Appalachia

Often referred to as America’s first frontier, Appalachia played a crucial role in the colonies’ development. As historian John Alexander Williams relates, the region was first explored by Hernando de Soto and his expedition in the mid-1500s, as the mountains that lay in the distance north of Florida held promises of gold and other extractable resources. The Apalachee, wishing de Soto and his band to move on, encouraged the explorers to continue on their way. Of course, little, if any, gold was found, but the Spanish encounters with the region’s Native American populations set the stage for the next 300 years of colonial contact. Reflecting what historian Richard White terms a middle ground, Appalachia witnessed the collision of a multiplicity of societies and cultures. Not only did the Spanish, French, and English encounter a variety of Native American communities, but the European incursions into the colonial backcountry also forced disparate native peoples into contact, cooperation, and conflict with each other. Extending from northern Georgia upward through Pennsylvania, Appalachia covers some 200,000 square miles that stretches from southern New York to northern Mississippi. Within the region are several mountain chains (the Alleghenies, Cumberlands, Blue Ridge, and Great Smokey Mountains), as well agriculturally important valleys (the Great Valley in Pennsylvania and the Shenandoah and Tennessee valleys). But the name Appalachia signifies a cultural, as well as geographical distinction. This cultural identity began to take shape in the early decades of contact and exploration. Insecurity characterized life in Appalachia during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as traders and other imperial emissaries forged connections with the native populations. Well into the eighteenth, diversity characterized the region as cultural contact increased and intensified. Most of Appalachia’s colonial period found the region’s vast landscape the focus of traders and trappers intent on finding pathways that would link the eastern ports with the nation’s hinterland and its abundance of commercial resources. This establishment of the transportation corridors to move both goods and people continued well into the antebellum era. But it was not until the eighteenth century, when migrants from the East began to push south and west in search of land, that the Appalachian character began to take shape. Migration peaked from 17001775, and the increase in settlement resulted in what one historian of Appalachia has called one of the great folk movements in American history. Traveling south from Pennsylvania, beyond the nearly impassable Alleghenies, following the naturally southward-sloping Great Valley into the Carolinas, where gaps in the Blue Ridge Mountains promised entrance into vast and fertile lands, migrants gradually pushed outward from the crowded eastern seaboard. Men like Squire Boone, accompanied by his young son Daniel, set out in 1750 for Virginia, Carolina, or elsewhere, a journey that forever changed the face of American geography and culture. The Pennsylvania Dutch, who actually were German, accounted for one of the two primary groups making the Appalachian journey. Among them were Moravians seeking in 1753 to establish a North Carolina colony, where they would proselytize to the native peoples and enslaved Africans beginning to crowd the Carolina backcountry, to the irritation of the neighboring slaveholders. Irish Protestants outnumbered Germans in Appalachia and arguably became the region’s most influential ethnic group. The eighteenth century witnessed an increase in Appalachia’s population of involuntary migrants as well. White masters brought Africans, many of whom had already filtered through the Caribbean before reaching the Southern colonies, to the region as slaves. Many slaves also fled to the mountains as runaways, hoping to escape the abuses of plantations in the East. While the Southern backcountry eventually would prove to be a weak link in the chain of antebellum slave power, slavery contributed to the settlement and development of the southern Appalachians as it had in the East. Slave labor cleared trails, built mills, and constructed Appalachian stations, or fortified encampments guarded by local militias, which were the region’s first European communities. Although there were no plantations comparable to those in the East, enslaved Africans’ knowledge of agriculture and their value as farm laborers remained important, as Appalachian migrants sought to develop what Williams identifies as a farm-and-forest economy. Appalachia, in the minds of colonial Americans, constituted an imagined frontier that held much promise and danger. By the time of the American Revolution, Appalachia signified the new nation’s hope for victory (by denying the British the possibility of native allies), renewal, and, most importantly, expansion. The drama of the Appalachian frontier would be played out again, several times, over the course of American history, as long as the desire for land, wealth, and independence remained. Carole Emberton See also: Agriculture; Exploration; Furs; Native American-European Relations. Bibliography Rohrbough, Malcolm J. The Trans-Appalachian Frontier: People, Societies, and Institutions, 17751850. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. Sensbach, John. A Separate Canaan: The Making of an Afro-Moravian World in North Carolina, 17631840. Chapel Hill, NC: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1998. White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 16501815. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Williams, John Alexander. Appalachia: A History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
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