« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »
THE "POOR WHITES" OF THE SOUTHERN STATES.
The Blue Ridge Mountains, running nearly parallel with the Atlantic coast and at an average distance from it of about one hundred and fifty miles, divide the State of Virginia into two somewhat distinct portions. The larger and eastern one may be called the Virginia of history and tradition, of large planters, negroes, tobacco, everything in short that the popular idea connects with the name of the Old Dominion. The smaller and western division bears the impress of a much later settlement. A strong stream of Ulster and German blood flows in the veins of a thriftier but less generous population. Negroes are scarcer, cattle are more numerous: tobacco and maize give precedence to abundant crops of grass and wheat, while a colder climate and a more generally mountainous surface still further accentuate the differences of race and age. When Virginia stood alone as England's greatest colony, and presented to the emigrant of the seventeenth or eighteenth century a counterpart to the mother country in manners and customs such as could not be found elsewhere, political and social life was bounded almost as completely by the Blue Ridge upon the west as it was upon the east by the ocean. It was the first outwork of the Alleghanies, and civilization, after creeping cautiously to its base, halted for half a century before it gathered strength and courage to cross the mighty wall into the fertile lands beyond it. The Blue Ridge indeed may claim no small place in history, since for two at least if not three generations it was practically the western boundary of the civilized world. Upon the one side of it was the broad-acred Virginian squire as vestryman, magis
trate, burgess, fox-hunter, champion of Church and King and all the rest of it, ruling benignly over a community of English and African dependants. Upon the other the hated Indian roamed through a trackless wilderness, dashing from time to time through the mountain passes in fierce raids on the frontiersmen whose shanties formed, as it were, an unpaid line of defence for the aristocracy of the eastern settlements.
Time has long robbed the Blue Ridge of all significance but the surpassing beauty of its form and colouring. Hundreds of miles beyond the blue peaks that were once the Ultima Thule of Anglo-Saxons have arisen "Some of the most populous centres upon earth; and the scream of the iron horse dragging its heavy freights eastward wakes strange echoes in wild upland glens whose solitudes have otherwise defied the march of civilization. The traveller of to-day on his way south by one at least of the great trunk-lines from Washington will for many hours see the Blue Ridge filling the horizon upon his right hand. He will pass innumerable 'streams that either bear the names or swell the waters of those eastern rivers that the civil war made famous. Rumbling Creek is one of these, and I mention it particularly for two reasons. The first is that, after crossing the river on a tressel-bridge, the train stops at the station of Tucker's Mills, from which I think the passing traveller gets the best distant view of the mountains to be had from the railway. The second, because it is upon the head-waters of this tortuous and noisy stream that I purpose to introduce the reader to that strange specimen of humanity—the Southern Mountaineer.
So far, however, as the station at Tucker's Mills and its surroundings are concerned, the mountaineer population might be in another planet. The river, it is true, races under the railway-bridge with something of the life that marks its earlier career as a foaming trout-stream in some dark ravine of the great Appalachian rampart that towers so wonderfully blue into the distant sky. But the landscape all around is of a lowland character; fat cornfields and green meadows and big farm-houses, halfhidden in apple-orchards and groves of oak and tobacco-fields just planted, and through all the roseate blush of the red soil from lane and fallow glowing against the rich greenery of crop or woodland. Perfect in outline, and of that marvellous hue which caused the simple name it still bears to burst naturally from the lips of the adventurers of two centuries and a half ago, the Blue Ridge rolls wave after wave along the western sky. It is full twenty miles away, though you would not think the distance to be half so great. The road leading thither is of the true old Virginian type, full in winter of mudholes that have absorbed, and absorbed apparently in vain, waggon-loads of fence-rails and tons of rock: in summer rough and bony, with ruts worn into chasms and slabs of freestone cropping up above the dusty clay. On the subject of roads even the patriotic eloquence of good Virginians remains dumb; though old man Pippin, who lives on the hill-top yonder and is a firm believer in the superiority of the district watered by Bumbling Creek to every other part of the known world, has been heard to maintain the advantages of even a really bad road: "I tell you, sir, them ar' 'cademized roads is mighty hard on a horse ; when thar ain't no mudholes and no rocks a man don't know when to pull up, and is mighty apt to go bust'n his horse along till he drap under him."
