings to the remotest villages of our streams, and the very doors of the cabins, a little Paris, a section of Broadway, or a slice of Philadelphia, to ferment in the minds of our young people, the innate propensity for fashions and finery.” By the 1840s, steamboats were a common sight on all the navigable rivers that flowed from Appalachia.  

Black and mulatto musicians, often slaves, typically provided entertainment for the passengers on the steamboats, and their music could be heard up and down the rivers.  American actor Noah Miller Ludlow, who traveled with a theater company by steamboat down the Ohio River in 1817, wrote “After dinner the tables were put out of the way, and an old ‘darkey’ with a fiddle was brought into the cabin, who could play an old Virginia reel ‘to kill.’  It was not long before the floor was occupied with dancers, among the ladies were some of ours.”

A former steamboat pilot recalled the popularity and profitability of “colored” steamboat orchestras in the mid-nineteenth century:

“The cabin orchestra was the cheapest and most enduring, as well as the most popular drawing card.  A band of six or eight colored men who could play the violin, banjo, and guitar, and in addition sing well, was always a good investment.  These men were paid to do the work of waiters, barbers, and baggagemen, and in addition were given the prived of passing the hat occasionally and keeping all they caught…. They also played for dances in the cabin, and at landings sat on the guards and played to attract [customers].  It soon became advertised abroad which boats carried the best orchestra, and such lost nothing in the way of patronage.”

One of thse African American steamboat musicians was Milton Clarke, a slave from Lexinton, Kentucky, who played bass drum and bugle.  Clarke had worked as a steward on different steamboats on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers; in 1838 he agreed to pay his owner, a Presbyerian minister, two hundred dollars a year for a pass to play for parties and dances with a group of fellow enslaved musicians. As Clare related, “We made money fast and easy,” and upon realizing their financial potential, he and his companions escaped to freedom in the North following engagement at a ball in Cincinnati.

The many African American musicians who performed along the Ohio River provided source material for the early blackface minstrel performers.  It was in Louisville in 1830 that Thomas Rice first performed as “Jim Crow,” a character supposedly inspired by an elderly African American who lived along the Ohio River (either in Cincinnati or Louisville). Dan Emmett, who lived in Cincinnati prior to forming the Virginia Minstrels in New York in 1843, likewise drew from this rich musical environment. 

Flatboats remained a common sight on the rivers into the late 1800s, especially during the spring “tide” of each year, when timber was floated down the river to sawmills.  In the late 1870s hundreds of timber rafts descended the Kanawha River from West Virginia to the Ohio River, and in 1884 as many as one thousand timber rafts floated down the Clinch River.  William Frost noted that for many of the mountaineers of eastern Kentucky, “driving and rafting logs” was “the chief means of contact with the outside world.” Like the many others who traveled the rivers, these river workers would have been exposed to the popular music and dances of that time. 

Although regular steamboat service stille existed all the way to Pikeville in eastern Kentucky as late as the 1890s, the railroads eventually made the steamboats, flatboats, and timber rafts obsolete.  The legacy of these rivers, however, endures today in the names of numerous Southern fiddle tunes, especially in Kentucky and West Virginia.  In  addition to “Mississippi Sawyer,” these include “Boatman,” “Natchez-Under-the-HIll,” “Ladies on the Steamboat,” “Sail Away Ladies,” “Big Sandy River,” “Boatin’ Up Sandy,” “Sandy River Belle,” “Sandy Boys,” “Big Scioto,” “Three Forks of Cheat,” “West Fork Gals,” “Forked Deer,” and many more.

It is clear that the people of Appalachia were not a homogeneous Anglo-Saxon stock; they were, rather, a “mixed multitude of all classes and complexions” who, despite the relative isolation of the southern mountains, had contact with the outside world through trade and travel.  The hoedowns, reels, and frolics of Appalachia likewise not pure survivals of an ancient Alngo-Celtic heritage, locked away in isolation but a constantly evolving folk tradition that incorporated elements of recently popular social dances with the older traditions. By the mid- nineteenth century a distinctive regional form of square dance had developed in the Southern backcountry that was distinctly different from the quadrilles and contra dances of the Northeast, and these southern dances became part of the rural folk culture, not just in Appalachia but throughout the South.  In the eyes of the local-color writers of the late nineteenth century, these rural dances no doubt appeared unfashionable and antiquated, especially when compared with the popular dances of the day, but in fact they were only a few generations old. 

– From Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics: Roots and Branches of Southern Appalachian Dance by Phil Jamison. University of Illinois Press. 2015

Scroll to Top