Does “Appalachian” history have a start date?

I’ve been using the term “Appalachia” in my dissertation.   The people I study lived in present-day East Tennessee and southwestern Virginia.  That’s Appalachia by just about any contemporary reckoning, so it might seem like a no-brainer.

The tricky part is that I’m writing about the Revolutionary era, and nobody really called it “Appalachia” in the eighteenth century.  It’s not that the word wasn’t around.  In fact, “Appalachia” is one of the oldest European place-names in the U.S.  It comes from a sixteenth-century Spanish transliteration of the name of a village in Florida, later applied to the mountainous area to the northward.

The Watauga River, which (depending on what time period you’re talking about) may or may not be in Appalachia. Bee Cliff River Slob [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

But “Appalachia” as a common name for the mountain South only dates back to the late nineteenth century, when Americans formulated the idea of the region as a culturally distinct unit.  In an eighteenth-century context, it’s anachronistic.

Does that matter?  The point of language is to communicate, and when we use words with meanings everybody knows, it saves a lot of trouble.  But language doesn’t just ascribe intended meanings to things.  It also reinforces the unintended meanings and associations that accumulate around words like barnacles on pier pilings.  And the term “Appalachia” has many such associations.

Eighteenth-century observers did think of Appalachia’s white settlers as set apart in some respects, but they didn’t use the term “Appalachian” to do so.  Whereas nineteenth-century commentators thought of a culturally distinct and isolated region contained within the U.S., eighteenth-century observers emphasized its geographic position at the back end of British America.  That’s reflected in the terminology they used.  What we consider Appalachia would have been “the backcountry” or the “back parts.”  I use “backcountry” a lot in my dissertation, but I don’t think it’s totally synonymous.  It’s a more slippery, generalized term that applies to more than just the mountainous South.

Some eighteenth-century observers referred to white settlers in East Tennessee and southwestern Virginia as “back water men,” or said that they lived on the “back mountains” or “western waters.”  These phrases reflect the same sort of Atlantic vs. western orientation as “backcountry” and “back parts.”  They emphasized the fact that these settlers lived on the western side of the mountains, where the rivers flowed toward the Mississippi.  These terms are more specific than “backcountry,” but also narrower than “Appalachia.”  There were plenty of whites settled in the Appalachian backcountry who weren’t “back water” men.

Maybe I shouldn’t be looking for an eighteenth-century equivalent to “Appalachia” at all.  If people didn’t think of the mountainous South as a distinct region at the time, perhaps I’m just buying into the nineteenth-century myth of Appalachia by trying to conceptualize it as its own, unique thing.

Then again, there’s something to be said for staking a claim for Appalachia in an early American context.  A lot of historians who specialize in the region focus on the nineteenth or twentieth centuries.  Applying the term to the Revolutionary era reminds people that the tumultuous events of that period mattered profoundly in the mountain South.  Rather than agonizing over whether it’s anachronistic, maybe the best approach is to appropriate it for historically informed purposes.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Colonial America

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