Stoll offers the ideal complement. He has set out to tell the story of how the people of a sprawling region of our country—one of its most physically captivating and ecologically bountiful—went from enjoying a modest but self-sufficient existence as small-scale agrarians for much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to a dreary dependency on the indulgence of coal barons or the alms of the government.
Stoll refuses to accept that there is something intrinsically lacking in Appalachians—people who, after all, managed to carve out a life on such challenging, mountainous terrain. Something was done to them, and he is going to figure out who did it. He links their fate to other threatened agrarian communities, from rice growers in the Philippines to English peasants at the time of the Enclosure Acts. “Whenever we see hunger and deprivation among rural people, we need to ask a simple question: What went on just before the crisis that might have caused it?” he writes. “Seeing the world without the past would be like visiting a city after a devastating hurricane and declaring that the people there have always lived in ruins.”
The missing history is above all a story about land and dispossession. For roughly a century, starting before the country’s founding, the settlers of central Appalachia—defined by Stoll as the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania and most of West Virginia—managed a makeshift life as smallholders. The terms of that “holding” were murky, to say the least: property claims in the region were a tangled patchwork of grants awarded to French and Indian or Revolutionary War generals and other notables, which were commonly diced and sliced among speculators, and the de facto claims made by those actually inhabiting the land. In some cases, those settlers managed to get official deeds by the legal doctrine of “adverse possession”; in many others, they were simply allowed to keep working the land by distant landlords who had never laid eyes on it.
That modest but self-sufficient existence is what the people in Appalachia are returning to. It’s just that now we think of that modesty as being abject poverty.
Yer 18th century farmer up there might have been gaining $5 in modern money a day from his efforts. That’s less than food stamps these days.
If you don’t understand how fucking poor the past was you’re never going to get anything right, are you?