Rugged, self-sufficient, fiercely loyal – despite stereotypes to the
contrary, the Appalachian mountaineers were, and are, an admirable
people who developed a rich culture while learning to survive in the
isolated coves and valleys of some of the oldest mountains on Earth.
History of Settlement
There is some disagreement about what land constitutes Appalachia, but
the Appalachian Regional Commission defined this region as the
mountains stretching from southern New York to northern Mississippi,
Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.
The vast majority of settlers that began to arrive in the 18th
century were Scotch-Irish or “Scots-Irish”. They were originally from
the border counties of England and Scotland or from the lowland
counties of Scotland. Many were “Ulster Scots” who had been resettled
in Ireland until they eventually migrated to America. Another large
ethnic group were the Germans. Various factors led to the settlement
of the mountains – a desire to escape the “elitism” of the lowlanders,
the need for cheaper land, the discovery of the Cumberland Gap, which
made traveling easier, the end of the French and Indian War, and the
treaties conducted with the original inhabitants, the Cherokee.
Farming was the main occupation for the settlers, and so the homestead
was built around the house and the necessary farm outbuildings. Most
homesteads had a chicken house to keep the chickens safe at night;
chickens were usually allowed to range during the day. These were
small, simple affairs made with left over lumber. Prior to
refrigeration, a springhouse was used to preserve food, especially
fresh milk and butter. The houses was built over or near a cold
spring. It was preferable to build at least the foundation with stone
since the stone absorbed the natural coolness of the water without
actually being rotted away by the water.
Another common outbuilding was the root cellar or food storage cellar.
These were usually constructed of logs and often the majority of the
building was dug out from the earth so that only the roof was above
ground. These cellars were used to store crops such as potatoes,
turnips, and onions; they were effective at keeping the food cool in
the summer but above freezing during the winter.
Smokehouses were used to store meat and were often constructed of
rough lumber. The floors were usually dirt, the roof was the only
ceiling, and the sides were tightly enclosed to keep out insects.
Meat could be cured by salting it and placing it on shelves (which
allowed for the best ventilation) or in boxes or barrels. Once the
weather got too warm, the meat would be removed from the salt, washed,
and then treated with pepper and borax. Sometimes meat would be
smoked by running white oak splits through it and hanging it from the
joists. A fire of hickory, oak, or corncobs was built directly on
the dirt floor and allowed to burn for two to six days until the meat
took on a brown crust.
The barn was very often the largest building on the homestead, even
larger than the house. It was usually two stories; the lower level
housed the animals and the upper level was used to store corn and
hay. A barn raising was a big community event, with families
traveling from miles around, the women to help with the cooking and
the men to help with the actual construction. These raisings helped
to keep the community strong and connected.