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Creoles of the Mountains: Race, Regionalism, and Modernity in Progressive Era Appalachia

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 September 2020

Michell Chresfield*
University of Birmingham
*Corresponding author. E-mail:


This article investigates how Progressive Era writers, both popular and scientific, helped to construct multiracial identities alongside competing efforts to enshrine race into strictly black and white terms. Existing scholarship on race in the Progressive Era has not sufficiently analyzed the presence of multiracial populations. Instead, scholars have treated state and federal efforts to police racial boundaries, namely through anti-miscegenation laws and the census, as evidence that multiracial persons were a legal impossibility. However, scientific and popular writing on Appalachia provides a conceptual space in which multiracialism was not only a conceptual possibility, but was engendered. Appalachia took on increased importance during the Progressive Era as both intellectuals and reformers used the region to frame their anxieties about the limits of modernity and the threat of racial mixing. The region was home to white mountaineers who appeared arrested in time, existing in uncomfortable proximity to newly discovered groups with white, black, and Native American ancestry who also seemed to have been shunned by civilization. In attempting to understand the peculiar conditions of Appalachia, these Progressive Era writers helped to advance some of the first ideas about what it meant to be mixed-race in America.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (SHGAPE)

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1 “Hill Dwellers Live Like Nomads,” Duluth News Tribune, May 29, 1921, 4.

2 Ibid.

3 “Town Puzzled by Wild Family,” New York Times, May 2, 1921, 16; William James Dobbin, “Wild Men Within Commuting Distance,” New York Tribune, June 12, 1921, D1; and “Village Shrinks From Contact with ‘Poor, Unwashed Whites,’” New York Tribune, May 1, 1921, 2.

4 “Family Living Like Barbarians,” Tulsa World, May 22, 1921, 4.

5 “Finds Wild Family From the Ramapos,” New York Times, May 1, 1921, 7. The racial ambiguity of communities like the Jackson Whites is also borne out in their name, which carried as much lore as the population itself. While two separate origin narratives are thought to explain the etymology of the Jackson Whites, the most common claims that the term is a contraction of “Jacks”—the term used by white northerners to refer to freed slaves—and “Whites”—the white mountaineers who lived in the region and intermarried with the freed slaves and local Native Americans. It should be noted that the term “Jackson White” is held in disrepute by a majority of this community, as the term is seen as pejorative in nature and a denial of their long-standing claim to indigenous ancestry. Known today as the Ramapough Mountain Indians, the shift in nomenclature is evidence of a decades-long battle to determine the boundaries of black and native identity. For the purposes of this paper, the author will use the terms “Jackson White” as well as “Ramapo people” as the historical texts used them. However, this usage should not be read as a commentary on the racial identity of the group in question, but merely in keeping with the usage of the time. For more on the nomenclature and identity struggles of the Ramapough Mountain Indians, see Cohen, David Steven, The Ramapo Mountain People (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1986)Google Scholar.

6 “Hill Dwellers Live Like Nomads.”

7 Calvin Beale coined the term “triracial isolates,” although these communities are known by a number of derisive names, including “racial dropouts,” “racial miscreants,” and sometimes “racial islands.” Beale, Calvin L., “American Triracial Isolates: Their Status and Pertinence to Genetic Research,” Eugenics Quarterly 4 (Dec. 1957): 187CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 “Hill Dwellers Live Like Nomads.”

9 For examples of scholarship illuminating this thread of progressive reform, see Petit, Jeanne D., The Men and Women We Want: Gender, Race, and the Progressive Era Literary Test Debate (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2010)Google Scholar; Southern, David W., The Progressive Era and Race: Reaction and Reform, 1900–1917 (Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 2005)Google Scholar; and Spiro, Jonathan Peter, Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant (Burlington: University of Vermont Press, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 “Strung Up A Negro: Lynch Law in the Mountains of New York State Effect,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Apr. 21, 1899, 5; and Dobbin, “Wild Men Within Commuting Distance.”

11 Jersey's Poor Whites: Inhabitants of the Ramapos,” St Louis Post-Dispatch, Oct. 18, 1884; Dobbin, “Wild Men Within Commuting Distance”; and “A Visit to the Jackson Whites of in the Ramapo,” Washington Post, Feb. 28, 1909.

12 In this essay, I rely on Jill Olumide's definition of “mixed-race,” which she defines as “the patterns and commonality of experience among those who obstruct whatever purpose race is being put to at a particular time.” Olumide, Jill, Raiding the Gene Pool: The Social Construction of Race (London: Pluto Press, 2002)Google Scholar.

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21 Those states included Montana (1909), Arkansas (1911), Nebraska (1913), Oklahoma (1917), Tennessee (1917), Virginia (1924), and Alabama (1927). Pascoe, Peggy, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2009), 118Google Scholar.

