In the field of history making generalizations often proves to be a fatal mistake. For example, categorizing all slaves into the same group, or all Southerners or all Northerners for that matter, does not convey an accurate message. All situations vary to some degree. For instance; some slaves worked in a gang system while others worked in a different system of slave labor, some southerners were anti-slavery while others adamantly supported the peculiar institution, some Northerners were just as racist as many Southerner’s, while others fought viciously for abolition. By breaking down each category into smaller subfield, we can begin to understand the complexity of the society in the antebellum period in the years leading up to the Civil War. One group which is often overlooked or misunderstood are those of the Appalachian Mountains. By labeling mountain people as average Southerners, would be a grave mistake, just as calling them all Unionists would prove equally inaccurate. A study of the people residing in the Appalachian Mountains during the years of the Civil War and those leading up to the war shows the complexity, diversity, and range of the type of people who occupied that area during that period and the differences they had in their ideology, thoughts, and ways of life. By examining several people of different socioeconomic levels who all resided in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina prior to and during the Civil War, we will begin to see how diverse our nation was, especially during this time period, and hopefully this will enable us to discard all stereotypes and generalities which have attached themselves to these mountain people. Ultimately we will find that socioeconomic levels are some of the best indicators, and molders of a person’s ideology.
To begin with, we must abjure the stereotypes associated with the people of this region. What were the common stereotypes under which mountain people were labeled during the antebellum period, and why were they created? The historian Sean O’brien writes of some of the more common one’s,
“Because of their poverty and rural isolation, the mountaineers were neglected, ridiculed, and stereotyped by the rest of American society,” he continues to say that they were seen as primitive and ignorant. (O’brien 1999, xiv)
I believe it is fair to say that these same stereotypes still hold true to this day. In reality, the mountain people valued their remoteness and independence. They were tied to the land and the concept of family played a crucial role in their lives. (Obrien 1999, xiv) Though there were small towns that did have contact with the outside world, the majority of people who lived in the mountains were isolated or at least felt that way. Throughout the high-country, dotted by small towns, one could find a wide variety of thoughts and opinions. These were not an ignorant people. Self-sustaining and independent more accurately describes this aggregate group. It is important not to make any assumptions when examining this complex group of people. In order to get an accurate portrait of the types of people who resided in the mountains of North Carolina during this time period, we will examine three different types of people. First we will examine a Southern politician from the Ashville area, Thomas Lanier Clingman. Then we will look at some of the more rural isolated people of Appalachia, and finally we will see what a Northerner though of the people of the Appalachian South by examining what appears to be an extremely unbiased perspective, that of Fredrick Law Olmsted. Through these examinations, we will see that socioeconomic status opposed to regional assumptions, more accurately represent beliefs and ideology.