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a short history of kentucky/central appalachia


Floyd County in eastern Kentucky, where "Country Boys" was filmed, is located in the geographic center of America's Appalachian region (see map). Eastern Kentucky's history epitomizes the problems that have long plagued the larger region: poverty, unemployment, poor education, and a troubled relationship with the coal industry. While "Country Boys" chronicles how Chris and Cody's lives defy many of the stereotypes commonly associated with the region, it also shows how their community still lives with the legacy of Appalachia's past. Here's an overview of that past as it unfolded in Kentucky.


The New Frontier (1767-1775)

  • Follow Daniel Boone's 1775 journey through the Cumberland Gap and into central Kentucky. In 1767, Boone first ventured into the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky, to winter at Salt Spring, present-day David, Ky.

Early in eastern Kentucky's history, its isolated wilderness attracted frontiersmen and other rugged individualists who disliked the growth of towns and the disappearance of the unsettled countryside in the East. In 1767, when legendary woodsman Daniel Boone first reached Salt Spring (the present-day town of David, Ky.), just a handful of white men had ever ventured into the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky. The area was considered too dangerous due to the ongoing battles between French and British colonial powers and the Native American tribes who claimed hunting rights to the mountains: the Shawnee in the north and the Cherokee in the south. However, after the British defeated the French and later the Shawnee, the area was considered open for settlement, and in 1775, the Transylvania Company, a land speculation firm, hired Boone to establish the first settlement in what they hoped would become a new colony. That year, Boone and more than 30 other settlers first passed through the famous Cumberland Gap and established the settlement of Fort Boonesborough in the fertile bluegrass region of central Kentucky.


Mass Migration and Statehood (1780-1792)

By 1788, Kentucky had already become "too crowded" according to Boone, and he headed further west to the wilderness of Missouri. Kentucky's population, which had been just under 1,000 in 1780, had grown to more than 100,000 by the early 1790s due to Virginia's generous, and sometimes conflicting, land policies. An old colonial law still in effect guaranteed any settler up to 400 acres of unclaimed land if he surveyed and registered it and then built a cabin and raised a crop of corn. Likewise, the Commonwealth of Virginia paid for the services of many of its war veterans by giving them warrants for land in the Kentucky territories.

According to some historical accounts, these policies, coupled with the unscrupulous dealings of land speculators and local governments, resulted in the distribution of enough land "to cover the state four times over." The confusing and often overlapping property boundaries created a highly litigious society and contributed to some of the vicious feuds among neighbors that lasted through the end of the 19th century. However, the mass migration of settlers from the East produced a population large enough to warrant statehood, and in 1792 Kentucky became the fifteenth state to join the new United States of America.


Widening Economic Inequality (1793-1850)

Though land in the new Commonwealth of Kentucky was quickly claimed, it wasn't fairly or equally distributed among its many new inhabitants. By 1810, eastern Kentucky had become known as a "poor man's country," where some 57 percent of households were landless (the number was as high as 74 percent in some of Kentucky's eastern counties). Statewide about 25 percent of landowners possessed more than three-fourths of all the land, and one quarter of the land was owned by only 21 individuals. The wealth of these "backcountry elite," as they were called, grew and grew, while the fortunes of their neighbors, mainly self-sufficient yeomen farmers, stagnated or dwindled.

These ever-widening gaps in wealth were exacerbated by the corrupt and undemocratic nature of Kentucky's early government. For the first half of the 19th century, most of the roles of government were administered by justices of the peace -- those county magistrates who were appointed for life by the governor and oversaw everything from property assessment to tax collection, as well as the settlement of civil and criminal disputes. All other county officials served at their discretion. According to two University of Kentucky historians, Dwight Billings and Kathleen Blee, remnants of this early system of patronage and political clientism persist in many communities to this day and is one of the region's major stumbling blocks to economic improvement.


Kentucky's Own Civil War (1861-1865)

The growing inequality between the state's rich and poor reached its apex during the American Civil War. Kentucky was in an unusual and unenviable position: It was a slave-owning state straddling the dividing line between the slave-owning South and the "free" North. Early on, it tried to be neutral; after all, both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis were Kentucky native sons. But a faction of its wealthy, slave-owning "elite" joined up with the Confederacy, causing the remaining majority -- the landless workers and small-scale farmers -- to side with the Union. This decision divided friends, neighbors and even families and pitted the haves against the have-nots. Though the Civil War ended in 1865, Kentucky did not experience a renewed state of peace but rather the beginning of an era of heightened internecine conflict. In the words of Appalachian historian Harry Caudill, "When the occupants of a mountain cabin learned that a son, brother, or father had died at the hands of Union or Rebel troops on some distant battlefield, they fixed their resentment, not against the far-off armies but against the known and near neighbors, relatives or former friends who had put on the uniform of the army at whose hands the loved one had perished."


