A peculiar stereotype has clung to the Appalachian peoples since the frontier era to the present. Many theorists, historians, and psychologists, among other social science professions, have come up with various theories to explain why Appalachian culture has always been poor and poverty-stricken. One must strongly consider that the rugged topography contributed greatly to the people’s isolation, thus forming a stereotype of a people who had been out of touch with the outside world. These stereotypes have stuck because popular literature, media, and music painted images of a people that are backwards and inbred. For some reason, society has been amused and entertained by this image of the hillbilly.
First, before one tries to understand and comprehend the origin of the positive and negative stereotypes of the Appalachian folk, one must familiarize oneself with the history of the region. Starting with DeSoto as one of the first Europeans to filter into the rugged mountains of Appalachia, his 1539 expedition had headed towards the interior with two goals. These goals consisted of finding adventure and of discovering gold and other precious metals. By 1540 he had crossed into the Blue Ridge area and passed through Cherokee domain “quickly and without difficulty” possibly because the indigenous people was already “decimated by smallpox”. James Needham and Gabriel Arthur in 1673 led an expedition to open direct trade with some remote Indian tribes. This would eliminate the profiteering by the Occaneechi middlemen with whom Virginia traders dealt. Needham and Arthur met the Cherokee and Arthur stayed with a Tomahittan tribe which proved to be friendly. He was later captured by the Shawnees when the Tomahittans went on a military expedition against them. When released, he returned to Virginia through the mountain pass later to be called the Cumberland Gap. These two expeditions opened up the yearning for and knowledge of more land to the west. Daniel Boone was among the next group of adventurers to travel through Appalachia to Kentucky. Boone grew up with a love for hunting, thus providing his family and siblings with food and clothing. He also wanted to be the first to evaluate the new acquisition of Kentucky for England, which he did in 1769. Boone had also heard rumors that land in Kentucky was fertile and well-watered. This was attractive to Boone since the foothills had proven to be a difficult place to raise a family. By March 1775, the Wilderness Road (also known as Boone’s Old Trace) was built by Boone and fifty fellow frontiersmen. Next, a series of traveling explorers and capitalists followed Boone’s example. Stephen Holston in 1746 built a cabin on a stream that was later called the Holston River. He was soon driven out by hostile Indians. In 1769, William Bean built a cabin at the confluence of Boone’s Creek and Watauga. In 1770 a store and trading post for travelers and Indian trade was set up near present Rogersville, Tennessee, by John Carter and William Parker. These were the first settlements in an area that would see much change in its makeup and people.
All of these explorers, with the exception of DeSoto, were English. They were not the only Europeans settling in the Appalachia region as the Revolutionary War loomed in the near future. A motley population of English, Scots-Irish, Highland Scots, Welsh, Irish, Dutch, various German Protestants, and Protestant French Huguenots dotted the backcountry of all the colonies from Pennsylvania to Georgia. Each ethnic group had their own motivations for leaving Europe, “but all immigrants had in common a yearning for economic and religious freedom and a desire for self-determination”. Of the pre-1790 immigrants settling within the Appalachian region between western New York and eastern Tennessee, three-fourths were from Ulster, or Northern Ireland. When these Ulster folk came to America, they brought a new and changing culture, not the traditional culture from their homeland. There were many customs, artifacts, and institutions that could not be fittingly transferred to the New World. They abandoned “celebrations of the Twelfth of July, the use of turf for fuel, donkey carts, sod walls, thatch, rush candles, tea, and any semblance of Gaelic”. Most of the Ulster immigrants were generally poor and could not easily transport a lot of material goods over the Atlantic. Yet many did manage to bring “their ballads, weaving and herding skills, taste for whiskey, place names, Presbyterianism, and some architectural techniques”.
They soon became skilled in pioneer crafts and agricultural practices that fit the environment into which they moved. They grew a variety of crops, including “wheat, rye, oats, barley, hemp, Indian corn, buckwheat, white potatoes, apples, peaches, cherries, and flax” while berries and nuts grew in the wild. The growing and cultivating of flax was important among the Ulster emigrants, with which they made linen or linsey-woolsey. They traded with England and Ireland cargoes of flaxseed on the ships as they voyaged across the Atlantic. Rural farmers who lived far from towns and stores had to rely on the household manufacture of textiles. “In addition to this economic evidence of an emphasis on textiles where Ulster people lived, there seems to have been a common stereotype that identified Irish immigrants with the production of textiles on hand looms”. Even a “comical itinerant Irishman called Traddle the Weaver” appeared in Hugh Henry Brackenridge’s late eighteenth century novel, Modern Chivalry. Thus, the beginnings of one of the stereotypical images of Appalachians had begun to arise in the minds of the American conscience.