22 An Act to Define Who Are Persons of Color and Who Are White Persons, to Prohibit and Prevent Intermarriage of Such Persons, and to Provide a System of Registration and Marriage Licensing as a Means for Accomplishing the Principal Purpose, Ga. Law no. 317 § 14 (1927), 272–73.

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38 “A Primitive New Race Created in the ‘Jackson Whites,’” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Oct. 1, 1911, 8.

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47 Despite a long history of depicting Appalachia as a solidly white region, scholarship of the more recent past has begun to explore the region's diversity, particularly in regard to the racially transgressive nature of the region's social relations. For example, Darlene Wilson and Patricia Beaver have attributed the high incidence of interracial coupling in Appalachia to the social and geographic isolation of the region, which shielded residents from the same legal and social regulations against miscegenation operating in other parts of the country. See Wilson, Darlene and Beaver, Patricia D., “Transgressions in Race and Place: The Ubiquitous Native Grandmother in America's Cultural Memory,” in Neither Separate Nor Equal: Women, Race, and Class in the South, ed. Smith, Barbara Ellen (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999), 50Google Scholar.

48 John Hartigan, Jr., has argued that southern migrants from Appalachia—both blacks and whites—shared commonalities of speech and lifestyles, yet he nevertheless designated them into two groups: blacks and hillbillies. See Hartigan, John Jr., “Name Calling: Objectifying ‘Poor Whites’ and ‘White Trash’ in Detroit,” in White Trash: Race and Class in America, ed. Wray, Matt and Newitz, Annalee (New York: Routledge, 1997), 4156 Google Scholar.

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50 “The ‘Jackson Whites’: Curious Folk of the Ramapo Hills A Hybrid Race,” New-York Tribune, Jan. 5, 1896.

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53 Ada Carver, “Redbones,” Harper's Monthly Magazine, Feb. 1925, 257; and “The Jackson Whites: Strange People Living Between New York and New Jersey,” The Sunday Herald Tribune (New York), Jan. 26, 1896.

54 Arthur Estabrook, “Blood Seeking Environment,” Eugenical News (1926): 106–14; and Roland Harper, “The Most Prolific People,” Eugenical News (1938): 29–31.

55 Ibid., 30.

56 Vincent, “A Retarded Frontier,” 4.

57 “The Jackson Whites: Strange People Living Between New York and New Jersey.”

58 Estabrook, “Triple Crosses in the South,” 58–59.

59 James Lane Allen, “Through Cumberland Gap on Horseback,” Harper's Monthly Magazine, June 1886, 69.

60 Bond, Horace Mann, “Two Racial Islands in Alabama,” American Journal of Sociology 36 (Jan. 1931): 552–67CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and “The Jackson Whites: Strange People Living Between New York and New Jersey,” 21

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76 Eugenicists believed that if a trait could be found in more than one generation, then that trait was heritable. Later studies on “cacogenic”, meaning unfit families also discussed the heritability of promiscuity, a trait they observed in successive generations of poor rural families. See Rafter, White Trash, 6–9.

77 Ordover, American Eugenics, 33–35.

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82 Starting with the story of Deborah, a pseudonym for a Vineland resident named Emma Wolverton, the Kallikak study provided a cautionary tale about the dangers of poor mate selection as Deborah was the descendant of hereditary line that began with a dalliance between an upstanding American Revolutionary soldier and a feebleminded barmaid. Along with Richard Dugdale's 1877 study, “The Jukes”: A Study in Crime, Pauperism, Disease and Heredity, the Kallikak study provided justification for a number of eugenic interventions across the United States. See Dugdale, Richard, “The Jukes”: A Study in Crime, Pauperism, Disease and Heredity and Further Studies of Criminals, 3rd ed. (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1877)Google Scholar; Goddard, The Kallikak Family; Smith, J. David and Wehmeyer, Michael L., “Who Was Deborah Kallikak?,” Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities 50 (Apr. 2012): 169–78CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

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87 Kite, “The Jackson Whites.”

88 Ibid.

89 Ibid.

90 Ibid.

91 Ibid.

92 “Blood Combination Has Bred Moron People,” National Labor Tribune (Pittsburgh, PA), Nov. 24, 1932, 5.

93 Both the Jukes and the Kallikak families, the subjects of the two most popular eugenic studies, were believed to have engaged in interracial sex. See Estabrook, Arthur H., The Jukes in 1915 (Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1916)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Dugdale, “The Jukes”; and Henry H. Goddard, The Kallikak Family.

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104 The one-drop rule is a legal and social convention asserting that any person with at least a drop of black blood is considered black. It has historically operated in the United States as a cornerstone of America's racial formation project, whereby mixed-race persons become illegible because they are routinely assigned the racial status of the subordinate group. See Davis, F. James, Who Is Black? One Nation's Definition (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991)Google Scholar.