Much has been written about the poverty of the Appalachian mountaineers that make up the Kentucky Highlands. Visitors like to point out the backwardness of the area, the crime, the hopeless of its citizens and the unhappy layout of the unfortunate. Few discuss the reasons for this cultural disease that has afflicted the entire region. Instead, the region's problems are accepted as natural and permanent as if a mysterious ailment descended upon the hill people that is both natural and proper.
Fortunately, they are wrong in their failure damnation.
It is certainly true that the region is one of the poorest in the nation; it is true that crime is both prudent and severe and it is true that both the educational attainment and the future of most appear weak and hopeless. But it is also true that the people of the Kentucky Highlands are not dammed to endless suffering and hopelessness. As with all peoples, the future is what we make it. In reality the people of Appalachian Kentucky are at the same time equal to the rest of the people of the nation and remarkably different.
Some people have reported correctly that the Highlanders are much less educated than the rest of the nations populated. This is true. However, the inference that intelligence is equal to education is incorrect. On average the people of the Kentucky Highlands are as intelligent as the average across the nation. No one could prove otherwise. Unfortunately, this incorrect inference has become an accepted fact across much of the nation and support for this belief is probably the strongest in the Appalachian region of Kentucky. Over many generations this venom has ingrained itself into the hearts of the Highlanders. This dangerous belief has done more to damage a very proud and honorable people than any other belief. We have been led to believe that we are inferior and we have accepted in and chosen to act inferior. The results have been disastrous.
Why would any one or any group of people voluntarily choose to believe they are not equal? It does not happen overnight and it is not by choice. But it does and has happened. The history of the Kentucky Highlanders is both remarkable and near unique. The only other people that share a similar history are following Appalachians from neighboring states. Neverheless, many of the stereotypes of the "hillbillies" are best represented in the mountains of Appalachian Kentucky.
When the Nation was still young, these mountains were the Promised Land. The land was rich with game and the hollers fertile. The land was so valuable to the Indians that the great Cherokee and Shawnee Nations fought continuous wars to prevent the other from settling the area. Both nations refused to relinquish the bounty this area provided. Buffalo, deer, elk, bear and fowl filled the valleys and mountains in such quantities that hunting parties consistently followed the ridge lines. The Cherokee to the south and the Shawnee to the north relied heavily on their bounty. Dr. Thomas Walker, Daniel Boone and many other explorers eventually made their way to this "Eden." Then the settlers came and made their way into each and every valley. These were strong and independent men and women. Regardless of what is commonly assumed, only the strongest and wisest could have tame a wilderness that both offered plenty and danger at every turn. With the abundance of food and all the materials necessary for a good life came the challenges of freezing winters, floods in the spring, hot summers and dry autumns. The opportunities were equalized only by the challenges. The pioneers with the grit to make a life here had other qualities that are both noble and helped lay the foundations for the decline of the mountains. They were ferociously independent, they were self reliant and they were clannish. These qualities were absolutely necessary in the rugged isolation of the hills. No one could have survived in those mountains without those qualities.
Because of these very qualities, these mountain people had little need for the outside world and because of the difficulties in reaching these people; the outside world had little contact with them. The result was a unique society that developed its own customs and these customs did not follow the development of the rest of the nation. Communication was slow and not really relevant to the Highlanders lifestyle anyway. Most were content to create their own path and live as they pleased.
Two things happened over time that destroyed the equilibrium. First, as the population grew, the resources became less abundant and with each new child added to the mountains the amount of food available to all reduced. The clannish nature of the people that had helped them tame the wilderness now began to sow the seeds of poverty. Not sufficient mountainers left the Highlands and the mountains could not provide for all.
Then second, the great wealth of the area was discovered. Timber and, worst of all, huge quantities of high grade coal were discovered. With this, the exploitation of the hills began. Huge outside concerns moved into the area and bought the right to mine this coal for fractions of its true value. Then these capitalists set up coal camps and turned many of these proud men into virtual slaves. Most did indeed owe their soul to the company store. These corporations kept them poor, uneducated and dependent upon them. The cycle of exploitation of the Highlanders gradually created the feelings of inferiority still held in the region. Because the profits from the coal left the region the people of the mountains never received the benefits of their gift. Coal became their curse instead of their salvation. It was in the interest of the coal concerns to keep the people poor, uneducated and meek. Making these descendents of fiercely strong and independent pioneers both dependent and weak was the great crime perpetrated upon the Kentucky Highlander. This crime was much greater and longer lasting than the mere robbing them of their mineral rights. It has lead to untold misery by countless children of the hills.
The clannishness or more politically correct, the strong family ties and the exploitation of outsiders has led to the situation of today. Until we come to terms with this, we as a people will never improve our lot. No amount of money or advice from Washington will help us. We have to come to terms with the fact that we were taken advantage of. We have to stand up and say it will never happen again. We must tell ourselves that we are equal. We must encourage our children to enter the world and make their fortune. We must understand that some will leave and never come back to stay and others will return to make our communities better places. We must accept this as a part of life. But most important we must tell our children and ourselves that we have a proud history, that we are as good as anyone else, that we will not let anyone take advantage of us again, and, finally we all must strive to make the Kentucky Highlands a better place for our future generations.