There is no fear of any one pursuing such a reckless course between Tucker's
mills and the mountains. The road bristles with impediments over which an uneducated steed would probably "drap ", though not from exhaustion, if he consented to face them at all. But upon a small active horse to the manner born, the traveller would be indeed hard to please who could not forget the ruggedness of the road in the beauty of the scenes through which it passes. If the pace be somewhat slow, and particularly should the season of the year be May or early June, who would wish to hurry through such an Arcady? The wheat on the hillsides is just heading; the early corn in the low grounds is knee-high, and the negro labourers shout their queer spasmodic melodies as they drive their one-horsed ploughs along the rows. At one turn the road enters some forest of primeval oaks and chestnuts through whose tops the sunbeams shyly flicker on the fresh green leaves of shrubs and saplings. At another it will be separated from the ceaseless babble of the river by narrow clover-fields ripe for the scythe, or long stretches of clean red soil in which the young tobacco-plants are making their first struggle for existence. The log-cabin of the negro is ubiquitous, on the slopes of the hills, by the roadside, in the depths of the forest. Unpretentious homesteads, suited to the needs of the times, look peacefully down from wood-crowned hills, while here and there some spacious mansion, with its brick walls and pillared porticoes, stands among aged and branching oaks as a memorial of the days of slavery. Again and again the road plunges into the gradually narrowing river and, as your horse pauses in midstream to slake that unquenchable thirst which the Virginian nag so uniformly affects, rare vistas of wood and water opening to the sight cause you to encourage the bad habits of the cunning quadruped. All the familiar trees that love the banks of running streams are here. The sycamore and the beech, the ash, the alder and the willow, spread their branches above the stream, while underneath their shade the kingfisher and the common sandpiper scud from rock to rock till they vanish over the white sunlit rapids beyond. Shoals of minnows race in the shallows under your horse's feet, and a big chub plunges in the still pool above. The deep boom of the bull-frog sounding from some rushy backwater beats time to the ceaseless chorus of the woodland crickets, and as the day wanes the tinkling of cow-bells in the lanes and woods answers to the musical summons of their owners from the hills above.
And in the meantime the massive outline of the mountains looms nearer and larger. The blue veil of distance is lifted and the mighty wall above us becomes one vast screen of rustling leaves. Houses of even a humble kind grow scarce. The stream gets steeper in its fall, and thunders in an angry fashion against the rugged cliffs and moss-grown rocks that hem in its waters. An old mill, its timbers black with time and weather, totters over an idle wheel. It is the last outpost of southern civilization. The sights and sounds of every-day Virginian life are left behind—the red fallows and the green maize-fields—the shout of the negro ploughman and the summer pipe of the quail. The mountains begin to close around, and the air is full of the noise of falling waters, the scent of cedars and hemlocks, and the steady moan of mountain winds sweeping softly over many miles of leaves. A change of scene more complete within the same short space it would be hard to find. The red clay road winding so lately through cheery rural scenes becomes a stony track painfully toiling upwards between the huge trunks of a dark and sombre forest to the now hidden sky-line three thousand feet above us.
Here is the domain of the mountaineer. Not the romantic, ornamental, somewhat glorified peasant that the word is apt to suggest, but merely one branch of that despised and outcast race of white men that Southern
slavery begot. The Southern "Poor "White ", of which the mountaineer is certainly the most interesting type, is not himself the outcast of a recent or a single generation. He is the descendant of those who in former days either sunk below the level, or as emigrants began life outside the pale, of those connected directly or indirectly with the domestic institution and the landed interest. Such men in the Free States in the natural order of things would have carved a road to competence if not to fortune. In the Slave States an emigrant without means or education may have done so, but the chances were that the odd3 were too much for him, and that his children were driven, not by violence or deliberate combinations, but by the force of circumstances, into the rough and waste places of the land. There they have multiplied and stagnated, illiterate, squalid, poor, unambitious, despised by whites and by negroes alike, clinging together, intermarrying and degenerating physically and morally. Not at war exactly with the world, but going through life with a kind of latent animosity towards it as if it had used them ill, and a vague idea that their lot is hard and their chance a poor one. And so it is. Not that a pair of stout arms and a stout heart will not still in America bring a labouring man at least competence; but though the stout arms are there, the energy and the brains to direct them have practically deserted this strange group of the Anglo-Saxon family.
When an American declares that in his country there is no poverty or want outside the city, he is talking nonsense, though nonsense of an honest kind free from all intention to mislead. Not one American in a thousand outside the South Atlantic States knows much morevof the Southern Poor White than he knows of the Esquimaux. How can he 1 Of the mountaineer, the Southern people themselves know scarcely anything, unless it be those few who live right in the very shadow of the great ranges. Even among the class in question, material prosperity and civilization varies considerably in different states and regions of country. But there is neither space nor need to examine such details. The mountaineer of Blue Ridge, who has been entirely surrounded by a lowland civilization for generations, is on that very account a more curious spectacle than the better fed hunter, for instance, of the vast highlands of West Virginia or the "Cracker " of the boundless back-country that lies behind the sugar and rice plantations and the orange groves of the far South.
It is a popular notion that the Poor or Mean Whites of the South are descended from the indentured servants that were shipped to the Southern colonies from England in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century. That there can be anything like uniformity in their origin is impossible. In the ups and downs of colonial and frontier life, men of all sorts must have been jolted off the track, and with the growth of slavery and the comparative contempt for manual labour that always existed in the South sunk out of the race and retired into the forests to live as illiterate hunters or idlers. The position their descendants occupy is at least unique. They are worse off in every respect, save fuel, than the French or Belgian peasant, while the latter in his turn has a harder struggle for existence than the average British labourer. The mountaineer of Blue Ridge cultivates his own land, or land so rough that its owners do not care to interfere with him. He touches his hat to no one. But even in a democratic country where handshaking is a mania and has no social significance, the plainest kind of country farmer does not much care about extending the hand of citizenship to the pariah from the mountains or the pine-barrens. The latter may starve when his meagre corn-crop and his scanty supply of bacon runs out in the early spring, for all the outside world
is concerned or is aware of; and if he does not actually die of starvation, he very often comes quite as near it as the perennial paupers of the Connemara bogs.
