Back to Homepage of Horace Kephart: Revealing an Enigma

Our Southern Highlanders: Chapter Summaries
by Nancy P. Coward

I. “Something Hidden; Go and Find It”

Kephart argues that little has been written of the Southern mountaineer -- that the rest of America knows almost nothing of a people set apart “from all other folks by dialect, by customs, by character, by self-conscious isolation” (p. 16), who because of the terrain of the land still live in the eighteenth century.

II. “The Back of Beyond”

He borrows from Ireland the title to describe the “upper settlement of Hazel Creek,” where he lived, surrounded by “the forest primeval” -- the mail service, the lack of goods in the stores, the use of barter, the absence of trades or professions, the worn-out soil and primitive farming methods with corn the staple crop, the gathering of medicinal herbs, the livestock with emphasis on the razorback hog.

III. “The Great Smoky Mountains”

He describes the mountains and the flora of the region; speaks of botanists who early identified the plant life -- Asa Gray, William Bartram, Andre Michaux -- and later the Ferrisses; tells of the Canadian hiker unprepared for the wilderness; reports on animal life and the scarcity of game animals, the climate, rocks and minerals.

IV. “A Bear Hunt in the Smokies”

He tells of the bear hunters’ camping in a cabin on the North Carolina - Tennessee line; lets his companions come alive through dialogue (Little John Cable, Hunchback Bill Cope, Granville Calhoun, “Doc” Jones, and Matt Hyde); recounts their discussion of hunting dogs and dreams and speaks of their drinking and singing; praises the stamina of the men; shares their anger over the use of bear-traps; names the most famous bear hunters of the region (Uncle Jimmy Crawford, Quill Rose, Black Bill Walker) and the legendary bear, “Old Reelfoot”; and hearing a logging train, postulates that everything he sees will disappear -- “tree and plant, beast and fish . . . . [t]he simple-hearted native men and women . . . .” (p. 104).

V. “Moonshine Land”

He begins with a story of coming upon a cabin, where his introduction of himself is interrupted by piercing yells from the mistress of the house and his realization that it is a signal and she is on picket. He describes the incident to an acquaintance, hoping to find out what might happen if he should stumble upon a still. He is told he would be expected to perform “some triflin’ work about the still . . . jest so’s ‘t they could prove that you took a hand in it . . . .” (p. 118). The rest of the chapter is the mountaineers’ defense of moonshining, ending with Kephart’s promise that in his writing he will give a fair report on what he has learned of moonshining.

VI. “Ways That Are Dark”

He continues the discussion of what the mountaineers call “blockading,” not “moonshining.” He describes the process of making corn liquor. It ends with the story of Jack Coburn’s getting rid of a still which a tenant had installed on his property.

VII. “A Leaf from the Past”

He attempts to bring historical perspective to the mountaineer’s objection to the federal tax on whiskey. He affirms that Britishers “have always been ardent haters of excise laws” (p. 145). In the towns they used bribery of the agents in order not to pay the tax; in the sparsely settled mountainous regions of Ireland, it was the gun. He traces the Scotch to Ireland (the Scotch-Irish), thence to western Pennsylvania and on to the southern Appalachians and reports on their opposition to the whiskey tax imposed by Congress in 1791, which led to the Whiskey Insurrection of 1794. He continues a sketch history of the taxes levied on whiskey up to the late 1800s.

VIII. “`Blockaders’ and `The Revenue’”

According to Kephart, in a report for 1876-77, the new Commissioner of Internal Revenue brought attention to the production of illegal whiskey in the southern Appalachian, and in 1877 the federal government began fighting moonshiners in dead earnest and in their methods created bitter resentment among the mountain people. He repeats stories told of and by Hersh Harkens, United States Collector at Asheville, of raids on stills and gun battles. In rebuttal to the Commissioner’s report, Kephart denies the contention that mountain people are naturally hostile to the government, arguing their loyalty to the Union, including the period of the Civil War, and giving the reason for their moonshining as not political but purely economic. He discusses the effects of Prohibition on the moonshining business.

