Sunday, March 9, 2008

"Where is Appalachia?"

Podcast Appalachia 1: Where is Appalachia?



Hello, and welcome to Podcast Appalachia. I’m John Norris Brown.

The music you just heard is entitled “Sail Away Ladies” by the band the 1937 Flood. I’d like to thank this band for being nice enough to allow me to use their music for my theme. If you’d like to hear more of their music, I encourage you to head to their website at or look them up on iTunes. I’ve been listening to some of their music the past few days and am very impressed. I recommend looking them up.

Now onto to Appalachia!

In this episode, I want to define the geographic boundaries of the Appalachian region. This may sound easy to some, but these boundaries have been drawn and redrawn many times over the years, creating confusion over what is and is not Appalachia. Even today, the boundaries remain fluid and the subject of debate.

In spite of this, there are a few facts everyone can agree one. Obviously, Appalachia is centered around the Appalachian Mountains, but this alone is not the definition of Appalachia. The Appalachians extend far north, into New England and Canada, but no one would consider Canadians to be Appalachian. Some might even be offended by such a notion!

Appalachia is likewise not defined by state boundaries, as no single state is located entirely within the region, with the exception of West Virginia. Instead, Appalachia is comprised of portions of various states.

Over the years, numerous attempts to define the region have led to various definitions, but these definitions usually include the mountainous regions of Northern Georgia, East Tennessee, Western North Carolina, Southwest Virginia, and West Virginia.

The first attempt to define the region that would eventually become known as Appalachia was made by a Minnesota newspaper early in the Civil War. The paper referred to the region as “Alleghenia” and stated it consisted of 161 mountainous counties in Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Alabama. The newspaper argued that this region would be key to the Union cause in the war, as slavery was rare, as was support for succession. The articles contended that if Union forces marched into the region they could inspire a “counter-revolution” that could help cripple the Confederacy. Indeed, many inhabitants of Appalachia did support the Union and several counties, including most famously what would become the state of West Virginia, declared their independence from their states so that they could rejoin the Union.

Over three decades later, another definition was proposed. In 1895 William Goodell Frost, president of Berea College in Kentucky, and a geologist named C. Willard Hayes placed the Appalachian region in eight states, including parts of the Tennessee Valley, the Cumberland Plateau, and the Blue Ridge Mountains.

In his landmark book Our Southern Highlanders, an early study of the inhabitants of the Appalachian region first published in 1913, Horace Kephart created a narrow definition of the region, arguing that it was centered around the Tennessee/North Carolina border, in the Unaka and the Great Smoky Mountains. While this region is undoubtedly Appalachian, most observers would agree that it does not comprise the entire region.

John C. Campbell, in his work The Southern Highland in His Homeland, published eight years after Kephart’s work, laid out a new definition of the region, a definition that is similar to what is today considered Appalachia. In his definition, 254 counties in nine different states fit into Appalachia. His definition of the region, both geographical and physical, is very close to the modern definition of the region. However, Campbell had died before his work was published and was thus unable to continue his work. Unfortunately, scholars also neglected to build on his ideas for many years.

During the mid-Twentieth Century, the poverty of the region aroused the attention of the nation, and thus the federal government took on an increasing role in Appalachia. As a result of this involvement, the government, for the first time, issued an “official” definition of the region, which expanded the borders of Appalachia far beyond what had ever been previously considered.

With the passage of the Appalachian Regional Development Act of 1965, the Appalachian Regional Commission, or ARC was created. In the process, a very broad definition of Appalachia was laid out, expanding the region to include 360 counties in eleven states, including debatable parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, and Alabama.

However, even this very broad definition would not be the final word. Later in the year, thirteen counties in New York were also tacked on.

As the number of counties in the region continued to grow, some observers began to feel that the boundaries of the region were becoming more political than cultural or geographical. Residents of Pennsylvania and New York, for example, largely did not consider themselves to be Appalachian. Many were actively hostile to being considered part of the region. However, members of Congress saw that such a designation could allow them to bring economic development to their districts, often in the form of what critics would consider pork barrel projects. As a result, many members of Congress lobbied for their districts to be included in the federal definition of Appalachia.

In 1967 the ARC expanded the region yet again, this time to include twenty counties in Mississippi, largely due to the efforts of Rep. Jamie Whitten, a powerful member of the House Appropriations Committee.

While the ARC was including some highly questionable regions of New York, Pennsylvania and Mississippi in Appalachia, several mountain counties in Virginia that would almost certainly appear to be Appalachian, both geographically and culturally, were left out because their representative, Richard Poff, opposed the 1965 bill.

As of 2008 the Appalachian Regional Commission places 410 counties in the states of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York as being part of the Appalachian region. This region includes about 23 million people.

For the purposes of this podcast, I will accept the ARC definition of Appalachia, although I will be somewhat biased toward the general area that the prominent historian of Appalachia John Alexander Williams defines as the “core region”: the mountainous counties in Northern Georgia, East Tennessee, Western North Carolina, Southwestern Virginia, Eastern Kentucky, and West Virginia, although I will also, from time to time, include material from Appalachian regions outside this area.

The definition of Appalachia is far broader than simple geography, of course. Culture is just as important, if not more so, and will be examined in greater detail in future podcasts.

The sources for this podcast were The Encyclopedia of Appalachia, edited by Rudy Abramson and Judy Haskell, Appalachia: A History by John Alexander Williams, and Our Southern Highlanders by Horace Kephart.

That’s it for today. Again, I’d like to thank 1937 Flood for allowing me to use their music, and I would also like to thank you for taking the time to listen to this podcast. If you have any comments, questions, criticisms, or suggestions, I’d love to hear them. You may e-mail me at I look forward to hearing from you soon. A transcript of this episode is available at Have a good day, and we will speak again shortly.

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