To look up at the Blue Ridge from its base you would hardly suppose that a vestige of life lurked beneath that vast green canopy of leaves. A familiar eye might detect here and there the corner of a clearing peeping above the shoulders of the hills, and in early spring clouds of smoke rising from some burning new ground proclaim to the dwellers in the world below that human life of some sort exists up in those wild woods. This indeed is about all the majority of the community ever see of the mountain man. There are exceptions, however, and Pete is an exception. Pete is a veritable chieftain ampng mountaineers, and at the same time is known in the low country for many miles round. His cabin stands upon the very frontiers of his dominion. At the very foot of the "big mountain" (as distinguished from the spurs and foothills), right in the angle where the north and south forks of Rumbling Creek tumble their respective waters together in a churning and boiiing pool, stands the mansion of this illustrious man. Here, too, with the dividing stream the rough road divides also, and by the side of these stony tracks and on the banks of these rocky streams, reaching far away up to the highest gaps between the mountain peaks, are scattered at long intervals the isolated hovels of Pete's subjects. Pete's house, as I have said, stands as befits his autocratic position at the forks of road and stream, and no one can get up the mountain on business or pleasure bent without undergoing the scrutiny of his ever-watchful eye. The house is comparatively palatial, and the shoulders of the hills have receded sufficiently at this meeting of the waters to leave nearly two acres of flat ground around it, giving an air of ease, solidity and distinction to Pete's ancestral hall that the ordinary mountain cabin decidedly lacks. Pete has sown the flat in clover, a wonderful concession to lowland ideas. He has even' planted a dozen or two of young apple-trees, which mark him as a man far in advance of his race. The logs of his house, too, are squared and not merely round poles unbarked, like the architecture higher up the creek. The chimney is also a departure from other chimneys on Rumbling Creek, for it is of rocks, not of tobacco-sticks filled in with mud.
One other fact places Pete on a pinnacle in his community—he can write! This is the last letter he wrote to me:
Thars trowte in the Crick by a heap mo' nor lars yer. Cum orn rite soon. Thars tu walers in the hole at the forx. Yrs respcfly,
From this it may be gathered that my acquaintance with Pete and the mountain community on Rumbling Creek, an acquaintance renewed annually for many years, was due to a predilection for the gentle art. No strangers indeed but anglers (and they were scarce enough), unless it were the sheriff or an occasional cattledealer crossing the range by this rough route, ever penetrate beyond the forks of the creek where Pete's cabin stands. And few of these pass his door without alighting. Whether the subject in hand is trout or cattle, horse-thieves or whisky-stills, Pete's countenance and advice is almost indispensable. For our friend is not only an exceedingly smart man in his way, but an original and a character of the most pronounced description. What is more he is known as a "'sponsible mount'n man", a unique departure from ordinary rules and a much greater exception even than a responsible Ethiopian. Pete has never been suspected of stealing a steer or setting lire to a barn. When he has taken a contract from some lowland farmer for roofing-shingles, or from the miller for barrel-staves, he has been frequently
No. 356.—Vol. i.x.
known to carry out his agreement within the appointed time. People have even been known to pay him money on account before the completion of contracts, which with an ordinary mountaineer would be a most fatuous proceeding. Old Squire Tucker, the big man of the country below the mountains and once Member of Congress, used in former days moreover to ask Pete down to play the banjo and tell " bar stories " to the fine folks from Washington staying in his house. For there was no one on the mountain, nor a negro below it, could "pick a banjer" like Pete. Many a night after assisting at one of those mountain suppers that nothing but lusty youth still further hardened by long days on the rocky streams or in the saddle could have survived, have I sat and smoked while Pete twanged at his banjo and crooned out his quaint medley of negro airs and Baptist hymns. Strange performances they used to be, with for audience a group of wild mountain men, drawn together by the rare news of a stranger's arrival, standing in the flickering firelight, and beating time with their often shoeless feet upon the rough boarded floor; and outside the chorus of the frogs and crickets, the intermittent cry of the screech-owl and the cat-bird, the roar and the gleam of the white water, and the flashing of the fire-flies against the black gloom of the night and the forest.
The popular notion in Virginia of the mountaineer, a notion founded more or less upon fact, is that of an attenuated, neutral-tinted expressionless spectre. It is a favourite local pleasantry that the Southern Highlander has, through isolation, ignorance and apathy, so lost the human form divine, as to be indistinguishable at any distance in the woods from a cedar-stump or a fence-rail stuck upon end. Pete at any rate represented a 'very different variety. He was short and thick, with huge long arms. Everything that was to be seen of him, except his eyes, was covered with