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Definition: Appalachia from Merriam-Webster's Geographical Dictionary

Region of E United States incl. the various ranges of the Appalachian Mts., with no definite boundaries but generally comprising the S tier of New York, most of Pennsylvania, and the mountainous parts of Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama; historically (c. 1690–1756) included also early settlements beyond the colonies of the Atlantic seaboard.

Summary Article: Appalachia
From Encyclopedia of Diversity and Social Justice
The Birth of Appalachia

The Appalachian Mountains are the oldest mountain chain in North America and among the oldest on Earth. They form a broad belt that stretches almost 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) across the eastern section of the continent from Newfoundland to Alabama, but the name Appalachia is applied only to the central and southern highlands (USGS, 2014).

Named for the Apalachee Indians, the much-eroded Appalachian Mountains are made up of ridges and valleys, including the central Blue Ridge Mountains that extend from Georgia to Pennsylvania, and the southern Great Smoky Mountains that run from Tennessee to North Carolina. Together they form a natural barrier between the Atlantic coast and the interior lowlands of the United States and are rich in coal, iron, petroleum, and natural gas. Appalachian geology reveals elongated belts of folded and thrust-faulted marine sedimentary rocks, volcanic rocks, and slivers of ancient ocean floor. The U.S. Geological Survey asserts that these rocks were deformed during plate collision some 480 million years ago. The mountains played an important role in U.S. history. Crossed by only a few, the Appalachians effectively blocked early westward expansion as woodsmen found travel through the highlands difficult. Major east-west routes including the Cumberland Gap in Kentucky and the Mohawk Trail in New York followed river valleys or mountain notches.

In Appalachia on our Mind, Henry Shapiro (1978) credits Dr. Will Wallace Harney as the first to describe the “otherness” of Cumberland Mountain people in an 1873 article in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine titled, “A Strange Land and Peculiar People.” Seeming to employ physiognomy—a pseudoscientific assessment of a person's character drawn from his or her face—Harney wrote that the natives are “characterized by marked peculiarities of the anatomical frame … elongation of the bones, the contour of the facial angle … loose muscular attachment … and the harsh features” (p. 431). Harney also described an exotic mountain region, touching eight states, which seemed interesting because it was so different from the familiar world of mainstream America. Shapiro (1978) argues that it was numerous stories in popular magazines of the 1870s through the 1890s that established the otherness of the mountain region as “a strange land inhabited by a peculiar people” (p. 18) in the American consciousness.

According to Shapiro (1978) two stories from James Lane Allen (Kentucky's first important novelist), “Through the Cumberland Gap on Horseback,” and “The Bluegrass Region of Kentucky,” published in Harper's Magazine, also added to this perception and established the fact of “two Kentuckys” separate in “occupations, manners and customs, dress, views of life, civilization” (pp. 27–28). Allen saw the “alien Kentucky within the borders of the Commonwealth” as a problem in need of a solution (pp. 27–28).

Central to discussions of Appalachia is Berea College, which was founded in Berea, Kentucky, in 1855 with the express purpose of demonstrating that blacks and whites from the mountain region could be educated together successfully. It seems unlikely that such a school could even exist in that place and time—and the school did suffer greatly throughout the Civil War—but Berea, with its Social Gospel traditions, was able to reestablish itself and operate in relative calm until the strictures of the Jim Crow era dismantled racial coeducation until the 1950s (Day, Cleveland, & Hyndman, 2103, pp. 35–46).

In the wake of the Civil War, those northern Protestant churches that sought a unified and homogeneous Christian nation through the integration of unassimilated populations began to see mountain people as “unchurched” and in need of “Americanization.” The mountains were seen as a wide-open field for home missionary efforts. Initially, most southern churches lacked a national vision and failed to be aroused by the “plight” of the mountaineer—until mountain sections of southern states became targets for evangelism and a field of competition with northern churches. By the 1920s, this mission work would plant more than two hundred church schools in the mountains.

Berea College president Charles Fairchild noted that missions among the mountaineers would satisfy the demands of those who wished southern congregationalism to compete more actively with other northern denominations without compromising the school's historic anticaste, antiracism mission. Fairchild's main concern lay with the future of Berea College, especially continuing to be identified by the American Missionary Association as a suitable recipient of congregational benevolence (Shapiro, 1978, pp. 32–48).

Interestingly, the term Appalachia was first coined by Berea College president William Goodell Frost, who also saw in the mountains a coherent region with a homogeneous population possessing a uniform culture (Shapiro, 1978). In that sense, Appalachia described an identifiable cultural group whose lives have been mitigated by remote rural mountain conditions and who have suffered various inequities, a marginal economy, and in the consideration of progressives, were in need of assistance from educated elites (Shapiro, 1978).

But by the late 1880s, Bereans found the support for racial coeducation, as well as contributions, waning due to a shift in public sympathies. This was the most violent period in Kentucky history with its duels, feuds, nightriders, klansmen, and lynchings. Berea would soon have to address a financial crisis. At the same time, the difficulties of the region were becoming more apparent as educational opportunities that were advancing in other sections appeared to be ignored by too many in the eastern mountains. Schools were generally poor and in short supply.