IX. “The Snake-Stick Man”

He tells the story of “Mr. Quick,” who gained Kephart’s friendship through his knowledge and wide range of interests and the approval of the people with the snake-stick he carved. It is revealed that he is an agent of the Indian Bureau assigned to capture those who are making or selling whiskey on the Reservation only after he has a number of men arrested whom he has identified by means of a ruse. His theory is, “man-hunting is the finest sport in the world,” and he invites Kephart to go along with him on a man-hunt into Tennessee.

X. “A Raid in the Sugarlands”

Kephart gives a description of their journey from Bryson City through Collins Gap in the Smokies and then on foot into the Sugarlands of Tennessee. They are looking for a moonshiner and his two sons and are accompanied by an Indian guide. At house after house, they get no information and no invitation to stop. At one place they get “a cold bite” and spend the night at a house besieged by fleas. Kephart wrenches his knee. The fugitives are not found. But Kephart does find a man who has read “that book” (Our Southern Highlanders).

XI. “The Killing of Hol Rose”

Kephart tells of Rose, a deputy prohibition enforcement officer, who was considered high-handed and over-zealous. When he started to arrest Babe Burnett, Babe killed him and escaped but later turned himself in. Before the trial, in a Romeo-Juliet romance, Ima Rose (Hol’s daughter) elopes with Verlin Burnett (Babe’s son). Convicted of second-degree murder, Babe appealed and was acquitted. Now he is to stand trail in the Federal court. Kephart’s judgment is that Rose was killed in attempting to make an illegal arrest and that officers of the law must be respecters of the law.

XII. “The Outlander and the Native”

In describing the mountain people, Kephart insists that their wars are fought among themselves, not against outsiders. They consider personal property inviolate and hospitality “a sacred duty” (p. 267). But outsiders should copy the custom of the region, calling out “Hello” rather than going to the door and removing cartridges from a gun before advancing to the porch (p. 268). He considers the only danger would be from a man crazy with liquor (p. 269). He admits there is difficulty in finding a decent place for bed and board, but he also notes that travelers unknowingly impose on the natives, who share food from their meager supplies. He reported the native to be curious, sly, suspicious, secretive.

XIII. “The People of the Hills”

Continuing his description, he notes that the highlanders are lean (“a fat mountaineer is a curiosity”) and tall with grave, deliberate, shambling bearing (pp. 286-87). They are not indolent but shiftless. They seem immune to cold and wet. They are not a healthy people, and there is a high percentage with defects. They look at death with a good deal of stoicism. The women are “pretty in youth,” but hard work, early marriage, frequent childbirth, and lack of medical attention soon ages them (pp. 288-89). Kephart himself served as “doctor to the settlement” (p. 298) on Hazel Creek. His own diagnosis is that “their love of pure air and pure water” saves them from the gross unsanitary conditions in which they live (p. 304). He also discusses too-jumping, dew pizen, and milk-sick.

XIV. “The Land of Do Without”

He bemoans the exchange of homespun jeans and linsey for shoddy clothes now purchased and the unkempt appearance of the people. Houses are hewn log cabins, indifferently chinked, usually one large room with a lean-to for the kitchen and a loft for storage and sleeping. Pegs and a bunk or two serve as closet and linen cabinet. There will usually be a family photograph on the wall, an almanac, and a kerosene lamp. There is no room for privacy, and deep poverty is the rule. He speaks of dirt floors and few containers or utensils for cooking or serving meals; of times when there would be no salt or meat; of “borrowing fire” for the lack of a match. But they are an abstemious people and scorn any hint of charity nor do they take kindly to any suggestion that they are inferior to others.