The Post-Civil War Feuds (1870s-1910s)

Though the long-running feuds that consumed Appalachia for the second half of the 19th century have been branded with a legacy of hillbilly in-fighting -- for example, one family fighting another over the death of a stray hog -- most feuds involved the so-called "backcountry elite" and were actually born out of ideological differences over the Civil War and family struggles for wealth and power in local government. One of the most infamous of the clan feuds erupted between two prosperous farming families who had fought on opposite sides of the Civil War: the Hatfields and the McCoys. According to one version of the story, the feud began when Tolbert McCoy fatally stabbed "Big Ellison" Hatfield after the latter crossed the West Virginia border to vote in a local Kentucky election. The murder set off a guerrilla battle between the two families that lasted decades and resulted in the deaths of some 65 local residents.

Accounts of earlier feuds in eastern Kentucky emphasize that they were not the result of petty squabbling but of aggressive competition between the members of the eastern Kentucky ruling class. Contemporary scholars argue that the strong social and political cliques of eastern Kentucky, the corrupt local governments, and the lack of open public discourse led to the failure of public institutions and reinforced the long-term social and economic stagnation of the region.


Industrial Transformation (1870s-1920s)

The mountains of eastern Kentucky were rich with natural resources: salt, coal and timber. Prior to 1870, only the salt mines of Floyd and Clay counties had been tapped with any real significance. Soon after the Civil War, agents from eastern corporations streamed into the mountains to secure extraction rights for the virgin hardwood forests and later for the vast beds of bituminous coal beneath them. Often a mountaineer could be easily persuaded by these speculators to sell the rights to mine his land or cut his timber for a few cents an acre -- a paltry sum compared to the wealth the company could extract from it, but enough money to provide a small-scale farmer with many luxuries.

Extracting this irreplaceable wealth took its toll on the health of the land and its people while lining the pockets of the absentee industrialists. Many loggers lost their lives or were seriously maimed in accidents while felling the massive hardwoods or on the treacherous runs escorting the trunks down-river to market. Generations of miners were killed or disabled by dangerous methods used to extract the "black gold" from the coal seams running deep within the mountains. In the words of Appalachian historian Caudill: "Coal has always cursed the land in which it lies. When men begin to wrest it from the earth it leaves a legacy of foul streams, hideous slag heaps and polluted air. It peoples this transformed land with blind and crippled men and with widows and orphans. It is an extractive industry which takes all away and restores nothing. It mars but never beautifies. It corrupts but never purifies."

Often, these eastern companies bought only the "dominant" timber or mineral rights -- not the "subordinate" land rights -- and so in many cases it was the local landowner who paid the property taxes, while the coal and timber companies waited for the railroads to finally infiltrate the isolated hollows and cart away their vast wealth. By 1910, a majority of the land in the Cumberland Plateau was owned outright by non-residents; non-residents also owned about three-fourths of the timber rights and 85 percent of the mineral rights.


Riding the Crest of the Coal Wave (1912-1927)

Since Appalachia's population at the turn of the century was still thinly spread out over the mountains and hollows, the coal companies needed to build entire towns and infrastructure from scratch in order to support their businesses. They constructed hospitals, commissaries, schools, and government buildings, as well as houses for the miners and their families and nicer homes for the executives. Often, these new towns were owned outright by the coal companies and were named for company executives: Haymond, Fleming, Jenkins, Dunham, McRoberts, Lynch and Benham. David, Ky., where Chris and Cody attended the David School, was one such company town, owned entirely by the Princess Elkhorn Coal Company until 1975 and named for the first-born son of the company's owner.

With the demand for coal during the First World War, the coal industry boomed. By the early 1920s, it was operating at peak production, employing more than 700,000 miners and extracting more than 40 million tons of coal annually. Thousands of people from all over the world flocked to the region to share in the wealth, and for the first time, many miners and their families could afford luxuries such as factory-made clothes, appliances, and even automobiles. However, a miner was dependent on his company for all of his needs; they "clothed his back, filled his belly, sheltered and lighted his household, and provided his family with medical treatment, fuel and water," according to historian Caudill. When the industry crash finally came in 1927, the miners had no insulation against the shock; the entire economic system of these communities collapsed.


A Great Depression and a New Deal (1927-1940)

The stock market collapse that would shake the nation in 1929 had already hit the coal industry by 1927. When companies began receiving fewer and fewer orders, they tried to compensate by offering coal at reduced prices and by lowering the miners' wages. The miners had no choice but to accept the reduced salary, since the bottom had also dropped out of the timber market and there were few other employers in the area. But the move set off a price spiral throughout the industry and forced many smaller companies out of business. Wide-scale unemployment followed. Those miners who did retain their jobs were often only paid to work one or two shifts a week -- hardly enough to provide for a family. Relief finally came in the form of President Roosevelt's New Deal, which supplied out-of-work miners, loggers and farmers with food and clothing and put as much as three-fourths of the local work force on the federal payroll, constructing public buildings and laying down miles and miles of paved road for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). However, unlike elsewhere in the country, where new jobs and industries were being created, the "dole" persisted in Appalachia for the better part of a decade. Widespread employment did not return until another world war increased the demand for coal once again.


