Thursday, August 6, 2009


Over fifty years ago, Woodrow Clevinger documented the existence of a great many closely knit Appalachian families along the Cowlitz and Skagit rivers of the Pacific Northwest. 1 All the families could still trace their origins back to specific locations in the Southern Appalachians -- Clevinger's own ancestors, for example, had moved in from Pike County, Kentucky. Other families originated from throughout the Cumberland Plateau and along the valleys of the Kanawah, Clinch, and Big Sandy rivers. Wherever these people had migrated, Clevinger wrote, they tended to congregate around relatives and neighbors whom they had previously known back East.
In the summer of 1988, while using a James Still fellowship to study the connections between poverty, literacy, and educational attainment in Southwestern Kentucky, I came across Clevinger's earlier research. I wondered what had happened to these Cascade Appalachians in the fifty years since he had written about them. If they were still around and part of identifiable groups, it seemed to me that they might profitably be compared with the kin they had left behind. After all, both populations were derived from the same stock, inhabited similar terrain, lived for the most part in isolated and self-contained communities, and made a living from small scale farming, lumbering, and mining. I wondered if Eastern and Western Appalachians were also still sharing much of the same material and expressive culture. I wondered if they were still corresponding with each other. Most importantly, I wondered if the Appalachians of the Cascades had surmounted some of the problems faced by their relatives back east and, if they had, how they had managed to do so. The two issues I had been examining in Southeastern Kentucky (poverty and low educational attainment) seemed intractable, for example. If the Western Appalachians had had better success in dealing with these problems, then I certainly wanted to know how they had been able to do it.
In July and August of 1990, thanks to grants received form Berea College's Appalachian Center and the Faculty Scholars program of the University of Kentucky, my wife Laura and I finally had a chance to visit the Washington Cascades. While there, we did research in the libraries of the local historical societies and also collected a number of oral histories. 2 All of our informants were members of families who had originated in the Southern Appalachian mountains, and they seemed to possess a number of common characteristics. They continued to live lifestyles strongly dependent upon lumbering, they maintained strong ties with the kin back East, they lived near and often intermarried with families who had migrated from the same area as they had, and they possessed a cultural identity which seemed to differentiate them, at least in their own minds, from their neighbors in their adopted state. We found they had interesting stories to tell about why they moved, the adjustments they made after they arrived in Washington state, and the ways they still felt a kinship with other people from the Southern highlands.

1 comment:

KathyB. said...

Very interesting, we are waiting for the next post on this.