The American Backcountry

The borderers entered America principally through the ports of Philadelphia and Newcastle. They moved quickly into the surrounding countryside, and in the words of one official, simply squatted wherever they found "a spot of vacant land." The Quakers were not happy about this invasion. "Our people are in pain," wrote Jonathan Dickinson in 1717, "From the north of Ireland many hundreds [have come]."27 The North Britons brought with them the ancient border habit of belligerence toward other ethnic groups. As early as 1730, Pennsylvania officials were complaining of their "audacious and disorderly manner." One of them wrote, "I must own from my own experience in the land office that the settlement of five families from Ireland gives me more trouble than fifty of any other people. Before we were now broke in upon, ancient Friends and first settlers lived happily; but now the case is quite altered."28

Among Quakers there was talk of restricting immigration as early as 1718, by "laying a Duty of 5 pounds a head on some sorts and double on others."29 But this idea cut against the grain of William Penn's holy experiment, and was not adopted. Instead, the Quakers decided to deal with the problem in a different way, by encouraging the borderers to settle in the "back parts" of the colony. In 1731, James Logan informed the Penns in England that he was deliberately planting the North Britons in the west, "as a frontier in case of any disturbance. " Logan argued that these people might usefully become a buffer population between the Indians and the Quakers. At the same time, he frankly hoped to rid the east of them.30

With much encouragement from Quaker leaders, the North Britons moved rapidly westward from Philadelphia into the rolling hills of the interior. Many drifted south and west along the mountains of Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas. They gradually became the dominant English-speaking culture in a broad belt of territory that extended from the highlands of Appalachia through much of the Old Southwest. In the nineteenth century, they moved across the Mississippi River to Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas. By the twentieth century, their influence would be felt as far west as New Mexico, Arizona and southern California.

The area of their settlement may be observed in the first U.S. Census of 1790. The distribution of surnames shows that immigrants from North Britain found their way into every part of the American colonies. But by far the largest concentration was to be found in the backcountry region that included southwestern Pennsylvania, the western parts of Maryland and Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee.31

Throughout that broad area, more than half of the population came from Scotland, Ireland and northern England. Other ethnic minorities also moved into the backcountry, but their numbers remained comparatively small. The largest of the non English- speaking groups were the Germans, who swarmed into the west- central parts of Pennsylvania and Maryland, and also in the northern reaches of the Valley of Virginia. But altogether, the Germans made up only about 5 percent of the population in North and South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky in 1790. They remained a very small minority in the southern highlands.

Other ethnic groups also included scattered settlements of French Huguenots, Swiss Protestants, Welsh Baptists, West Indians and even a colony of Greeks. But 90 percent of the backsettlers were either English, Irish or Scottish; and an actual majorit came from Ulster, the Scottish lowlands, and the north o England. North Britons were 73 to 80 percent of the population in Virginia's Augusta, Rockbridge, Fayette and Lincoln counties 75 percent in Pennsylvania's Washington County, 90 percent in some counties of Tennesses and Kentucky, nearly 100 percent in the Hillsboro district of North Carolina and a large majority in much of the South Carolina upcountry. These areas would become the seed settlements of the southern highlands.32

Numbers alone, however, were not the full measure of their dominion. These emigrants from North Britain established in the southern highlands a cultural hegemony that was even greater than their proportion in the population.33 An explanation of this fact may be found in the character of this American environment, which proved to be exceptionally well matched to the culture of the British borderlands.

The southern backcountry was a vast area roughly the size of western Europe, extending 800 miles south from Pennsylvania to Georgia, and several hundred miles west from the Piedmont plateau to the banks of the Mississippi. The terrain consisted of corrugated ridges and valleys, rising from the coastal plain to the crest of the Appalachians (the highest point was Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina at 6,684 feet), then falling away to the western rivers.

In the mid-eighteenth century this area was a great deciduous forest of oak, hickory and chestnut. In the mountains, the forest changed to birch, evergreens and maple. On the banks of the Mississippi it turned into stands of tupelo, red gum and cypress; and further south it became the "pineywoods" of loblolly and long leaf pine. Scattered throughout the region were canebreaks and grassy openings such as the Kentucky bluegrass which attracted early settlement by their fertility. The backcountry was a beautiful land in every season of the year. On sunny spring days the woods were dappled with a golden light that filtered through the trees. The undergrowth was bright with blooming dogwood, mountain laurel, wild azaleas and trailing arbutus. In summer mornings, the countryside was shrouded by a mist that rose like a white cloud from the hollows; the author can remember how it awakened a sense of mystery even in the mind of a child. On summer afternoons, the distant hills were masked in a shimmering haze that gave the mountains their names: Great Smoky, Blue Ridge, Purple Mountain. When fall came to the southern highlands, the hills were as colorful as New England a riot of red maples, yellow hickories and russet oaks beneath a bright October sky. Even winter brought an austere beauty to the landscape when its gothic tracery of bare branches showed black against the setting sun.

The climate of the backcountry was very moist, with forty or fifty inches of rain a year, rising as high as eighty inches on the mountain slopes of North Carolina. The land was laced by falling waters and mountain springs that never ran dry. This abundance of water became a social fact of high importance in the backcountry, for it allowed small family farms to flourish independently without the aid of any earthly power, and encouraged a sense of stubborn autonomy among the farming folk who settled there.

Temperatures tended to be moderate throughout the region another important fact. By seventeenth-century standards, the southern highlands proved to be healthy for Europeans during the first years of settlement, before the malaria parasites followed their human hosts into the interior, and the disease called the "milk sick" came to be a major problem. Even at their worst, mortality rates in the upcountry were much lower than the tidewater, and far below the fever-ridden valleys of the old southwest. Low levels of endemic illness made the backsettlers highly vulnerable to epidemics which struck with deadly force, but families increased rapidly and were not so often shattered by death as in other parts of British America.

Before the borderers arrived, the backcountry was occupied by strong and warlike Indian nations, from the Shawnee in the north, to the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw and Chickasaw in the south. These proud people did not give way easily before white settlement. Savage warfare began in the late seventeenth century, and continued to the early nineteenth century in some of the fiercest Indian wars of American history.

To the first settlers, the American backcountry was a dangerous environment, just as the British borderlands had been. Much of the southern highlands were "debateable lands" in the border sense of a contested territory without established government or the rule of law. The borderers were more at home than others in this anarchic environment, which was well suited to their family system, their warrior ethic, their farming and herding economy, their attitudes toward land and wealth and their ideas of work and power. So well adapted was the border culture to this environment that other ethnic groups tended to copy it. The ethos of the North British borders came to dominate this "dark and bloody ground," partly by force of numbers, but mainly because it was a means of survival in a raw and dangerous world...

Place Names
Return to Table of Contents