Another Boom, Another Bust (1940-1964)

With the U.S. entering the Second World War, the coal industry revived and began another boom period, this time spreading some of the profits among the now-unionized coal miners, who received higher wages as well as health and disability insurance, thanks to the strength of the newly organized United Mine Workers of America. Likewise, the timber industry experienced a modest revival that persisted long after the war as a result of the nation's population and housing boom. Meanwhile, the G.I. Bill allowed many thousands of mountaineers returning from WWII to receive lifetime medical care and a chance to improve their lot in life through education or training in a new trade.

Unfortunately, the prosperity wouldn't last. Many of the newly educated left Appalachia for higher wages in surrounding states, and they took with them waves of public servants and high school graduates, creating a "brain drain" that would continue to the present day. Meanwhile, the region's major employers, the coal and timber industries, began implementing procedures such as clear-cutting and strip-mining that would wring out every last drop from the region's natural resources and, in the process, devastate the local ecology. Then, beginning in 1948, the world's appetite for the dirty and troublesome coal fuel began to wane in favor of cleaner fuels such as oil and gas. At the same time, a technological revolution in the coal industry began replacing workers with faster, cheaper and more efficient machines. Although this bust was not as swift or devastating as the one in the 1920s, many workers lost their jobs and it depressed the region's major industries, and this time, they would not rebound.


The "Other America" and the "War on Poverty" (1964-present)

  • Read the 1964 report from the President's Appalachian Regional Commission (PARC), that revealed the gaping deficiencies of the region and lead to government initiatives to improve the region's industry, infrastructure, healthcare and education.

With the second bust in the coal industry -- this one permanent -- Appalachia began a period of sharp economic decline. Mining jobs left, never to return. And many of eastern Kentucky's best and brightest followed, creating population declines as much as 20 percent in some counties. For those who stayed, there were no WPA programs to create a new influx of jobs. Since few miners had ever completed secondary school, they lacked the skills and opportunities to learn new trades. The illiteracy rate was staggering, and to complicate matters, the birth rate in the coal-producing counties of eastern Kentucky was among the highest in the nation. By 1957, in some eastern Kentucky counties, as much as half the population was eating government relief commodities.

By the 1960s, America starting paying attention to the poverty in Appalachia. A number of books and news reports appeared, drawing attention to "the Other America." When John F. Kennedy visited Appalachia during the 1960 presidential campaign, he was so shocked by what he saw -- "the hungry children, … the old people who cannot pay their doctors bills, the families forced to give up their farms" -- he vowed to implement programs to improve the situation. As president, he set up the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), still in operation today, to examine the roots of the region's poverty and recommend solutions. After Kennedy's death, President Johnson made improving Appalachia the centerpiece of his "War on Poverty." His Appalachian Development Act, allocated $1 billion to 11 states in the Appalachian region for the development of highways and other projects. Other legislative programs also benefited the region, such as Job Corps, which offered remedial and vocational education to school dropouts; Head Start, which provided early education to poor children; and Medicare and Medicaid.

Meanwhile, thousands of young people passed through the region on one- and two-year stints through the federal government's VISTA (Volunteer in Service to America) program, and helped teach and build and add to the overall development of the region. Others, like Danny Greene, the founder of the David School, found their way to the region through churches and non-profit groups. Some of these volunteers, like Greene, stayed and made a long-term impact at the local level.


Appalachia and Floyd County Today

Today, the images of coal-blackened miners and thin, barefoot children are a thing of the past, but central Appalachia is still largely a depressed region. The most recent census data shows that in 2000, Floyd County's employment, income and education continued to lag far behind the rest of the country. More than 30 percent of the county's 42,000 residents lived below the poverty line -- more than twice the national rate of poverty. Annual per capita income was about $18,500, including government assistance, compared with roughly $30,400 nationally. Only 61 percent of the county's adults had high school diplomas, while only 9 percent had college degrees. Unemployment was about 6.1 percent, higher than the national average, and that figure didn't reflect people no longer looking for work. And, the region's overall population is becoming an older population as a result of a falling birth rate and an exodus of many of its best young workers.

A Note On Sources: This history is drawn from FRONTLINE research and the following books:

Billings, Dwight B. and Kathleen M. Blee, The Road to Poverty: The Making of Wealth and Hardship in Appalachia. Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Caudill, Harry M. Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1963
Caudill, Harry M. The Watches of the Night. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1976.


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posted jan. 9, 2006

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