XV. “Home Folks and Neighbor People”

Kephart sees in the mountain people a patriarchal society in which the wife (“the woman”) is a drudge and field hand. There is no sense of chivalry, yet the women do not complain. They tend to marry early and have large families. They are indulgent parents, especially to their sons. Funeral services are simple, with the sermon preached long after, sometimes for all in the community who have died in the period since the last funeral address. Weddings are held at the home of the bride. They enjoy music and dancing except where the church has prohibited it. Holidays observed are Christmas and New Year’s. Church is a social function, and camp meetings especially so. The clergy is hostile to book-learning, but religion seems to have any real effect on the parishioners.

XVI. “The Mountain Dialect”

He reports on the anger of a neighbor over John Fox’s use of mountain dialect in his stories. Kephart describes the mountaineers’ habit of elision, of inserting sounds, and of substituting one sound for another. He adds that they never drop the h or substitute another sound for it. He says that little of the language is borrowed from the Scotch-Irish except the distinct sounding of the r. Refuting that the vocabulary of the mountaineers is limited, he contends they have a remarkable range of expression. He discusses the use of one part of speech for another, the abundance of pleonasms, and the taste for double and triple negatives, and the presence of Elizabethan, Chaucerian, and pre-Chaucerian terms.

XVII. “The Law of the Wilderness”

According to Kephart, the highlander is willing to forgo “all that society can offer” in exchange for being “free, unbeholden, lord of himself and his surroundings.” (p. 381). He is non-social, immune to the spirit of co-operation. The 4,000,000 people in the eight states who share the designation of “Appalachian mountaineers” have no sense of kinship or shared heritage. But they are deeply attached to family and place. Though they rarely demonstrate affection, it is deeply felt, and they will go to almost any length to protect a family member, even if he is a criminal. Thus, “clan loyalty interferes with the administration of justice” (p. 390). They put little trust in the courts. Murders are common, and the murderer usually receives a light sentence or goes free. The rationale is that if society (the state) cannot protect a man or his rights, then he is justified in taking the law into his own hands.

XVIII. “The Blood Feud”

He draws an analogy between the blood feud of Corsica and those in Appalachia. He gives as reasons for feuds disputes over card games, or property, or politics or the love of women. They spread because of clan loyalty or the opportunity to pay someone back for old wrongs. “The mountaineer has a long memory” (pp. 414-15). It is common for men to be armed. They often fight dirty, but usually avoid harming property or women. Mountain women are also combative, cheering the men on and carrying food to those in hiding. Kephart makes the comment, “It took but a few decades to civilize Scotland” (p. 426), as if the same can be done for Southern Appalachia if the United States government will just make the effort.

XIX. “Who Are the Mountaineers”

He says they are not related to the poor whites of the South, descendants of convicts and indentured servants. The first Appalachian frontiersmen were the Swiss and Palatine Germans, followed by the Scotch-Irish, who first settled largely in western Pennsylvania and then moved southward in the eighteenth century and into the mountains after the Revolutionary War. Eventually the population became too great for the land to support adequately, but many stayed because (1) they did not know of the opportunities to the west; (2) they were attached to home and kindred; (3) they lacked the ambition; (4) they lacked money to emigrate. In the Civil War they showed their loyalty to the Union and were repaid by an excise tax that turned them into outlaws. But Kephart sees the region on the verge of an economic revolution which will change everything.

XX. “When the Sleeper Wakes”

Appalachia is rural. The people are homogeneous (WASPS). But communication has recently reached the area, a development opposed by the conservative element. Some welcome it; others sell their property and lose their independence. Kephart feels that the commercial interests care nothing for the mountain people. He himself damns them with faint praise: “. . . among the most trifling and unmoral natives of this region, among the illiterate and hide-bound, there still is much to excite admiration and good hope. . . . Let us remember, Sir and Madam, that we ourselves are descended from white barbarians” (pp. 465-66). His answer is schools – not regular schools but “vocational schools that will turn out good farmers, good mechanics, good housewives” (p. 469).