When Frost assumed the presidency of Berea College in 1892, a gradual shift of the school's primary mission toward educating the poor in the Appalachian region commenced (Heckman & Hall, 1968, pp. 35–52; see also Klotter, 1996, p. 153). It was the start of the Progressive Era, a time of social activism and political reform in America. A major theme of this activism was “efficiency,” the idea that educated individuals should use scientific principles to improve health and modernize the old ways of doing things.

Frost was captivated by the anachronistic communities of Appalachia and viewed the readily apparent gaps in educational opportunity in rural areas as an opportunity for Berea College to alleviate the appallingly low educational level of the region while cultivating future students in the process. Frost emphasized the privations of the region, resulting in a newfound interest in establishing Appalachia as a viable and unique culture. Rather than attempting to eliminate or subsume Appalachia into the mainstream American culture, Frost spearheaded the movement to assist the communities in areas of necessity while still preserving the unique crafts, songs, and traditions of the culture (Shapiro, 1978, pp. 119–28).

Frost continued to advocate for the mountain people of Appalachia throughout his tenure at Berea College. In 1915, his son Norman authored a statistical study that showcased the educational shortcomings and challenges of Appalachia. President Frost's main concern was the lack of structure characteristic of previous attempts to alleviate the problems plaguing rural Appalachian schools (Frost, 1915, p. 29). He chided county superintendents for their tendency to artificially inflate enrollment rates to create the illusion that rural schools in their county were more successful than they actually were. Consistent with the traditionalistic political culture of the South, these superintendents typically only agreed to construct new schools or make repairs to existing buildings when citizens pushed for such improvements regardless of the real needs within the region. School terms were also extremely short in Appalachian counties. In 1910, the average length of a school term nationwide for rural schools was 137 days a year. This was nearly a month longer than the 104-day average term in the mountain counties of Appalachia.

No doubt, geographical hindrances of the region, the practice of students enrolling in multiple schools during the same term, and the lack of available schools also contributed to this problem. Frost reported that, in 1912, there were seventeen counties in the state of Kentucky that did not contain a high school. The rural schools that did exist were often rundown and lacking the necessary resources for effective teaching. Because state laws requiring schools to provide books for students who couldn't afford them were rarely enforced, and school budgets were small, children who lived outside of large cities could only obtain textbooks if they were furnished by their parents (Frost, 1915, p. 20).

Social scientists have grappled with the enigmas of Appalachia for decades while searching for a model that helps explain the regional dynamics. Some see Appalachia as a place of backward, impoverished conditions and unusual people. Others extoll the beauty and artistry of the region and seek to preserve its values. In “Central Appalachia: Internal Colony or Internal Periphery?” Sonoma State University sociology professor Davis Walls (1978) explored several sociological models and noted that Harry Caudill made only one passing reference to the colonialism in his seminal 1965 study, Night Comes to the Cumberlands. But by 1965, when he began to speak of colonialism, the theme was quickly adopted by activists who drew parallels to the colonialization of black Americans. While Walls found the Internal Colonialization Model somewhat useful, he also found it to be strained at several key points. It has focused attention on the acquisition of the raw materials of the region by outside corporate interests and on the exploitation of the local workforce, and community at large, resulting from the removal of the region's natural resources for the benefit of absentee owners. He ultimately concluded that Central Appalachia is best characterized as a peripheral region within an advanced capitalist society. The deception and fraud used by agents of timber and minerals, which suggested a colonial model, may well have contributed to the insular nature of the culture with its profound distrust of outsiders, but it was not different from the techniques generally used by capitalists elsewhere during the period of industrial expansion (Walls, 1978).

Over time, the boundaries of Appalachia have been construed variously. Frost initially identified 194 counties in nine states as the Berea College service area. Within Kentucky, he identified forty-four counties. Other authors have identified 190 counties, and 254 counties. By 2014, the Appalachian Regional Commission had identified 397 Appalachian counties in thirteen states from New York to Mississippi.

  • Day, R.; Cleveland, R.; Hyndman, J. (2013). Berea College—coeducationally and racially integrated: An unlikely contingency in the 1850s. Journal of Negro Education, 82(1), 35-46.
  • Frost, N. (1915). A statistical study of the public schools of the southern Appalachian Mountains. United States Bureau of Education Bulletin, 11, 29.
  • Harney, W. W. (1873). A strange land and a peculiar people. Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, XII(31), 429-38. Retrieved from
  • Heckman, R. A.; Hall, B. J. (1968). Berea College and the day law. The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, 66, 35-52.
  • Klotter, J. C. (1996). Kentucky: Portrait in paradox, 1900—1950 (Kentucky Historical Society Frankfort), 153.
  • Shapiro, H. D. (1978). Appalachia on our mind: The southern mountains and mountaineers in the American consciousness, 1870—1920. University of North Carolina Press Chapel Hill.
  • USGS. (2014). America's volcanic past. Retrieved from
  • Walls, D. (1978). Internal colony or internal periphery? In H. Matthews Lewis; L. Johnson; D. Askins (Eds.), Colonialism in modern America: The Appalachian case (n.p.). Appalachian Consortium Press Boone NC. Retrieved from
  • Additional Reading
  • Abbey, E. Porter, E. (1970). Appalachian wilderness. Arrowood Press.
  • Brooks, M. (1986). The Appalachians. Seneca Books.
  • Caudill, H. M. (1971). My land is dying. E. P. Dutton New York.
  • Richard Day
    Copyright © 2014 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

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