Appalachia

New York Times Bestseller, ‘Hillbilly Elegy,’ Mentions My Hometown, Describes Region’s Poverty

My father, far right, with his brothers in Cumberland County, Ky.

My father, far right (holding infant), with his brothers in Cumberland County, Ky.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is described as one to read to understand the Trump win but, I was drawn to the book for a different reason.

I happened upon a TED Talk by the book’s author, J.D. Vance, about a year ago (The struggles of America’s forgotten working class) and when Vance mentioned he was from Middletown — located about 30 miles south of my home — I decided to read his book. Upon reading it, I discovered that as a grade school student he lived in Preble County (where I live) for a short time.

When I was about nine years old things began to unravel at home. Tired of Papaw’s presence and Mamaw’s constant ‘interference’ Mom and Bob decided to move to Preble County, a sparsely populated piece of Ohio farm country approximately thirty-five miles from Middletown.

The ‘experiment’ in Preble County ends, he says, when his mother overdoses and Vance returns to his grandparents’ home in Middletown.

Shared Lineage

The book has garnered good and negative reviews — and some reviews raise legitimate questions, but as a resident of the region with a similar background, I can relate with much of the story he tells, even if his characters are significantly more colorful than the ones I know. (The volume and type of cursing that exists in the book starkly contrasts with the language I heard growing up, even from the ‘unsaved,’ in my lineage.)

Vance’s lineage is from Jackson, Kentucky, mine is from Cumberland and Clinton County, Kentucky.

His tale is about a hardworking, tenacious and, quite often, self-destructing culture. As Vance unveils a landscape of poor, unrepresented Americans we see a group that does not escape its impoverished past. In southwest Ohio, where much of the story takes place, Kentuckians migrated here during the 1950s-1970s because union jobs offered a better standard of living. The company Vance’s grandfather worked for — AK Steel — actively recruited working-age men from Jackson County and the surrounding area, Vance reports.

By the time Vance is raised, though, the livable wage jobs are mostly gone as unions lost their foothold.

Dysfunction and Hard Times

So, the book is a tell-all about his dysfunctional family and the economic hardship they faced. The story is real and relatable since many people still live that way here.

My qualm with the book is the heavy-handed advise sprinkled throughout, that quite frankly, will not work. He is writing to ‘his people’ telling them government policies won’t change their situation, only they can. As the Jacobin review points out Vance overlooks the reality that systems already in place had, in many ways, locked this demographic into perpetual poverty. As Bob Hutton writes,

It’s a somewhat eccentric but fairly harmless idea. But at no point does Vance suggest that Kentucky and Ohio residents might benefit from higher wages, better health care, or a renewed labor movement… Hillbilly Elegy is misnamed. Elegies are poems dedicated to the dead. The American hillbilly isn’t dead; he’s just poor. The book should have been titled Hillbilly Reprimand, because Vance doesn’t want to mourn the hillbilly — he wants to make him a good worker.

What Is Versus What Could Be

I agree with Hutton. More than 200 years of history has proven this demographic has not found a way to achieve the American Dream. On the whole very few escape the poverty. Their communities have been filled, as Vance points out, with hardcore drug problems, addictions that are nearly impossible to shed (like meth and heroin), something he indirectly proves through the reoccurring theme of his mother’s failures and drug abuse.

As I am seeing in my own community, drug abuse will not resolve itself. It requires government intervention. As I write, in today’s local paper, out of the 21 indictments handed down by the Grand Jury in January, 15 were drug-related. We are a county of 40,000 residents.

‘Hillbillies’ also have few economic opportunities because their job options are often fast food or retail, so even those ‘hard-working’ individuals with multiple jobs will not achieve any upward mobility on those salaries. One 50-something man I recently met from the Middletown area, who had taken on seasonal work, noted that with his new job he was now working about 90 hours a week. Another woman I met stated the temporary job was her third source of income. They were doing their part — working hard — but they were hardly ‘living the dream.’

The real underlying story in Vance’s memoir is he was lucky to make it out. And it is his escape, that points to the real solution. He openly admits the upper echelon of our society have a different set of mores and values and, to become successful, Vance embodies them.

Brain Drain

His story also reveals he is the exception, not the rule. Vance follows the tried-and-true method of upper mobility for most Appalachians. He leaves the region. In his case, he goes to the Silicon Valley where more economic opportunities exist. Most of ‘his people’ do not have that option. They will not become a Yale-educated attorney. Instead, their life and economic choices are significantly more bleak and they will be exploited by the existing economic conditions in their communities.

And, because of their poverty, many will die prematurely.

Rated 4 out of 5: In spite of his ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ mentality, the book does provide a peak inside the mores and values of some Appalachian working poor.

Categories: Appalachia, Books I have read

Mary (Hull) Beaty Pays Unbearable Price During Civil War

-flagsIn the modern era, starting over in one’s 50s usually mean reinventing or redefining a career — or maybe working through a mid-life crisis  — but for Mary (Hull) Beaty, my grandmother from the Civil War era, it was about rebuilding her life after the death of several family members.

When the War of 1861 — as it is called on government documents from the late 1860s — broke out, Mary Beaty, who went by Polly, had no way of knowing the high price she was about to pay.  By the time it was over, it would cost her two sons Andrew Jackson (AJ) and Thomas as well as her son-in-law Andrew Owens and shortly after the War ended, her husband Alexander and an infant grandchild, would also be dead.

The War, and the death of her family members especially her third oldest son Thomas, left Mary destitute and dependent on the charity of others to subsist.

Wrong Place at the Wrong Time

As Unionists, Mary and her family had the misfortune of living in northern Tennessee when the War began. This created a deadly situation after the State joined the Confederacy. In the borderland region of the Cumberland Plateau, it essentially put a target on the backs of the Beatys and other Unionists. Gangs, vigilantes and former neighbors turned on each other in what would become one of the bloodiest regions of the conflict. The only other portion of the country where a comparable level of violence and brutality existed was the Missouri-Kansas border.

In these two regions the War became very personal and acts of War were often thinly-veiled murderous acts of revenge and retribution. It was, in a very real sense, a return to the Biblical concept of an ‘eye for an eye.’ Due to the unconventional manner in which the War was fought in the borderland, civilians were subject to attack. These civilians were often women, children or the aged, left to fend for themselves after the males entered military service. Loyalists on both sides of the conflict utilized a ‘no-quarter’ approach to the War. Simply put, if you were captured, you were killed. And some of the murders were grisly, from beheadings to tortured deaths, carried out in front of pleading family members.

But before the War intensified to that level, there was an exit from the region and it is possible that Mary, Alexander and the younger children left. My grandfather’s (Rob Beaty) grandfather, James Knox Polk — later known as Big Jim — would have been about 12 or 13 when all of this was unfolding. Whether or not they left Tennessee is difficult to prove. But in a letter written by Mary’s nephew, Morgan Hull about six months before Morgan and Mary’s sons became POWs in 1863, Morgan notes that Jonathan’s family is in Kentucky (pdf). However this could mean Jonathan’s wife and son.

If the Beatys did move north to Kentucky, it was a matter of practicality and not cowardice as Mary’s husband Alexander, 17 years her senior, crippled by arthritis and closing in on 70, would have most likely found it difficult to protect his family. If they left the area, they probably went to Adair County (Kentucky) to join other Unionists from northern Tennessee. If Alexander and Mary stayed on their homestead, they were undoubtedly protected by Unionist Tinker Dave Beaty.

What is known for certain, is three of Mary’s sons and one son-in-law (Julia Ann’s husband Andrew Owens) enlisted in the Union Army and were mustered in at Somerset, Kentucky on Sept. 28, 1861. They became members of Company B 2nd Regiment of the Tennessee Volunteers. This regiment would see action at Mills Spring and pursue CSA John Hunt Morgan into Ohio before nearly 500 members of Company B were captured near Rogersville, TN in 1863. (Click here to see how they were treated. You can also read John Ransom’s Andersonville Diarya first person account of the ordeal.)

No Stranger To Hard Work

Based on pension records, even before the War broke out Mary was no stranger to a hard life. At the time of Alexander’s death in 1867, a doctor’s affidavit stated Alexander had suffered with ‘crippling’ arthritis for at least 25 years. This meant, Mary and the children tended the farm. But as the children aged, most of this work fell on her third-oldest son, Thomas.

In the 1868 Mother’s Pension application Mary filed, we uncover two facts about Thomas. First the application reaffirms that Thomas financially supported his mother (she states he gave her $10 per month). The application also means Thomas was unmarried and had no children. If he were married or had surviving children, his mother could not receive a pension based on his military service.

Pension Application

Reading the application, you get a sense of how much Mary needs the pension to survive. She is now 56 years old, her husband has been dead for about a year and she has no source of income. It appears she has not had any significant source of money for nearly five years. The only money she brings in is from sewing or knitting jobs. Thomas began financially supported her in 1855 and continued until his capture in 1863. Besides money, Thomas was also supplying labor. He had also been planting and harvesting the crops (oats, wheat and corn) on her 28-acre  farm.

The $8 per month pension was approved.

Death of Her Sons

Although it is difficult to know when Mary learned of her sons’ deaths, the first son to die is her oldest, Andrew Jackson. He dies on Feb. 15, 1864, on Belles Island, roughly three months after being captured. He was about 32. Thomas lasts a few months longer, passing away on May 16 around the age of 28, in the Andersonville, Ga. prison. Their brother-in-law Andrew Owens dies less than a month later on June 9th in Andersonville. He was about 28 years old.

Survivors

Andrew Jackson is survived by his wife, Jane. They had been wed nearly a decade — married on Christmas eve in 1854. Andrew Jackson also left behind two sons, John A., born April 26, 1861 and James, born on Dec. 8, 1863 — a month after his capture. This younger son, though, dies in 1865. One would presume Andrew Jackson never saw this son.

About two year’s after Andrew Jackson’s death,  his widow, Jane, remarries. She is 28 or 29 when she wed William Gunter on July 18, 1866. After’s Andrew’s Owens’ death, July married Creed Garrett.

Life Before The War

In 1860, a year before the War broke out, the Beatys were living in Fentress County. The oldest son, Andrew Jackson, has his own place. According to the Census report, Andrew Jackson, 29, and his wife Jane, 25, have an infant son, John. The report lists Kentucky as Andrew Jackson’s birthplace. Find a Grave lists it as Clinton County, Ky. which should be correct since his father, Alexander, owned land in Clinton County.

1850 Census Records

Just 10 years before the War, Mary and her family are living in Overton County, TN. She is listed as 40 years old (she may be slightly younger since she appears to be born in 1811 or 1812 (North Carolina)). Her husband was 57. The household consisted of the couple’s three teenage children:

  • 17-year-old Jonathan
  • 15-year-old Thomas
  • 13 year-old Rachel

And the younger children:

  • 10-year-old July — or Julie Ann
  • 8-year-old John T.
  • 4-year-old James Knox Polk (my grandfather’s grandfather)
  • 2-year-old Lewis

The only one not listed in her household is her oldest son Andrew Jackson., who, at 19, is one his own.

The Final Decade

According to the 1870 Overton County Census, Mary Beaty’s household consists of Mary, her oldest daughter Rachel, 31, and her youngest son, Lewis C., 19. The son that is in my direct line, James Knox Polk Beaty (Big Jim) and his wife Elizabeth (Garrett) Beaty — both 23, also live in Overton County. Their son John is two months olds.

Both households list farming as their occupation.

In 1881, Mary passes away. According to FamilySearch.org she is buried in Allardt Cemetery in Fentress County, TN.

Timeline

Since there are a lot of names and dates in this post, here’s a barebones timeline:

  • 1850s: All of the Alexander and Mary Beaty family, except Andrew Jackson, are living under one roof in Overton County. At 19, Andrew Jackson is on his own.
  • 1860s: Two households still exists, but now everyone is in Fentress County. Alexander and Mary’s with all of the children at home except Andrew Jackson. Andrew Jackson’s household includes his wife Jane (Ragan/Reagan) and infant son John.
  • 1861: War breaks out. Tennessee secedes from the Union. Near the end of September, Mary’s three oldest sons — Andrew Jackson, Jonathan and Thomas, as well as her son-in-law, Andrew Owens (July’s husband), enlist to serve with Company B.
  • 1863: A little more than two  years after enlisting, at least three of the four men are captured by the CSA (uncertain if Jonathan is captured).
  • 1864: Two sons, Andrew Jackson and Thomas, as well as son-in-law, Andrew Owens, die as POWs.
  • 1865: Early in the year, Mary’s grandson — Andrew Jackson’s infant boy (James) — dies.
  • 1866: Andrew Jackson’s widow remarries.
  • 1867: Mary’s husband, Alexander dies.
  • 1868: Near the end of the year, October through December, Mary applies for — and receives — a military pension based on Thomas’ years of service.
  • 1870: Mary Beaty — and my direct forefather, James, are living in Overton County in separate households. Mary’s household consists of her oldest daughter and her youngest son. The household of James Knox Polk and Elizabeth includes a child.
  • 1880: James, now known as Big Jim, and Elizabeth live in Fentress County.
  • 1881: Mary Beaty dies.

Mary Hull Beaty’s Family Tree

Based on the research conducted by Jack Masters and presented in his book Smith, Bowers, Hull & Beaty Family History, Mary’s lineage looks like this (just the males are included in the chart I am referencing — found on page 12 of the book):

  • Joseph Hull born in England, 1596
    • Samuel Hull, born in New Jersey, 1649
      • Samuel Hull, born in New Jersey, 1678
        • Samuel Hull born in New Jersey, 1703
          • Moses Hull, born in New Jersey, 1729
            • Moses Hull, born in New Jersey, about 1751
              • Josephus Hull, born in North Carolina about 1772
                • Mary (Polly) Hull

The Rest of The Story (I feel like someone else used that phrase)

This is the year of death for Mary’s children:

  • AJ (Virginia) and Thomas (Georgia) die in 1864.
  • Jonathan dies in 1907 in Fentress County.
  • July died in 1912.
  • My grandfather of the era, Big Jim, passed away in 1920.
  • Louis, the youngest, dies in 1916.
  • Uncertain when Rachel and John died.

Cordell Hull Connection?

Mary (Polly) is the daughter of Moses Hull and Elizabeth Crockett and is possibly a relative of Cordell Hull since he was born in Olympus, TN. Cordell was instrumental in the creation of the United Nations and is the longest serving Secretary of State in U.S. history. On her Civil War Widow Pension application, Mary lists Olympus, TN as her mailing address. Since Cordell was one of five sons, Mary can’t be a sibling, but it is possible they were cousins. At some point I intend to research the connection, if there is one.

Categories: American History, Appalachia, Civil War History, Cumberland Plateau, Family History, Genealogy | Tags: , , ,

Backcountry Folks And The Colony’s Views On Sex, Money And Recreation

albions-seedNote: This is the last of the four entries about Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America by David Hackett Fischer. If you have not read his book, and are interested in the American Colonial Era, I highly recommend it. Click here to access all the posts in this series.

In this post, I’ll examine the same three folkways I did with the other colonies: Sex, Recreation and Money. In the book, Fischer examines about 20-25 folkways for each colony.

The last group highlighted in Albion’s Seed are also the late arrivers — coming to North America from 1717 to 1774. This group of immigrants, generally referred to as Scott-Irish, actually originated in the border region of northwest England.

They landed mostly in the Quaker Colony of present-day Pennsylvania, but in a rare twist of events, the Quakers, who had created the most religious and ethnically diverse settlement in North America at that time, did not want them and encouraged the settlers to head to the backcountry.

So, they ended up in present-day Appalachia.

Let’s look at how their beliefs on the Big 3: Sex, Money and Fun compared to the other three colonies.

Money. One persistent image of settlers in the Backcountry Colony is that of the rugged individualist living off their own piece of land. The reality, though, then — and now — is much starker.

In the 18th century as many as one-third to one-half of the taxable white males in the region owned no land. It was not any better a century later. According to Census reports from 1850 and 1860, in a sample of eight Tennessee counties, the wealthiest 20 percent of the region owned 82 percent of the improved land and 99 percent of the slaves. In 1983, the top 1 percent of land owners possessed nearly half of the land in Appalachia. The top 5 percent owned nearly two-thirds.

Fischer notes,

This pattern of wealth distribution in the southern highlands in the twentieth century was much like that which existed two hundred years earlier.

However, Fischer does note, one of the counties in Kentucky that had a more equal distribution of land was Cumberland County. Both the Beatys (my maternal line), and the Claywells lived in Cumberland County. The Claywells originated in the Virginia Colony. The Beatys were members of the Backcountry Colony. (They also fought in a decisive Revolutionary War Battle).

Recreation. Because of the conflict that existed in the Border regions of England (where these immigrants originally lived) many of the games and sporting activities transported here were contests of ‘courage, strength and violence.’ Some of the games have fallen out of vogue, but some, like wrestling lives on. Two types of wrestling existed. One was a regulated bout — similar to tournaments held today in high schools. The other type was a no holds barred free-style where everything was legal. These bouts only ended when the opponent ‘gave up.’

Other popular recreational activities imported from England included running, jumping, leaping, and axe or spear throwing contests. Of course, many of these activities laid the foundation for modern Track and Field events. One of the Backcountry Colony’s most famous sons, President Andrew Jackson, was known in his youth for his exceptional running and leaping skills.

But, not all the recreation in the Backcountry was imported from the Mother Land. A case in point is sharpshooting. Since bullets tended to be a valuable commodity, back settlers become highly skilled at hitting distant marks, often using a tree or other support to steady their gun. In the 20th century, one of the region’s most famous sharpshooters was WWI hero Alvin C. York.

Sex. Although the Puritans were very comfortable discussing sex, these conversations did not come close to the familiarity that the backcountry colony had with the subject. Sex was discussed openly and one’s beauty was often, contrary to customs in other parts of North America, put on display. In the late 1700s, Anglican Church missionary Charles Woodmason commented,

The young women have the most uncommon practice, which I cannot break them of. They draw their shift as tight as possible round their breasts, and slender waists and draw their Petticoat close to their hips to show the fineness of their limbs… indeed nakedness is not censurable or indecent here.

The sexual mores of the newly inhabited region were also different from the other three colonies in another area.

In 1767, Woodmason determined that 94 percent of the brides, whose weddings he had officiated, were pregnant. He attributed this number to two factors: the lack of clergy in the region and love feasts. Love feasts, celebrated at night, included significant amounts of alcohol, and often ended with unwed couples in bed, according to Woodmason. But these prenuptial pregnancy were handled differently than in the other three colonies. In the other colonies, formal prosecutions for fornication were usually launched — and one or both of the guilty parties punished.

In the backcountry, prenuptial pregnancy was not viewed as a legal issue.


Trivia
220px-Andrew_JacksonAs highlighted in Killings — Folk Justice in the Upper South, one of values of the region centers on a unique approach to justice. Carried from the border land regions of England, justice was meted out under a simple rule of retaliation. The principle could be boiled down to this:

A good man must seek to do right in the world, but when wrong is done to him he must punish the wrongdoer himself by an act of retribution that restores order and justice to the world.

According to Fischer, a young Andrew Jackson was told by his mother to “never tell a lie, nor take what is not your own, nor sue anyone for slander, assault and battery. Always settle them cases yourself.”

Apparently Jackson took her advise to heart because he is the only United State’s President to have killed a man in a duel. The duel was fought over an insult levied at Jackson’s wife, Rachel.

Categories: American History, Appalachia, Colonial Era, Colonial Period, Cumberland Plateau, Family History | Tags: