Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Finally! We're a Persecuted Minority!

I suspect a lot of you are like me in that you never really had much of an answer to the question "What are you?" (i.e. Irish, German, etc.) Except for the dash of exotic Czech on Blanche Vermillion's mother's side--and Miles Branch's Welsh mother--I thought of my family as just a bunch of indistinct white Americans.

And I'm not alone. When confronted with the box asking for their ancestry on the 2000 census, 7.3 percent of Americans said simply "American" in 2000. While you might think that this is a widely varied group of people who didn't know any more about their ancestry (or didn't consider it the Census Bureau's business), there's actually a distinct geographical pattern to those responses. You can see it in the map above, where the counties with the greatest percentage of people answering "American" are darkest.

The shape that emerges is a map of Appalachia, a region whose first white settlers were the group known as "Scotch-Irish" or "Scots-Irish." Their real origins are in the border region between England and Scotland, though many of them lived in Northern Ireland before coming to America in the 1700s. I have slowly come to understand, with the help of a couple of good books, that the Scots-Irish were and are a very distinct cultural group--and that much of my family is part of that culture. It is a culture that overlaps with a lot of better-known segments of American society: born-again Christians, NASCAR fans, and, at least in this year's primaries, Hillary Clinton voters. (The map of the counties where she won by more than 65 percent looks a lot like the one above.) But it's also a culture that doesn't have a strong sense of itself as being different from other Americans--thus the answer to the census question.

One of the things I've learned is that the Scots-Irish culture in its early years was open to people of other nationalities who were willing to adopt its (protestant) religion and values. So even though I have found French, Dutch, and Swedish people in my backcountry ancestors, they all seem to have signed on to the Scots-Irish culture.

Cal Jones's parents were both very much of this culture. Blanche Vermillion Branch's father was, too, as was Clara Paxton Jones's father. (Her mother's family had some Scots-Irish blood, but they were part of a German-American culture that existed alongside the Mid-Atlantic Quakers.

One of the books I'd recommend if you want to know more is called Albion's Seed, by David Hackett Fischer. Fischer breaks down the migration of people from the British Isles before the revolution into four distinct cultural groups: New England Puritans, Virginia elites (and the indentured servants who came to serve them), Mid-Atlantic Quakers, and the Scots-Irish who populated the hills and backcountry. Fischer's book is written for a scholarly audience and can be slow going sometimes, but it opened my eyes to a lot of American history that I'd never understood.

And it explained some things about the people we call hillbillies or rednecks. For example, the stereotype of the hillbilly in a tumbledown shack (or more recently, the mobile home) isn't necessarily a sign of laziness: the Scots-Irish, living on the border, were constantly in the midst of war between England and Scotland, and whatever they built was sure to be destroyed. This state of war also led them to develop close affiliations with family-based clans that were allied with one side or the other: the Hatfields and McCoys were continuing a very old tradition when they were a-feudin'.

A more readable book is Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America by James Webb, a U.S. Senator from Virginia. Webb is a former Marine, and his take on his Scots-Irish heritage is less scholarly and more of a celebration and a rallying cry. He wants his fellow Scots-Irish to be aware of their heritage and think and vote more like a group. He also recounts a lot of history of the Scots-Irish before they came to America, which is enlightening.

No comments: