Appalachian Mountain Poverty: Facts & History

Instructor: Angelica Goldman

Angelica has taught college and high school history and social sciences, has a master's degree in history, and is a licensed FL teacher.

This lesson is about poverty in the Appalachian Mountain region of the United States of America from the 1700s to the present, as well as the modern political efforts to combat it.


The region referred to as Appalachia or the Appalachian Mountains has been a distinctive cultural and geographical area of the Eastern United States since the late 1700s. It is a sizable mountainous territory that is spread out and crosses over the boundaries of multiple states, including West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, both Carolinas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, and the southern part of New York. That's 13 states in total! It is presently inhabited by approximately 25 million people.

Map of Appalachia

The Appalachian Mountain region possesses an abundance of natural resources. These include coal, heavy forestry, and tracts of arable land, or land well-suited to farming. Despite these benefits, the region has been associated with poverty for nearly its entire history.

The Backcountry

During the 1700s, the Appalachian Mountains were most commonly known as the 'backcountry' or the Appalachian frontier. During this time, early settlers and frontiersman began to push out the original Native American inhabitants. This led to frequent attacks between the groups, as Native Americans attempted to re-gain their land.

The typical Appalachian pioneer was often viewed as self-sufficient and rugged, as depicted by the reputation of frontiersman Daniel Boone. Boone was a surveyor and hunter frequently depicted in buck clothing and his coonskin cap fighting Native Americans. Settlers to the region practiced mostly hunting or subsistence farming, which is farming that is only sufficient for a single family.

Early pioneers to this region were effectively cut off from the rest of the settled East Coast by the mountains, leading them to become self-reliant, and also significantly more impoverished as time went on. This led to conflicts between the backcountry and the lowland and coastal elites, usually over taxation.

Drawing of a tarred and feathered tax collector during the Whiskey Rebellion
whiskey rebellion

These conflicts culminated in the Whiskey Rebellion, where the residents of the backcountry revolted against the fledgling American government over a tax on whiskey. The federal government eventually put this rebellion down.

The Civil War Era

Appalachia continued to grow poorer, and its infrastructure often went underfunded, as periods of tension with a distant coastal elite continued. At times, political parties formed to take advantage of these citizens' dissatisfaction with their government, only for the residents of Appalachia to again be abandoned by the politicians who had promised to change things for them.

With the onset of the American Civil War, Appalachia experienced a rash of violence and turmoil as war crossed the area and major battles were fought throughout the region. Both the Union and Confederate armies engaged in tactics that left the region even more fearful and mistrusting of the federal government in the years to come.

The damage wrought by the Civil War both on the mentality of the residents and the land itself served to deepen wide-spread poverty in the region.

Appalachian family in the late 1800s
appalachian family

Economic Boom

With the opening of some of this mountainous region by the emergence of the railroad system, Appalachia began to experience an economic boom. The railways allowed Appalachia to capitalize on its dense forests, and deliver lumber for use throughout an expanding nation.

It also resulted in the opening of coal mines throughout the region to fuel the railroad trains and the new homes being built. Yet despite these new economic powerhouses, only a few residents in the region benefited, and much of the region remained impoverished, and lacking in critical infrastructure like roads, schools, and government services.

West Virginia Coal Mine

By the 1950s, the whole of Appalachia was once again firmly entrenched in poverty. Too much logging had devastated the forests of Appalachia, and with industrial advancements, fewer men were needed to mine coal than once had been.

The Appalachian Regional Commission

The region was so impoverished and ill-educated compared to the rest of the nation by 1965 that Congress created a special commission, The Appalachian Regional Commission, or ARC, to help stem the tide of endemic poverty overtaking the area.

Shanty House in Appalachia

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